Knowledge is power. Information is a powerful weapon. If you can see it, you can hit it; if you can hit it, you can kill it. These are some of the catchphrases we hear all the time. And they are true.
As I was reading through Craig’s most excellent series of guest posts on the Past, Present and Future of Tactical Radios, I was really impressed by the absolute explosion in data transmission rates over the last 20 years or so. I spent my whole Army career in the VRC-12 era, both with backpack PRC-77 radios, and the various vehicle mounted –12 series radios. Not once did I transmit data. Just voice. And while voice transmission is a wonderful tool, it is very easy to be ambiguous and misunderstood. Before every operation, we would update our maps with graphical overlays on acetate. It was a system of tactical control any troop from WWII would have been perfectly at home with. Given the great emphasis that the AirLand Battle doctrine of the 80s and 90s placed on tactical agility, and the great mobility of Abrams and Bradley equipped units, this was a real handicap. It was not at all unheard of for a unit to quickly advance beyond the normal planning range of its tactical radio nets. The need for a great deal of face to face coordination also was a great hindrance on the ability to update plans on the fly. Time spent getting graphics and written orders to all the units involved was time wasted. And time is the single most precious commodity on the battlefield. It’s the one thing you can’t get a replacement for.
Today’s soldiers typically receive their mission orders via data transmission over the Army’s version of a tactical internet (and here’s hoping either Craig or Esli volunteer to write something about Force XXI Brigade and Below Command and Control). Yes, there is still a lot of face to face coordination. There’s no substitute for sitting down and talking to make sure everyone is one the same page. But the greater ability of modern networks to transmit data makes frequent meetings less critical.
But the transmission of data has mushroomed from the original goals of the digital battlefield. Whereas the original goal was to be able to track friendly and enemy forces in near real time on a moving map, today’s end user expects far more from his communications.
Last year, one defense supplier (Raytheon) also responded to what the troops were calling for, and quickly put together RATS (Raytheon Android Tactical System). Taking advantage of the open source Android operating system (think of it as mobile Linux), and the thousands of applications already available for it, RATS combines this with increasingly powerful, and inexpensive smart phone hardware, to produce something the troops want. Actually, RATS isn’t a phone, it’s a wi-fi device that looks like one (as does the Ipod Touch). RATS has GPS, a compass, vidcam and software that enables users to connect, and show each other’s location on the screen. It’s also possible to operate robots with RATS, or receive video from a UAV overhead (like the five pound Raven the army uses thousands of.) RATS has mapping software, and the ability to download maps and use them with the wi-fi location system to provide a constantly updated view of where everyone is. Typically, gear like RATS is carried by officers and NCOs (down to team- groups of five troops- leaders or vehicle commanders). RATS can also send or receive video or pix. The touch screen makes RATS easy to use in combat. RATS was developed quickly, in part to demonstrate how quickly one can turn a commercial cell phone into a water and shock proof, encrypted device, ready for the battlefield.
As fast as bandwidth access is increased, our troops find more and more ways to make use of it. RATS will be a useful tool, and a stepping stone toward the next generation of tactical communications that Craig was talking about. As noted in the comments, communications technology is evolving so rapidly that regularly structured procurement programs like the JTRS are left behind. Before the ink is even dry on the study for the requirements, an entirely new generation of capabilities has been introduced.
And it isn’t just about putting smart phones in the hands of troop leaders. An example of how this need for increased bandwidth and connectivity is effecting the Army as a whole can be seen here in this blurb about the latest upgrades of the AH-64 Apache fleet. Some of the upgrades, such as the engines, rotors, and transmissions, are straightforward. But a huge part of the upgrade program is aimed instead at improving the way the Apache can share the information it collects as it operates. After all, what is the point of having terrific sensors on an Apache if the only folks who can access it are the two guys in the cockpit?
We are rapidly coming to a point where any information that any unit acquires is available to all units. That of course, will present its own set of challenges, so that the wheat is separated from the chaff. But that’s something the Army has fair experience with, and as an organizational matter, I’m confident they’ll make progress on that front. I’m more interested in what new tricks will our troops come up with as they gain ever greater swaths of bandwidth to exploit.