Stealth Communications Boost Situational Awareness

June 2004
By Maryann Lawlor
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A platoon leader uses the Dismounted Data Automated Communications Terminal (D-DACT) to navigate to designated grid coordinates provided by device developers during final testing earlier this year. Upon arriving at the location, the platoon leaders sent back information about what they observed in the area.
Marines let a stylus do the talking.

Getting information into the right hands at the right time is fundamental to network-centric warfare, and the U.S. Marine Corps is doing just that with a new handheld device that will improve information sharing on the battlefield. Capitalizing on a commercial approach that keeps people connected, the service’s ruggedized personal digital assistant will be used primarily by small unit leaders to communicate tactical data such as the location of land mines or enemy forces. Because communications occur through tapping a screen rather than talking on a radio, warfighters silently can relay more precise information.

The Dismounted Data Automated Communications Terminal (D-DACT) will allow small-unit infantry leaders to share battlespace information with battalion or regimental commanders and each other. This handheld version of the Mounted DACT (M-DACT), which is installed on vehicles or aircraft, features a global positioning system (GPS) receiver and a tactical radio interface. According to Frank Stepanski, D-DACT support engineer, Titan Corporation, Stafford, Virginia, it will be the foundational input device for building a commander’s common operational picture.

The D-DACT’s built-in GPS capability is a selective availability anti-spoofing module that hinders enemy interference. The device calculates its position, shows the Marine’s location on a map then sends this information to others on the network. As a result, Marine units equipped with D-DACTs know their own location as well as the positions of other units. It employs the most current commercial technologies, including a 400-megahertz processor, an internal 2-gigabyte secure digital memory card for map data and 128-megabyte random access memory. High-quality AA lithium cells with a battery life that ranges between eight and 16 hours of constant use supply power.

Once these devices populate the battlefield, they will talk to each other, and the information will be passed up to an M-DACT, which will combine all of the blue force position location information. The M-DACT then will forward the data via the enhanced precision locating and reporting system to the intelligence operation workstation. The intelligence operation workstation will integrate the data and feed it up to the Global Command and Control System. “So a commander at the higher levels will have the ability to see where his Marines are from every level,” Stepanski relates.

Capt. Shawn Davis, USMC, D-DACT project officer, Marine Corps Systems Command, Quantico, Virginia, explains that the device, which features a virtual keyboard, could have far-reaching tactical and operational implications. “Whereas before they were communicating through SINCGARS [single channel ground and airborne radio system] with voice, they’ll now be able to go stealth and do free text messaging and send other types of VMF [variable message format] messages. So they can communicate with the company level and provide information about their current situation. That capability dramatically speeds the time to assess a situation and take action,” Capt. Davis states.

Although today D-DACT uses SINCGARS as its primary connectivity to the M-DACT, the device also will be able to communicate using other systems including AN/PRC-1148, AN/PRC-117F, AN/PRC-148, AN/PSC-5, Iridium, SecNet 11 and the U.S. Army Blue Force Tracker satellite. Capt. Davis notes that these systems are not part of current fielding.

D-DACT’s mapping-with-overlays feature enables commanders not only to hear about the situation but also to see individual units in relation to other units on the battlefield. Interactive menus allow users to tap on the screen, and the system fills in the map grid information, which can be transmitted immediately. The map is automatically updated through a gateway. As a result, a commander can view a current map in one-third the time required using traditional mapping techniques, the captain states.

Although DACT is called the Marine Corps’ blue force tracking program of record, Capt. Davis points out that the D-DACT’s various capabilities allow commanders to know more than just the location of troops. “If I have to walk from point A to C, I can track myself from point A to B to C. I can save that as an overlay and send it to someone else, then the second platoon can take the same route, keeping the warfighters safe,” Capt. Davis notes. If the first unit through an area encounters a minefield or sees enemy troops nearby, the route information can be altered and then transmitted to other units. “Say I have eyes on. Now I’m going to send out a free text message or a position report or a spot report up to the company level and tell them what I saw,” he adds.

The captain explains that one of the advantages of sending text messages rather than verbally relaying descriptions is the exactitude of the message. “Now I’m not grease-penning a map then erasing what I had and wondering, ‘Are they telling me 10 feet, or was it 20 feet?’ There could be a land mine five feet away, but I just walked six feet. Well, I just stepped on a land mine. With GPS, I have an accurate depiction of where that land mine is,” he says.

The D-DACT device weighs 31 ounces and features maps and text messaging capabilities as well as a global positioning system module. 
The speed at which this type of communication can take place is a topic that Stepanski says is tricky to define. “If we’re all on a SINCGARS network, and I send out a message, you’re going to get the message within a relatively short period of time. But if we talk about a real-time common operational picture, the term ‘real time’ depends on your audience. If you’re talking about a ground force audience, an image that has an update every 15 minutes, maybe to them that’s real time. But for somebody that’s spotting an airplane, an image that’s older than eight seconds is not a real-time image,” he says.

Because network resources are shared, transmission speeds depend on available bandwidth. Information could be received within three seconds, Stepanski explains, but if the network is busy because a user sent a complicated map overlay, for example, delivery of even a short message could be delayed. “We are designing a data filtering mechanism that will ensure that only the most vital information is passed over the bandwidth-limited resources available,” he adds.

In terms of interoperability, the D-DACT team is working with the Joint Interoperability Test Command to determine the device’s ability to work with other systems. Stepanski explains that the device is compatible with the Defense Information Systems Agency’s joint tactical common operational picture workstation and the Army’s current Blue Force Tracker. Although it can communicate with either system, it cannot pass information from one system to the other because security issues still need to be resolved. The D-DACT team is developing an interface to ensure interoperability with the Army’s Force Battle Command Brigade and Below systems, and once the Joint Tactical Radio System is introduced into the field, it will enhance D-DACT’s capabilities, he adds.

Stepanski notes that D-DACT has revealed new information security issues. “We are going to have SIPRNET [secret Internet protocol router network] accreditation. We’re working on that right now. We’re breaking molds because the military wasn’t ready for a handheld device with these capabilities yet,” he explains. Through SINCGARS, D-DACT uses National Security Agency-accredited Type 1 encryption. It also can interface with platforms that do not implement this high encryption level, and the team will address all of the security issues as D-DACT begins using other systems such as Iridium for connectivity.

D-DACT’s developers have designed the device with the warfighter in mind. It weighs approximately 31 ounces, and Stepanski says it is easy to use. “We have been bouncing system design ideas off the user since our initial development stages. Our training is currently scheduled for two and a half days; however, our objective, through innovative system design, is to put the trainer out of business,” he offers. The team has received positive feedback on the current system design, he adds. Meanwhile, the concepts of operations for the use of the D-DACTs are being written.

Although blue force tracking is touted as a way to prevent fratricide, Stepanski observes that devices such as D-DACT are only one element of the solution. “D-DACT is a situational awareness tool. Fratricide prevention consists of three elements: situational awareness; combat identification; and tactics, techniques and procedures. You need all three elements, and it’s misleading to indicate that a situational awareness tool can prevent fratricide,” he says.

Marines could see D-DACTs in the field as early as October 2004. After passing final tests, more than 500 devices will be distributed starting with the I Marine Expeditionary Force. Within a year, Capt. Davis says, distribution will be complete, and then upgrades will begin. Marines can report problems with the device or offer suggestions for improvements through the D-DACT Web site. In addition, D-DACT team members attend exercises to demonstrate the device and obtain users’ opinions. The configuration control board meets approximately four times a year to review this information.

Stepanski adds that user input has been a part of the development process. “We’ve worked very closely with our Marine Corps audience to get us to where we are today. We did not just send the idea to the engineers in the lab and say, ‘Build me this.’ We came up with the original concept, gave it to the Marines to get their feedback and then took their feedback and made improvements. We went through about four iterative processes to get us to the point where we are today to ensure success,” Stepanski says. Capt. Davis adds that one benefit of this approach is that the Marines did not have to wait six or seven months to see improvements in the product.