Information Warfare: August 12, 2003

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: One of the outstanding new pieces of equipment to appear in Iraq was an item called "Blue Force Tracker." To most users, reporters and troops, this item appeared as a computer mounted inside of vehicles that showed maps of the battlefield and icons displaying the location of all friendly units currently in the area. The real name for this computer system is FBCB2 (Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below System). "Blue Force Tracker" was basically a "FBCB2 Lite," an unfinished version of the final FBCB2 (which has been in development since 1996.) FBCB2 is a more ambitious version of an earlier idea to use small radios to be carried in each vehicle and infantry platoon. The "locator" radio would periodically send an encrypted signal that would identify the unit and its location. Then came the World Wide Web, GPS and cheaper (and smaller) satellite communications equipment. Thus was born FBCB2, which used all of those technologies. Users could load maps from CDs onto their vehicle computers and rely on the satellite link and their GPS to track the location of everyone in real time. For troop commanders, this would be a major breakthrough. Having all the needed maps available on the computer saved a lot of work and confusion. This was because different scale maps were used for moving long distances (say, 1:100,000) or when fighting in an urban area (1:25,000, as you want to see every street and building). In a fast moving battle, a commander and his driver spend a lot of time mucking about with paper maps. There's also a lot of "imagery" (aerial photos) available, and it's easier to distribute these on CDs and keep them in vehicle computers, than in a map case. 

For the Iraq campaign, FBCB2 was a critical advantage. The "FBCB2 Lite" system was rushed into service, and over 3,000 systems were operating in Iraq. FBCB2 has been undergoing field tests for the last few years, and the 4th Infantry Division, which was supposed to land in Turkey, was the first division equipped with the system (for testing purposes.) But the 4th Infantry was the only unit that was trained and experienced with the FBCB2. Everyone else got a quick course of instruction and off they went. 

FBCB2 proved it's worth again and again. This was especially true during the days of sand storms. Units of the 3rd Infantry division advanced through the sand storm, and successfully outmaneuvered regular and irregular Iraqi forces and defeated them. The Iraqis were surprised as American armored vehicles came out of the blowing sand, with guns blazing. FBCB2 made it possible, as American scouts (often just one vehicle) went out and identified where the enemy were holed up. Other units then used the digital maps and aerial photos on their FBCB2 screens to move through the sand storm and attack. The Iraqis quickly discovered that if one American saw you, a coordinated attack would follow shortly. This was demoralizing for those Iraqis who got away, and spread the word. The Iraqis didn't know about FBCB2, but did have a fear of American military technology, to which they ascribed almost magical powers. 

By giving every troops commander, down to platoon (at least in mechanized units) access to all this information, "digital battle command" became more than a buzz word. Despite some problems with FBCB2, most commanders raved about it's usefulness. And this was the "lite" version, without all the features that helped with logistics and other support functions. 

There were problems with FBCB2, some of which could have been avoided. It was unavoidable that there wasn't much bandwidth for sending large amounts of data over the satellite system. There was limited satellite communications capacity for the 3,000 FBCB2 systems in use. Sending files, or pictures was too slow to be useful during combat, and position updates were often dangerously slow. The interface for instant messaging and the use of graphics was generally considered cumbersome. Some of the commanders noted that most commercial computer games  had easier to use interfaces than FBCB2. But poor interface design has long been a problem with software designed for military use, especially in the army. This has been changing over the last decade, but the trend is just hitting the FBCB2 development crew. Given the amount of criticism, much of it provided by combat officers who have degrees in computer science, or are just heavy users of commercial software, we can expect a new, and much easier to use, graphical interface for FBCB2 soon.

Getting " FBCB2 Lite" into use in time for the Iraq campaign was a group effort. A lot of generals agreed that FBCB2 was ready for prime time and it would be worth the extra effort to get the system into the hands of the troops headed for Kuwait, and the Iraq campaign. Hundreds of technicians and engineers hustled to get the equipment working, installed and kept working through three weeks of combat. While somewhat overlooked, this was an extraordinary effort, and it paid off big time.

 


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