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International Force Tracking Due for Upgrade in Southwest Asia

March 11, 2010
by Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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Multinational operational commands in Afghanistan and the NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A) are shaping their requirements to upgrade the International Force Tracking System (IFTS). Although not finalized, one new requirement calls for a system capacity increase of at least 500 percent. Accomplishing this task will involve configuration and software changes and will likely include replacing certain components to facilitate capacity growth.

According to André Regtien, principal scientist, NATO NC3A, currently the priority is both to boost capacity and improve responsiveness, for example through reduced and distance-sensitive refresh rates and reduced latency. After the requirements have been approved, the IFTS upgrade should be able to deliver these enhancements in the near future, he says.

The IFTS serves as an interoperability hub for the multinational coalition systems in place in Afghanistan. It receives and distributes tracking information to and from other national force tracking systems and boosts the effectiveness of Afghanistan’s systems.

Paul Knudsen, vice president of Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Globecomm Systems Incorporated, explains that the U.S. and multinational coalition ran into a roadblock for blue force tracking when U.S. troops first arrived in Afghanistan. U.S. equipment was not always interoperable with devices from other nations, and partner forces could not exchange information for both policy and technical reasons.

From the policy perspective, each country classifies information differently; the U.S. equivalent of Secret, Top Secret and Unclassified differs from nation to nation. On the technology side, not only were systems from various countries unable to communicate with each other but also in some instances systems from the same country did not interoperate.

An industry team led by Globecomm developed a unified force tracking system that was installed in Afghanistan in 2006 for U.S. troops; in 2008, NATO adopted the system. Because the country’s terrain hinders line-of-sight communications, the group created vehicle-mounted systems that feature visual displays, and it uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) to track the vehicles’ locations. In addition, when warfighters move away from the vehicle, they can take a handheld version of the system with them so they can continue to track their locations. Because it is based on the NATO Friendly Force Information (NFFI) standard, the IFTS interoperates with multinational units’ equipment brought into Afghanistan from other participating nations.

The IFTS enables troops in the field to share this information with their field commanders and each other. Data also can be transmitted through text messages from the warfighter to the vehicle via antenna and then relayed to headquarters. In addition to providing a means for silent communications, text messaging facilitates communications between warfighters who can read foreign languages better than they can speak them.

The displays in each vehicle as well as the command centers use a common database to represent friendly forces, and the maps on the display change based on information annotations from troops in the field. For example, a unit that discovers that a road on the current map has since become impassable enters that information into the system and the common maps are updated simultaneously.

Today, NATO and the company team are being challenged by the increase in the number of ground troops arriving from numerous NATO nations for the surge. Not only is usage demand spiking but also equipment tracking has become a problem as troop rotations grow, Knudsen says.

To address both current issues and those that are likely to arise in the future, Regtien says NATO has set some priorities. “At this moment our priority is increased capacity and improved responsiveness, that is reduced and distance-sensitive refresh rates and reduced latency. The IFTS upgrade should bring us this in the near future, after the requirements are approved. For the longer term, achieving full interoperability at the tactical level is strongly desired, but due to security aspects—nations do not operate all at the same classification level—this will not be easy to achieve,” Regtien shares.