Battlespace awareness helps commanders hit targets
- By David Perera
- Sep 08, 2008
When Taliban insurgents nearly overran a U.S-run outpost near Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan July 13, air support was urgent and necessary. Military commanders in Afghanistan responded with 2,000-pound bombs, a Hellfire missile from an unmanned air system and other munitions. They monitored the battle on live video feeds by using the Persistent Surveillance and Dissemination System of Systems (PSDS2).
Commanders got to see what was happening in real time,” even at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, said Army Lt. Col. Terrence Howard, who oversees PSDS2 as a product manager for robotics and unmanned sensors at the intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors program executive office at Fort Belvoir, N.J.
The system distributes live video feeds from numerous platforms via a Web portal hosted on the Defense Department’s intranet.
“If there’s a sensor out there, PSDS2 can pull it in and disseminate it,” Howard said. The system can also automatically tip and cue sensors to monitor situations via messages delivered by the Force XXI Battlefield Command, Brigade and Below system. The Blue Force Tracking system is a major component of FBCB2. About 4,500 people are authorized to use the portal.
PSDS2 is one of many systems recently developed to help commanders better understand what’s happening in the field. Commanders are now closer to achieving real-time knowledge of the battlefield — or as military language puts it, achieving battlespace awareness.
The demand for battlespace awareness systems is high. Video equipment has become infectiously popular, said Army Col. David Moore, who oversees command-and-control software as project manager of Army battle command at the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications Tactical (PEO-C3T). “Once folks see streaming video, they are able to gain…real understanding. I know where my guys are; I know what the enemy’s doing because I’m seeing something” that’s almost live.
Battlespace awareness is about more than video feeds. It includes collecting data from multiple interoperable sensors and making that data searchable in databases for pattern recognition. Because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan center on fostering stability rather than maneuvering forces, the ability to persistently monitor an area of interest has become more important.
Meanwhile, the Army prefers terms other than battlespace. “It’s now an ‘operational environment,’” said Army Col. Sharon Hamilton, capabilities development and integration director of concepts development at the Army intelligence center at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Awareness is a word best replaced by command, she added.
“Battle command is how we deal with an adaptive adversary,” Hamilton said. “It’s a much more complex problem then dealing with a piece of ground.”
“The objective is ensuring that commanders and their staffs at all echelons are confident in the art of battle command,” said Army Lt. Col. Terry Wilson, director of PEO-C3T’s Battle Command and Network Support Directorate. The area of responsibility of a single brigade combat team can stretch hundreds of square miles and cover urban and suburban terrain in addition to unpopulated areas.
In one day, a team might need to accompany a convoy traveling through its area of responsibility, orchestrate a company commander’s meeting with a tribal leader and monitor the area for smuggling.
On top of all that, a team might stumble into an ambush. Its commander must send forces and provide artillery fires. In response, the team must coordinate the use of airspace and reroute the convoys scheduled to go through its area in a different direction, all while executing and supporting the response to the ambush and preparing for future operations, Wilson said.
A visualization and collaboration tool, the Command Post of the Future (CPOF), has become invaluable to Army tactical operations centers in helping them keep track of all that activity, sensors and planning. In one year, the tool went from being a promising Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project to operating in the field in 2005. It makes complex situations visibly intelligible in real time, Wilson said. There are about 1,200 CPOF systems in Iraq that reside on five central servers and 250 systems that reside on one central server in Afghanistan, according to CPOF vendor General Dynamics.
The system draws on a multitude of data streams, such as the Blue Force Tracking system, Maneuver Control System and Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS), to depict a comprehensive common operating picture, said Stuart Beltson, General Dynamics’ CPOF program manager. Taking advantage of that data can be as simple as moving a mouse, he added.
For example, warfighters can make a map of the times and places of improvised explosive device detonations by clicking data from a table, grabbing it and dropping it on a map, Beltson said. Such tools turn data from a solid trapped in spreadsheets into a liquid flow of information, he added.
<b>BROKEN BARRIERS</b><br> Interoperability has been one of the biggest problems to achieving battlespace awareness. Incompatible acquisition processes have encouraged it, and the inheritance of existing systems has perpetuated it. Even innovation from the battlefield can inadvertently lead to it, the Army’s Moore said.
As an example, he cites the Combined Information Data Network Exchange, a Web-enabled event-reporting system that was developed in the past few years. There’s no question that the system is necessary, Moore said. Before CIDNE, significant activity data was locked in an intelligence network that was difficult to analyze for trends. By analyzing CIDNE data, staff members can make recommendations to a commander on, for example, the best time to meet with a local sheik.
“It’s saving lives today,” Moore said. But CIDNE was built with a unique database structure and data representation, he said. The battle command program office would have never recognized the need for CIDNE through traditional development processes, Moore said.
CIDNE is a response to real-time needs. But now that it’s proven its necessity, it faces integration challenges, Wilson said.
“At some point, as these good ideas scale, they bump into this large Army architecture” that has struggled to achieve and maintain interoperability, he added.
Wilson said significant interoperability first started in 2004 with deployment of Version 6.4 of the Army Battle Command Systems (ABCS), which integrates 11 command-and-control systems, including FBCB2 and AFATDS.
“All those systems that make up the system of systems were stovepipes at one time,” Wilson said. “We have broken down the barriers.”
Earlier versions of ABCS had already managed that feat, but Version 6.4 spread that capability across the entire service, Wilson added.
Incompatible data is rampant at DOD, but as systems such as CPOF show, interoperability efforts are showing results. Data interoperability has reached the point that the issues are more cultural than technical, said Chris Jackson, chief of the intelligence integration division at the Joint Forces Command’s Joint Transformation Command for Intelligence. Data interoperability hasn’t achieved perfection, but achievements thus far mean that the discussion must now also focus on whether there are “doctrinal things that are impeding the free flow of information across the battlespace,” Jackson said. In short, “now that we have this: What is the best use we can make out of it?” he said.
Adding to the complexity, some of the human barriers to sharing have been deliberate. Moore said brigades were designed to operate independently if need be. But that independence – or self-containment – “can limit operations to some degree because we don’t have full visibility of folks at the enterprise level,” he said.
One significant adjustment coming from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a tighter coupling of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information with command decisions, Jackson said.
Another change has been an even greater drive toward precision munitions. Smart bombs are not new, but greater care in selecting targets is improving precision, Jackson said. He said that when selecting targets, an example of a good question to ask is: “Is this guy a bad guy, or is he really just someone out walking his dog?”
In an ideal world, a target location is generated and transmitted to an aircraft or artillery delivery system that delivers a guided weapon. However, targets aren’t always clear. As a result, there’s another term of battle command gaining importance: persistent surveillance.
Persistent surveillance is mostly self-explanatory: an ability to stare at a large area for a continuous period of time. But it’s more complex than that. Persistent surveillance is also about being able to make sense of the changes that occur in that area and knowing what’s normal so warfighters can recognize abnormalities.
“I would call it a more forensic look at the historical data to see if we can do some predictive actions based on what we’re looking at,” said Tim Szczerbinski, executive director of battlespace management at Mitre.
Persistent surveillance requires being attuned to more subtle indicators because enemies don’t broadcast military signatures. Also, after identifying a target, persistent surveillance systems must maintain sight of it. Finally, persistent surveillance means restraint because a target could become more valuable as it reveals a pattern of activities.
“What we have found in irregular warfare is that many times, there is a need for persistent ISR – or the demand for persistent ISR goes up,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Stohs, fire branch head at the fire and maneuver integration division of the Marines’ combat development command. “In some cases, the demand for immediate strike capability goes down.”
Szczerbinski said persistent surveillance systems aren’t a giant, unblinking eye in the sky. Rather, they’re a constellation of sensors with varying resolutions that cue the right sensor at the right time, he added.
As exciting as their introduction has been, Szczerbinski warns against overreliance on video feeds. Ground moving target indicator displays might be harder to grasp, but adversaries should know they’re being examined from all angles and spectrums, he said.
One possible pitfall of persistent surveillance and all the recent advances in battlespace awareness is bandwidth dependence.
It’s a downside, officials say. The network capacity in Iraq “is not an enduring capability,” Moore said. “It’s not something we can expect to have through the spectrum of conflict,” he added. The military is working to mobilize network infrastructure through programs such as Warfighter Information Network-Tactical. But an expeditionary force in an austere environment is different from a state-building force in a theater that has benefited from five continuous years of network upgrades.
The Army’s Hamilton voiced another concern: the human side. “We can’t throw out more sensors without having some equity and having analysts that can sift through it all,” she said.
For now, however, the thirst for more battlespace awareness seems unquenchable. Asked earlier this year about his top hardware priority, departing top Iraqi coalition forces commander Gen. David Petraeus said he wanted more ISR equipment. “Commanders downrange are always looking for additional ISR,” he said.