Next-gen Blue Force Tracking system gets major boost

Blue Force Tracking 2 will greatly improve situational awareness on the battlefield for soldiers and Marines in helicopters and combat vehicles.

A next-generation situational awareness system will start fielding in fiscal 2012, providing a quantum leap in capabilities for the Army and Marine Corps Blue Force Tracking network, part of the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) program. The significantly faster and more efficient Blue Force Tracking 2 system is designed as a high-capacity, low-latency network upgrade to BFT that will bring real-time situational awareness to warfighters in combat vehicles and rotary-wing aircraft through BFT-2’s improved networking performance.

Although Army testing and a fielding decision remain, the capacity of the BFT-2 network is estimated to be about 10 times that of the existing BFT system, said Army Lt. Col. Bryan Stephens, BFT product manager. As a result, situational information can be transmitted across BFT-2’s satellite communications network in seconds rather than the minutes it takes BFT to load new data and update position-location information.

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BFT-2 downloads situational awareness data as much as 100 times faster than BFT, and uploads data as much as 60 times faster than the existing system. With faster refresh rates, Army and Marine Corps units will receive much quicker screen updates in their vehicles and helicopters to better determine friendly and enemy forces.

“Comparing BFT-2 to BFT is an apples-to-oranges comparison because we’ve changed the architecture significantly,” Stephens said. “We’ve changed the way that the receivers on the ground get their data. It’s a shorter process with BFT-2 to get the data back down to the ground and airborne terminals.”

The BFT-2 architecture has effectively reduced latency by shortening the path that position-location data must travel before it reaches warfighters in theater. Under the current BFT architecture, data from forward-deployed units must pass through a network operations center (NOC) in the United States, which processes and rebroadcasts the data provided by satellites and ground stations. But with BFT-2, the L-band transceivers bypass the NOC, transmitting position-location data to a satellite and then to a ground station, before sending it back to warfighters in the field.

Stephens said the new BFT-2 architecture is also different than the existing tracking system by using an expanded way of communicating. BFT now is limited because it only provides one-way communication via a half-duplex capability that is unable to receive and transmit simultaneously. BFT-2 can transmit and receive data at the same time due to a full-duplex capability.

Open IP network

In early 2011, the Army has scheduled testing of BFT-2 production transceivers from ViaSat, which last year received a $477 million indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract to supply BFT-2 equipment to the Army. By selecting ViaSat over incumbent Comtech for the BFT-2 contract, the Army effectively moved from a proprietary network to an open IP-standard communication network. The existing Comtech BFT terminals are compatible with the ViaSat BFT-2 network at the aggregation point, where the data is the same, and the two transceivers will continue to at least operate in parallel over the next few years. Ultimately, more than 85,000 FBCB2 systems deployed worldwide will need to be retrofitted with the new BFT-2 transceivers.

“Moving away from proprietary systems is the cornerstone of FBCB2 and the Army in general,” said Phil Berry, vice president of ViaSat Command and Control Situational Awareness. According to Berry, the entire transport layer of BFT is being replaced. BFT-2 is based on ViaSat’s ArcLight mobile satellite communication technology used in commercial aircraft. However, the major difference is that BFT-2 uses L-Band satellite services while ArcLight uses Ku-Band satellites.

Before BFT, FBCB2-equipped vehicles maintained a tactical intranet for situational awareness through EPLRS line-of-sight radios. Yet the Army’s experience in the mountainous terrain of Bosnia and Kosovo drove home the limitations of this kind of communication and the necessity to adapt FBCB2 to communicate over commercial satellites and vehicle-mounted transceivers.

Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom clearly demonstrated the vast improvements in situational awareness that the satcom-based BFT system provided to Army, Marine Corps, and British forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Currently about 80 percent of FBCB2 systems communicate via the satellite-based network and 20 percent use the EPLRS tactical radio network.

New software

The next version of FBCB2 software is the Joint Capability Release (JCR) from Northrop Grumman that will support both the currently fielded BFT network and the next-generation BFT-2 network. The Army in January approved the initial fielding of JCR Version 1.1 to four brigades. JCR is the interim joint software that provides a common solution for both the Army and Marines until the next-generation Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P) becomes available. JBC-P, which has a completely redesigned interface, will begin fielding in 2013.

“The look and feel of the new and improved user interface is something quite different than what you would expect from commercial point-and-click software,” said Army Lt. Col. Mark Daniels, JBC-P product manager. “With fewer clicks, warfighters can get the information they want.”

JBC-P introduces a new map engine that is more powerful than the existing FBCB2 software, reducing latency when maps need to refresh. There is also a new chat function. According to Daniels, JBC-P will also include Tactical Ground Reporting and Area, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People and Events data.

Although FBCB2 software will be upgraded, the Army has no plans to replace the hardware it runs on. The service will continue to use its widely fielded JV-5 computers installed in combat vehicles. On the hardware side, the Army last year awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to provide programmable in-line encryption devices, based on Harris’ KGV-72 solution, for installation in FBCB2-BFT platforms to support the exchange of secret information over the commercial L-Band network.

FBCB2 is installed in more than 67,000 platforms, and plans call for that number to jump to 200,000 platforms and dismounted soldiers. Towards that end, ViaSat is working on leveraging BFT-2 technology for use in smaller devices that might benefit combat communications and situational awareness at the dismounted soldier level.

In addition, future capabilities might include vehicular wireless extensions. The use of wireless technologies in the ground mobile and nonvehicular man-packable configurations would enable vehicle-to-vehicle and secure smart-phone communications. However, for the time being, the Army isn’t interested in those developments.

“I’m sure [ViaSat] is working on new capabilities, but right now, we are only on contract for specific current requirements,” Stephens said.

A BFT-2 limited users test is slated for this summer with a fielding decision slated for the end of the year.

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