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Reserve Employs Commercial Virtual Communications Tool

October 15, 2009
by Lt. Col. Ronald White, USAR

The U.S. Army Reserve is employing a commercial approach to increase collaboration among disparate soldiers. The use of the technology furthers the trend by the military to employ private-sector products for defense purposes. The technology’s ready availability saves U.S. taxpayers—including citizen soldiers—money and gives commanders the added advantage of seeing and hearing subordinates more often.

Members of the 310th Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC), one of the newly formed Army Reserve Sustainment Commands, recently tested a program called Defense Connect Online, which is similar to Adobe Acrobat Connect. The command had great success using the program to conduct its monthly Battle Assembly calls. Now, the 211th Regional Support Group (RSG) Hurricanes, currently deployed in Iraq, are using Acrobat Connect Pro, formerly Macromedia Breeze, to keep their personnel in theater better connected.

Employing commercial communications technology is nothing new in the military. Programs such as Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange have been installed on defense computers for years, and the military even has taken to using social media platforms such as Facebook to further its missions.

Other units in Iraq also are taking advantage of Acrobat Connect Pro’s offerings. The 25th Infantry Division has been using the technology to conduct its daily morning command update brief and evening battle update brief. The division’s area of responsibility (AOR) covers Multinational Division–North, the northern portion of Iraq. In that environment, commanders cannot physically meet twice a day for updates and shift-change briefs, but they can come together virtually over the network. The meetings give the division commander the opportunity to see trends, metrics and analysis as well as receive updated information from around the AOR.

These online meetings eliminate the need to reply to e-mails and missed calls to obtain information, enabling commanders to make decisions and give guidance on the spot. The software program goes beyond helping commanders; the entire staff can conference with counterparts to relay and receive information weekly.

Acrobat Connect Pro has an advantage over videoconferences because it does not require a dedicated circuit or time slot. Bandwidth requirements are minimal, and the program can be used without accessing the Army Reserve Network. As a result, soldiers can connect from their homes and offices. Users only need access to the Internet; no special software or programs must be installed.

The meeting tool also has benefits for reservists during nondeployment periods. Personnel in the average ESC are spread out over eight to nine states, and the average RSG has members in three states. The disparity of the locations makes it difficult for the ESC commanders to bring together their RSG and battalion commanders regularly. By using Acrobat Connect Pro in conjunction with a Web camera and a microphone, ESC commanders can see and talk to their lower-echelon commanders. Even without the added equipment, commanders can obtain trends and analysis more easily. The software reduces the need for travel and temporary duty assignments, saving money and time.

Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro includes tools that allow personnel to share information in various ways. Staff can create presentations, online training materials, Web conferences, learning modules and user desktop sharing. The product is entirely Adobe Flash player, which means that the computers already in use have it installed or it is downloadable as freeware. The product can be licensed as an installed or hosted product.

Meeting workspaces are organized into pods, with each pod performing a specific role such as chat and whiteboard. The software can be considered a more robust version of Yahoo! Messenger or Skype with the added options to use the whiteboard and to share notes. A benefit of this formatting is that many deployed soldiers already are familiar with the tools because Messenger and Skype are the two main forms of online Web conferencing and picture sharing that warfighters use to communicate with loved ones back home.

 

Lt. Col. Ronald White, USAR, is the executive officer for the 211th Regional Support Group Hurricanes deployed in Iraq.