Intelligence: British Tracker Goes To War


March 5, 2009: After years using the U.S. Army BFT (Blue Force Tracker) identification (for vehicles on the battlefield) device, Britain has developed its own (GrATS, or Ground Asset Tracking System). Meanwhile, the U.S. is about to deploy an updated BFT2. Both systems exist to serve two purposes. First, to give commanders a more accurate idea of where their troops are on the battlefield. This is a big deal, because until BFT showed up, the location of many units were unknown, at least some of the time. The second purpose is to help avoid friendly fire, especially the air-against-ground kind. In the two month (five days of ground combat) 1991 Gulf War, there were 34 cases of this among British and U.S. forces, leaving 47 troops dead. During the initial invasion of Afghanistan, there were seven cases, leaving 21 dead. But during the two month invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were 26 cases, leaving 26 dead.

It was during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that Blue Force Tracker (BFT, GPS/satellite telephone devices) were hastily placed in thousands of combat vehicles. Anyone with a laptop, satellite data receiver, the right software and access codes could then see where everyone was (via a map showing blips for each BFT user).

This hasty (all the stuff was still in development) experiment was a huge success, and the United States has proceeded to add more of this capability by producing and distributing 50,000 additional tracker devices. There are some problems, however. The biggest hassle is the delay (often up to five minutes) between getting updated data from the satellite. Another big problem is that stationary icons, placed on BFT user screens to indicate enemy troops or dangers (like minefields or roadside bombs), don't get updated accurately, or in a timely fashion. Once the troops begin to encounter a lot of roadside bombs that don't exist (although Blue Force Tracker shows them), they begin to lose faith in the system. Fixing this is not easy, although several different solutions are being tried.

The army believes it has fixes for the major complaints. For example, BFT2 will have a ten second (or less) delay between satellite updates. New software will help clear away inaccurate icons indicating where the enemy is, or may be. The BTF2 network will also allow users to send more information to each other, including attachments. This will enable BFT2 to be used in automated command and control systems, that work more effectively because they can pass more information, more quickly, between the headquarters and the troops.

While the existing BFT laptop (which includes the satellite communications hardware) costs $1,500. BTF2 will cost $2,500 each (but will be a much more powerful piece of equipment). Currently the army and marines have 55,000 BFT tracking devices (and far fewer laptops equipped to display BFT data for commanders), and plans to get at least as many of the BFT2 units, and perhaps as many as 120,000. BFT2 is expected to start shipping to the troops next year.

The British GrATS is closer to BFT2 in capabilities (especially once all the GrATS features are turned on, by the end of the year.) Some senior British and American commanders (and their staffs) have access to both BFT and GrATS data, so they can warn their everyone when forces are getting close to each other, and are unaware of that.



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