Pilot program will draw on soldier feedback to determine best uses for handheld devices
The Army has worked for many years to extend sensor and communications capabilities down to the individual soldier. But where previous efforts relied on specialized, proprietary technologies that quickly became obsolete before they could be deployed, the service now is looking at commercial devices and applications to increase warfighters’ operational reach and flexibility.
One such project is Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA), a pilot program managed by the Army’s Brigade Modernization Command (BMC) in Fort Bliss, Texas, that seeks to equip soldiers with smart phones and other handheld electronic devices. The CSDA's goals are to conduct research and analysis so the Army has enough data to make an educated decision when it moves to a program of record and to collect feedback from soldiers in the field that will be used to develop training and doctrine for handheld electronics in theater.
For decades, the Army has described its soldiers as sensors because they are on the ground with the local population where they see and notice things. However, the problem has always been for troops to convey the information they collect to higher echelons in a timely and efficient manner, said Michael McCarthy, director of operations for the BMC’s Mission Command Complex. For example, a soldier could use a smart phone’s digital camera to take pictures of people or areas of interest and send it to a commander or analyst who would then provide additional orders via voice or text messaging.
The ongoing tests at Fort Bliss and nearby White Sands Missile Range, N.M., have demonstrated that the greatest utility smart phones can provide the military is to collect battlefield and human terrain data, said Col. Marissa Tanner, chief of the BMC’s Mission Command Capabilities Division. “It’s paying off big time,” she said.
By equipping each soldier with a handheld device, the soldiers can literally become nodes in an extended sensor and communications network. Smart phones and other types of electronic kit literally become force multipliers, Tanner said. Tanner noted that in a typical nine-man infantry squad, only one man has a radio that can connect to headquarters. Mounted troops have greater connectivity, but they are again limited by only having one or two soldiers with direct access to a vehicle’s radios, she said.
There had been some concern that equipping soldiers with nonruggedized devices would lead to much of the equipment getting damaged, but this has proven to not be the case, Army officials say. Over 15 months, only one device was broken, said McCarthy. One reason behind the lack of damage was that the smart phones were relevant to the soldiers and their mission, Tanner said. Soldiers gave their handhelds the same care and consideration they provided to their personal weapons.
In addition to personal utility, smart phones and small electronic devices are highly useful in the field, especially in counterinsurgency operations. Tanner, who has a background in military intelligence, noted that units of soldiers with smart phones and other handhelds are already operating in Southwest Asia. These forces are using a variety of open-source applications and taking advantage of available technology to interact with local populations. One tool they are using has contract information loaded into a device. If the troops are speaking to a local tribal leader and they discover there's a need for a well or a school, unit commanders or their staffs can call up a construction contract on their handhelds and fill it out on the spot, she said.
However, what's lacking is a capability to track the status of a school’s construction, and how it is helping the village once it is completed. Smart phones allow soldiers and other support groups on the ground to return and assess the progress of local construction. Photographs can be taken to assess if the contractors are building the structure properly, or if insurgents are using the facility. “This device gives you proof, gives you the ability to collect data — whether you are an engineer, a contracting team, a medical person, or an NGO [non-government organization] — as you are engaging [with the local population] in that team for any reason at any time,” Tanner said.
The Army also is developing an open-source, unclassified system that allows data collected by soldiers’ and reconstruction teams’ smart phones to be loaded into the network after they return to their forward operating bases. This information can then move up to higher classification levels or echelons for assessment.
Working out techniques and tactics
The CSDA is looking at a variety of handheld applications and technologies to push to soldiers in the field. These tools include biometrics scanning and recording systems and translation software for smart phones, said McCarthy. Besides applications, the program is also studying the underlying communications transport layer for handhelds to determine the best ways to provide services and operational utility to the dismounted individual soldier. “Look at the rifle squad right now. Three radios in a squad. They are very expensive radios. They work very well, but everyone doesn’t have a radio. Not everyone can communicate. This gives us a potential to fill that gap between the existing program of record,” he said.
Although the project's goal is to suggest what future applications the Army may want to focus on acquiring, McCarthy stressed that it is not in the CSDA’s charter to make calls whether existing programs of record can be replaced by cheaper products. The most important part of the project is to ensure that the handheld devices being issued to soldiers have military utility and are capable of operating in the field, he said.
The CSDA is also working out basic tactics, techniques and procedures for using smart phones and applications. The project relies heavily on soldier feedback to identify problems with devices and those things that work well. Field exercises such as the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) 11.2, which took place in June and July at Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, are vital for collecting this type of user data, McCarthy said. The CSDA is also working with the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command to collect and analyze soldier feedback before formalizing it into operational doctrine.
Among the capabilities that the program is looking at is a translation application that can be used on an iPhone. A soldier pushes a button on the screen, speaks English into it and then hits a translation button, which converts the English into Arabic script. When the script is shown to locals, they can speak back into the phone and the application will translate their speech back into English, which is displayed on the screen for the soldier to read. The Army is working on Dari and Pashto versions of the application, and also other languages, Tanner said.
Tools such as the iPhone translation application are tremendously useful because there is a shortage of trained Arabic, Dari and Pashto speakers in the Army, Tanner said. Additionally, hiring translators and providing them with the necessary clearances is expensive, up to $180,000 a year for each, she said. The Army faced a similar problem in Iraq, where a 4,000-person brigade might have only three translators. In contrast, if all soldiers are provided with their own individual translation capability, the ability to interact with the local population vastly increases, Tanner said.
If a unit’s mission relies heavily on NGOs that work closely with the local population, providing the right tools makes them much more effective. “If they know where the NGOs are, they can communicate to the NGOs and you can feed off of each other. It’s a win-win situation,” Tanner said.
With battalions rotating in and out of theater on a yearly basis, local contacts are constantly being established and lost. A large part of this collected local information cannot be shared with troops on the ground or it is lost when the unit rotates out. The CSDA is looking at a cloud enterprise concept to store data collected by smart phones and other human terrain assessments. After the data is stored in the network, incoming units can access it and add to it over the course of their tour, Tanner said.
This stored data can be highly relevant. One example is Route Irish in Iraq. Only eight miles long, at one time it was the most dangerous road in the country due to the number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted on it. A cloud-based data system that soldiers can access via their smart phones would be useful in such a situation, especially for the troops driving trucks down such a route, Tanner said. Conditions such as known sniper zones, IED hot spots, and the most common times attacks take place, could be retrieved, categorized and studied for alternate routes and times, she said.
The initial concept for such a cloud-based system is being developed through the CSDA’s testing of the transport layer. The infrastructure for this communications capability would be a combination of terrestrial and aerial layers. At NIE 11.2, the program experimented with unmanned aerial vehicles, and aerostats serving as communications relays to carry the aerial layer to forces operating in the mountains of New Mexico.
Lessons learned by the CSDA will eventually make their way into an official program of record. After nearly 18 months of work, the program is now at a transition point. The Army's Mission Command Center for Excellence at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., took over management of the CSDA this year. The new command will provide a more formal organization for governance with the goal of eventually moving the CSDA to a program of record in six months to a year, McCarthy said.