When we talk about “great power competition” with Russia and China, folks seem to think of things like stealth bombers, hardened tanks and hypersonic cruise missiles. But the U.S. Army is pinning a good chunk of its hopes for a battlefield edge on an app for laptop computers.
It’s not just an app, of course; it’s the immensely complicated and interconnected systems that will keep it linked to a sophisticated information system called the Army’s Distributed Common Ground System, called DCGS-A. Raytheon and Palantir are battling each other to run the DCGS-A program, which has seen its share of controversy, protests, and lawsuits. But the technology — sort of Google Maps on steroids — should give American soldiers a huge leg up.
“It is a game-changer,” said Todd Probert, vice president of Mission Support and Modernization for Raytheon Company's Intelligence, Information and Services business, after a recent demonstration of FoXTEN, his company’s entrant in the DCGS competition.
Soldiers will be able to gets lots of info about their surrounding from a laptop as they move across the battlefield. Unlike many of the military computer systems I’ve seen over the years, this resembled what you’d see on a mobile phone or tablet.
“We’ve been maturing the look and feel, the user interface, thinking though how to make training more intuitive,” Probert said.
Its developers say it’s also smaller and lighter than the existing laptops and servers soldiers must carry. And it goes beyond Google Maps or Waze. For one, my mobile phone navigation apps like my car to travel on a road. For soldiers, that’s not always an option.
(Quick aside: this reminds me of watching soldiers move in on a mock-up town on a military bombing range in Central Florida a decade ago. The instructor said you never take the road because there are always buried IEDs.)
But how do you know what that terrain is like? Is there a dense forest? Rocks? A ridge? How high is it? The software in FoXTEN lets soldiers know if their vehicle could make it through.
The systems pulls in data as troops input it all over the battlefield, like dropping a pin on a Google Map. Satellite images, drone feeds, human intelligence, signals intelligence and the location of enemy weapons — it’s all there. Based on that data, the system can tell soldiers how to sneak safely around, say an enemy machine gun.
“That’s something that the analysts on the ground haven’t been able to do,” said Greg Hansel, Raytheon’s Army business development manager for mission support and modernization. “They have to look at the map and say: ‘Eh, I think he can probably see me.’”
The system is always getting updated as new data is pumped in, so it’s basically a live view of the battlefield.
“It gives the commanders a site picture that they’ve never had before,” Probert said. “That fog of war, it’s still there, but it’s getting a little bit more clear.”
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