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Connecting the Dots Provides a Clearer Deployment Picture

June 2004
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

 
A soldier in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division inspects another soldier’s parachute before an air drop. Commanders may have a clearer picture of individual soldier readiness as a result of a new computer system that speeds vital deployment information up echelons of command.
A U.S. Army division looks to provide seamless link age across the information domain.

Future commanders may have a clearer picture of their force locations, assets and personnel capabilities simply by tapping existing force databases in a form of one-stop shopping. A new system developed by the XVIII Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, consolidates key information particular to lower ranking personnel in the field and presents it in usable form to strategic and tactical commanders.

This system is built on the concept that information on every individual soldier and materiel asset exists somewhere in the multitude of U.S. Army databases. Personnel data, for example, is kept in detailed form by various sergeants and low ranking officers. This information can be invaluable during a deployment or a war, when the status of soldiers and equipment may define the effectiveness of their units.

The new system, known as FusionNet, collates this information and presents it in a separate database. Through it, users can accurately view force capabilities down to the smallest known detail.

“It’s truly modeling the Army,” says Maj. Kurt Warner, USA, corps information and knowledge management officer for the XVIII Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division. “It’s not a personnel database for tracking just personnel issues; it’s truly modeling the Army in making the connections between the people, the equipment, the training and all of the things that we bring to bear on the battlefield.”

FusionNet is designed around the joint, interagency, intergovernmental, multinational, modern operation concept, explains John J. Szucs, lead software architect in the XVIII Airborne Corps information and knowledge management office. Szucs is a civilian contractor from CC Intelligent Solutions Incorporated. He relates that FusionNet can show standard green/amber/red/black degrees of status for a unit, capability or even an individual person. Unlike previous systems, however, these degrees of status can be accessed by those in high levels of command during vital planning or operational sessions.

Maj. Warner describes FusionNet as a line of business applications that enables divisions within the XVIII Airborne Corps to leverage information and knowledge that reside at the lowest levels of the corps, such as at company commander, first sergeant and below. Higher level personnel are able to access information that is in the leader books.

“The squad leader, the platoon sergeant, the company executive officer, the company first sergeant and the company commander know far more about our Army than Gen. Schoomaker does,” the major declares. “They know, at the ‘ground-truth’ level of granularity, everything about our Army. They own our entire Army.”

Tapping this information and presenting it in a useful form was the driver for the system’s development. “FusionNet is a compilation of all of the thoughts that were generated over the past couple of years,” Maj. Warner says. “For example, as we wrote a definitive air assault planning tool for the Army, we realized that we did not have a way to understand who we were dragging onto a PZ. When we dragged a squad from Alpha Company, we had the slots—the template—of the unit, but we didn’t have the names or the social security numbers of those squad members, what weapons they were carrying by serial number, or the vehicles that were associated with them. We didn’t even know the tail numbers of the Blackhawks that we were dragging onto the mission to be able to perform the mission.”

Planners were unable to engage in automated rapid performance planning based on conditions in the landing zone. “We were starving for data fuel,” the major relates.

Szucs notes that, even in garrison, the networking is not up to supporting what would be prevalent in the commercial sector. In deployed environments such as Afghanistan and Iraq, networks cannot support commercial force requirements in terms of bandwidth throughput and reliability. The trend toward Web-based applications, for example, taxes existing Army resources.

Yet, the Army cannot compromise functionality to accommodate the network. “Everything in the Army is connected to everything else,” Maj. Warner declares.

Szucs relates that during some of the initial planning for the first Gulf War, two gaps were identified. For rapid deployments, the planning cycle was gated by an Army captain working on a large Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to build the level-four-time-phased force deployment data, or TPFDD. This data must be provided to ForceCom and higher levels to initiate a deployment. Every time a change was made on the mission or transportation assets, for example, that captain required eight to 12 hours to update the plan. It was a manual process run with sleep-deprived personnel, he recounts.

This deficiency was solved by enabling the division transportation officer back at the 82nd’s headquarters to drag and drop either unit-pure or task-organized forces into or out of a deployment in real time. The officer also could reorder these units by priority within the deployment, change transportation assets’ parameters, and provide commanders and division staff decision makers with real-time information on the potential impact of ongoing decisions.

 
U.S. Air Force officers and jumpmasters from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division review the final details of an upcoming drop. The division’s FusionNet system can help ensure that commanders are up-to-date on the capabilities of all participants in a deployment. 
Szucs offers that this problem was relatively easy to solve. The second gap, which was in pulling information from the ground up, was a more difficult problem. This led to the FusionNet concept.

For example, transportation assets for a particular mission might be cut by 20 percent because of aircraft availability. Determining what was really needed would lead to decisions on cutting down to the individual-passenger-seat level on those aircraft, for example. This information would not be available because no one knew—except that particular company commander—the specifics of the company capabilities, including individual personnel. So, cutting personnel might severely hamstring a deployment by inadvertently removing key expertise.

FusionNet provides small unit leaders with the ability to perform administrative and managerial functions better, Szucs says. At the same time, the information that they gather while performing those duties is fed into decision support tools. This allows higher level commanders to know vital details about personnel and capabilities at these lower levels.

These commanders also know important information regarding readiness. They can determine which individuals are up to date on vaccinations or nuclear/biochemical training, for example. Other related issues now can influence planning at the strategic level.

At the tactical level, the same data can be used for planning an airborne or air assault operation. Even everyday matters such as a convoy or road movement in a mechanized unit can apply.

Planners can create subsets within the unit management functions of FusionNet. Szucs explains that, while the Army has general readiness requirements, some such requirements are mission-specific. After creating a mission set, a planner can create a subordinate mission and define readiness requirements. These can address aspects that may be unique to a mission, situation or location. For example, a soldier who may have a green status for general readiness may have his or her status turn red for a particular operation. That deployment might require location-specific immunizations or other medical preparation that the soldier lacks.

FusionNet capabilities can extend far beyond deployment planning. “It is a way to go from fort to foxhole, do the operations, sustain the force while it’s downrange and then do the redeployment operations—get them home and then re-outfit and refit … get everybody back up to green ready to deploy in a general sense,” Maj. Warner observes. “It encompasses operations, information management, intelligence and information gathering, battlefield reporting and garrison reporting.”

He continues that the difference between a personnel status report in combat and one in garrison is very minute. The way that an operator interacts with FusionNet’s user interface, as well as its look and feel, is common across the entire spectrum from garrison operations to combat and back.

This enhances usability among personnel, he adds. During operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, field units used systems with which they were familiar from garrison use. Elements that were pulled out for first-time use either were employed marginally or with marginal success—if they were used at all. Many of the signal support problems that surrounded logistics issues involved soldiers not being able to use systems because they were not battlefield-ready.

A major challenge in developing FusionNet was to access data and establish interfaces. Unlike other systems, FusionNet does not merely provide a coherent access to different databases to view consolidated information. The system creates its own database to provide the necessary information to users. Because of technology policy and limitations, FusionNet is not in a position to integrate all of the diverse applications that compose the different Army databases.

So, the system instead pulls data from other databases into its own database, where it is periodically updated from those authoritative sources. A data model within FusionNet effectively reflects “our connected view of the Army,” Szucs allows. While this model is fed with pulled data, this construct is not ideal, he admits. The U.S. Defense Department is moving toward a services-oriented architecture where these systems expose Web services and users are able to integrate applications across disparate platforms and functional areas. However, technology challenges, especially in understanding architectures, remain in the way of achieving this goal.

Combining data from multiple sources does raise security concerns. Szucs allows that, at some point, the aggregation of the data becomes more sensitive. Individual datasets may be unclassified, but together they become a classified entity. Among other points, FusionNet restricts access according to the business process of an individual’s assignment in the organization. Maj. Warner offers that the FusionNet security model is more robust in its ability to compartmentalize access to information than many other Army versions. By compartmentalizing at a more granular level, it can work effectively even if the Army achieves its goal of true cross-domain information sharing, he says.

Security policies currently in place address aspects such as deployment planning. For both Afghanistan and Iraq, the 82nd Airborne Division had abstract deployment plans that were developed by a deployment planning tool from the Division Knowledge Management Office. As long as force structures, packages and parameters were not associated with an operations plan, the deployment plan fell within the security rules and could pass through an unclassified environment. However, once these plans were associated with a planning identification (PID) environment, they became classified and were moved to the secret network.

Szucs relates that the current focus for FusionNet improvement is on the unit management application—the tool that allows the small-unit leader to pull data from the enterprise level, bring it down to the company desktop work environment and create ground truth. Once that information is in hand, it can be exploited for administrative purposes, deployment planning and operational activities. Maj. Warner explains that this will permit capturing the centralized data repository for the corps, after which the system will have virtually unlimited information capabilities.

FusionNet engineers are working with the Defense Department’s Horizontal Fusion initiative in the Defense Department’s march toward a service-oriented architecture. FusionNet can be a source of ground truth information about fundamental business objects—units, personnel, property or equipment, and capabilities, he adds. Then, FusionNet or other Defense Department systems could develop applications to exploit that information.

The major continues that the corps’ office has views of how it could help exploit that information. These include a deployment planning tool that uses that information, or an air assault or airborne operations planning tool. Commanders could determine logistics needs and solutions through a task work tool using drag-and-drop operations.

The office has built a FusionNet framework that will include a developers’ toolkit later this summer. The framework is distributed in nature, and the toolkit will allow customers to generate other capabilities for the system.

Some existing tools could enhance FusionNet capabilities. The commercial joint mapping toolkit could serve as a visualization tool. Users would be able to track assets visually instead of conceptually. The Army Battle Command system suite of tools also could contribute. And, Maj. Warner notes that preliminary criteria for software in the Army’s Future Combat Systems bears close resemblance to FusionNet capabilities.