High-tech soldier tracking system not quite on track

Tech-based training equipment aims high but doesn't always win the hearts and minds of ground troops

The Army National Guard training exercise that took place in January at the Camp Blanding joint training center in Florida was the largest use to date of a tracking system developed by SRI International. The system monitors the movements of soldiers with the aid of backpacks equipped with Global Positioning System devices and other instruments. Used in concert with the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES), a laser tag-like system designed to detect hits on friendly and opposing forces, the tracking system creates a 3-D model of every maneuver so trainers can critique what went right and wrong.

But on the day SRI invited a group of reporters to see how the system worked, the guardsmen with whom the reporters spoke — including a Wisconsin unit about to deploy to Iraq — were unimpressed. When one patrol swept through a mock Iraqi village, the guardsmen opted not to even wear the high-tech gear. The kindest thing the leader of that patrol, Capt. Andrew Weiler, would say about the technology was that it looked good in the demonstration he saw when he arrived.

“If it would have worked, it would have been great,” Weiler said. “The theory behind it is excellent.” But in practice, he found that the 3-D replay wasn’t an accurate reflection of the way he and his troops performed and, therefore, not useful for reviewing the exercise.

At the end of January, his troops had reached the last day of a three-week exercise as part of preparations for the Wisconsin National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade to deploy to Iraq. In late February, they were scheduled to report to Fort Bliss, Texas, for two months of mission-specific training before leaving for Iraq. After using the instrument-equipped backpacks several times, Weiler told his company not to bother wearing them because they were just getting in the way.

After all, it wasn’t supposed to be a technology demonstration. It was a training exercise to give the guardsmen a better chance of coming home safely. The technology was supposed to make training more effective, but it was not the main focus.

Soldier tracker

SRI, a not-for-profit research lab and defense contractor, created the soldier-tracking and 3-D modeling tool to support the Guard’s Exportable Combat Training Capability. The Guard wants to use XCTC to approximate the level of training available at Army facilities, which are often too overbooked to accommodate guardsmen.

The goal is to track soldiers’ movements with Enhanced Dismount Instrumentation backpacks and GPS-aware instrumentation for vehicles and heavy weapons, such as Humvee turret guns. An EDI pack is worn in place of the rear plate of a guardsman’s body armor and is about the same weight.

“It doesn’t burden them any more than they would normally be,” said Gerry Shaw, a senior research engineer at SRI, during a press briefing.

About 1,800 of the backpacks were used during the Camp Blanding training, which is the most that have been used so far. But with about 3,000 members of the Wisconsin National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade on hand for training, guardsmen had to take turns wearing them. The goal is to provide as many as 5,000 tracking devices for a single exercise.

By relaying data through a network of antennas at a rate of about four updates every three seconds, EDI packs allow the exercise controllers to create a 3-D model of individuals’ movements and friendly and enemy fire. Soldiers can replay the simulation later to review an operation. Shaw showed a replay from an exercise at Gowen Field, Idaho, in which soldiers were reacting to an ambush. The enemy fire was displayed as red lines, and friendly fire was blue. The instruments help keep score during the exercise — for example, they determine whether a vehicle that has been hit should be counted as damaged or totally disabled — and help with the after-action review.

SRI engineers and project managers say the value of the simulated replays might be more obvious to senior commanders than ground troops, but they would like to find better ways of demonstrating the value for soldiers. They also acknowledged that they have had some trouble with radio communications, technician training and logistical issues, such as battery changes.

Urban patrols

During the training exercises at Camp Blanding, guardsmen practiced operations such as an urban reconnaissance patrol in a densely wooded area outside the Starke, Fla., base. They entered mock villages of temporary structures provided by Allied Container Systems. ACS also hired actors to play the parts of the villagers, including some Iraqis who spoke only Arabic, which forced the soldiers to work through translators to communicate.

Digital video cameras, which ACS employees operated, recorded each encounter. Each video was digitally time-stamped so it could be synchronized with the 3-D model of the action, and both could be replayed side by side. Some of the actors also wore EDI packs.

In the afternoon exercise, the patrol practiced using discretion and cultural sensitivity. Weiler brought his patrol to the outskirts of the village, paused to create some curiosity, and waited until the mayor and his bodyguards came to greet him. Guardsmen were under orders not to shoot Iraqis who carried weapons because they might legitimately be for self-defense. At the same time, they were to be alert for danger and methodically set up a defensive perimeter. Through an interpreter, Weiler asked the mayor for a tour of the village, learned about the difficulties the people were facing, obtained information about enemy gunmen, and got the mayor to agree to “help us as much as we will help them.”

After giving civilian bystanders time to take shelter in the mosque, the patrol conducted a raid on a building in which gunmen were hiding. They lost two men to an improvised explosive device in the doorway and killed two enemy fighters inside. They then went through the motions of evacuating wounded soldiers and the mayor’s brother, who had been caught in the crossfire.

The patrol huddled for an immediate review. Weiler gave the patrol credit for doing a better job with basic tasks such as security than they did on previous run-throughs. Lt. Phil Patti, who was on hand as an observer, gave an independent critique that was also mostly favorable. One of the few issues he raised was whether Weiler should have considered asking the mayor’s armed bodyguards to take part in the raid because U.S. forces are trying to move away from taking unilateral action in Iraq.

Weiler said he thought the exercise was beneficial but that the EDI packs were not. He and 1st Sgt. Carl Pregel said the simulated 3-D replays didn’t seem to match with what happened during their exercises. “They would be showing people as dead when the soldier just took a knee,” Pregel said, referring to a standard rest position.

An EDI pack might not be any heavier than the standard armor plate it replaces, but it was bulkier, and the straps got in the way, Pregel said. “You can’t get into your magazines when you need to,” he said. The technicians responsible for the equipment also didn’t seem adequately prepared to operate and troubleshoot it, he added.

Patti said the EDI technology had not proven as useful as he had hoped. “I think they need to allow more time to set it up and understand how to deploy it,” he said.

On the other hand, all the guardsmen the reporters spoke with said they found the video feedback to be extremely useful.

The reporters found another unit whose guardsmen were wearing the EDIs as they wrapped up their afternoon exercise, but their assessment of the technology was little different. “The video is more useful than the EDI,” said Sgt. Phil Taylor. Although his men were wearing the equipment, he said the unit’s commanders were working around it more than they were relying on it.

“It’s kind of neat. I just don’t know if it’s beneficial for training,” said Capt. Daniel Peterson. “It would take a lot of work for you to find someone who was complimentary about it.”

Dots on the screen

At the XCTC network operations center, Sgt. Josh Nickels, who was working as an observer controller for the exercise, was following another team of guardsmen represented by dots on his PC screen and adding his observations. In addition to watching maneuvers and simulated weapons fire, he was monitoring activities such as radio procedures. Nickels noted that the soldiers were working in an area relatively close to the main antenna, which might have limited the technical problems he had experienced before.

“It does appear there have been a few glitches,” including problems with battery life and the MILES equipment, Nickels said. But he also sees the value in the system.

“As an individual soldier, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture," Nickels said. "This gives you a good overview of that big picture." For example, in the middle of a simulated battle, one unit requested help and wondered why it didn’t come. In the replay, those guardsmen were able to see how many other things were going on at the same time and why no one was available to come to their aid.

“The biggest thing it captures is that eye-in-the-sky perspective — the things going on behind you that you didn’t see,” said Kipp Peppel, an SRI program manager. Although video helps complete the picture, there are never enough videographers to be everywhere and see everything, he said.

Peppel added that the previous XCTC exercise in Idaho benefited from a setting with no trees, which allowed better radio coverage. But he didn’t think tree cover was the major reason for the complaints that arose at Camp Blanding. Rather, he thought the units experiencing the most success with the equipment were the ones that had been most conscientious about details such as changing batteries.

Still, he said, SRI will have a tough time “allowing the guys down at the lowest level of the operation to see the value of this” so they will be motivated to make it work. Also, the training given to observer controllers such as Nickels was rushed, Peppel said. He said he hopes the guard will establish a permanent group of observer controllers to help future exercises run more smoothly.

The XCTC program has already scaled up from hundreds of instrumented positions to nearly 2,000. But it will take a lot more work to get to 5,000 when the National Guard Bureau starts conducting the exercises six times a year, Peppel said.

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