Little Computer Produces Big Results

August 2007
By Rita Boland

Commanders and other dismounted soldiers can use the Commander’s Digital Assistant (CDA) Version 5 to improve situational awareness as well as to share and receive other battle command information.
Soldiers leave the vehicles behind but take the capabilities with them.

A revamped tool integrates satellite and Global Positioning System communications to give commanders in the field improved situational awareness. It hosts Blue Force Tracking software and is designed to meet the needs of the dismounted user. The device will push resources formerly reserved for units with multiple vehicles to commanders and other individuals in light infantry units.

The Commander’s Digital Assistant (CDA) Version 5 is an early spiral from the U.S. Army’s Land Warrior program, under Program Executive Office Soldier. The ruggedized tablet computer hosts Blue Force Tracking software through Project Manager, Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (PM FBCB2). With the software loaded and when connected to a satellite, the CDA is a dismounted FBCB2 Blue Force Tracking system. It includes a computer processor and disk with embedded communications.

The software and the accompanying network provide command and control and situational awareness primarily to units at brigade level and below. Developers designed the system primarily for the dismounted soldier. According to program officials, the CDA fills a gap at the company level and below.  The device is intended particularly for dismounted company commanders and platoon leaders. However, based on operational requirements, they can push the capability down to squad leaders, team leaders or individual soldier teams such as reconnaissance elements so these troops have the capability to accomplish their assigned missions. The dismounted system allows such users to connect to the Blue Force Tracking network and to view their locations on the battlefield as well as receive and send command information.

The original CDA was a personal digital assistant device. “It was really just to give the leader a digital notebook for lack of a better term,” says Maj. Scott Tyler, USA, assistant product manager for Land Warrior. Input from users prompted the evolution from the first version to today’s product. Despite the Version 5 designation, the current embodiment of the CDA is a far cry from its early counterpart. The product creators called the first rendition of the device the New Form Factor, but they wanted to standardize the nomenclature so they retained the CDA name and determined that this is the fifth version of the technology.

Through the various versions, several capabilities were added such as Global Positioning System (GPS) and satellite connections. According to Maj. Tyler, developers wanted to use software that was readily available because of the computer challenge of GPS, which the former CDA did not support. Also, the screen size was too small. “FBCB2 displays a lot of data, and the screen size wasn’t conducive for that,” Maj. Tyler shares.

According to Dominic Satili, PM FBCB2 hardware acquisition lead, the FBCB2 system is the U.S. Army’s digital battle command information system at the brigade-and-below level. It provides integrated, on-the-move, timely, relevant battle command information to tactical combat leaders and soldiers from brigade to platform and across platforms within the brigade task force. FBCB2 enables warfighters to forward orders to those who need them and graphics to convey a commander’s intent and scheme of maneuver. 

FBCB2 provides several capabilities, including enabling synchronization of maneuver and fires through shared situational awareness; providing leaders with the capability to navigate well in unknown terrain and during reduced visibility; providing automatic blue situational awareness and red/battlefield hazard situational awareness; improving direct/indirect fire control; integrating forward observer software; and reducing fratricide.

The CDA has increased computer power, increased memory and the ability to host the software from FBCB2 without modifying the device as was necessary with former rollouts. The new CDA is twice the size of earlier versions and weighs 6.5 pounds. It has a 6.5-inch screen—larger than two personal digital assistant screens—that is touchscreen,” Maj. Tyler states.

The CDA Version 5 is an early spiral from the U.S. Army’s Land Warrior program. The tool is a ruggedized computer that supports the Blue Force Tracking network as well as other satellite and Global Positioning System communications.
The CDA technology can be operated inside of vehicles and gives the soldier the ability to have a touchscreen, keyboard and mouse. When dismounted users take advantage of the technology, they generally would not use the keyboard or mouse, instead relying on the touchscreen capability. They could, however, hook a mouse or keyboard into the CDA in a combat outpost. In its pure dismounted form, the device operates with just the touchscreen with a virtual replicated keyboard on screen. The tool includes a stylus, or soldiers can use their fingertips on the screen.

   The Army has not fielded the CDA to deployed troops, but soldiers are using it in stateside field exercises. According to Maj. Tyler, Land Warrior personnel had almost completed the CDA last summer and were ready to roll out the technology to the warfighters when upgrades to the FBCB2 Blue Force Tracking network into which it connects forced developers to make changes to ensure connection to the upgraded network. Most of the changes addressed security concerns. 

   Maj. Tyler emphasizes that personnel in units in the United States use the CDA in training situations every day. The security upgrades are specifically geared to missions overseas in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

The stateside users provide feedback to the developers about which functions of the tool they like and which features could be eliminated or improved. Maj. Tyler relates that the use by units in the United States generates demand for the capability. “Absolutely, people want this,” he says.

Although designed for the light infantry soldier in particular, the CDA in training situations is not limited to soldiers on the move. Military police in the Army are testing the technology as a form of communications that dismounted military police can use in the field to relay intelligence to higher military police headquarters. U.S. Air Force security forces also have interest in the system. “I know the Air Force is evaluating it because of the software it hosts,” Maj. Tyler states. In addition, Special Forces civil affairs troops are evaluating the CDA for mission purposes.

Despite the interest from an array of warfighters, the CDA was designed with a specific user in mind. “It’s really geared toward the light infantry soldier,” Maj. Tyler says. Units without many vehicles can benefit most from the tool. These units differ from heavier units with numerous vehicles because the heavy units have the FBCB2 available to them. Maj. Tyler explains that the CDA gives the lighter units the same capability as if they had the same density of vehicles as the heavier units.

   Another benefit of the tool for light infantry is the weight. To operate the CDA on batteries continually for 24 hours would require only 15 pounds of additional weight. Batteries compose most of the weight, which could be distributed among several soldiers in a unit. Not every soldier in a unit would receive the tool, only those key leaders who need to use and operate it.

The CDA supports data, not voice, and allows commanders or other potential users to determine their locations as well as the locations of other users. It benefits troops outside of the reach of traditional communications systems. Its range allows users to send and receive message traffic they otherwise would not have the ability to obtain, enhancing battle command and situational awareness, and they can receive reports from intelligence units.

The CDA was originally designed to meet the Land Warrior requirement for a planning tool for leaders. Because the technology hosts the FBCB2 software and that software is resident throughout the Army as a command and situation awareness application, the Army determined that it could provide the capability to the soldiers early, before the entire Land Warrior program was ready for distribution.

Before the CDA, soldiers had no dismounted platform that ran the FBCB2 software. Tyler says his office worked jointly with the FBCB2 program office while developing the device. Land Warrior personnel have responsibility for the hardware, and FBCB2 staff have software responsibility. Satili shares that “the software ran fine on the CDA except for a few minor issues such as touchscreen drivers and other software utilities.” Because of proprietary software concerns, the Land Warrior staff addressed the final integration issues.

The Land Warrior office is determining when it expects to deploy the CDA, and units are requesting it for as early as August. Several upgrades have been completed with one remaining. When developers finish that upgrade, the next step will be to integrate all the upgrades and ensure that the system functions correctly. “All the upgrades that need to happen mainly revolve around software and firmware changes that need to be made,” Maj. Tyler shares.

The new CDA fills the requirement for dismounted soldiers and leaders to have the ability to connect to the network. “I think the number one priority of the Army is to connect soldiers to the network,” Maj. Tyler states. Dismounted soldiers especially in light units lack the ability to tie into the network without the CDA or Land Warrior.

In addition to the Product Manager Land Warrior and PM FBCB2 program offices, other organizations took part in the CDA development. General Dynamics built the ruggedized computer. Many of the components in the device are commercial off-the-shelf parts that General Dynamics integrated into a rugged frame. Personnel at Product Manager Common Hardware Systems are working with the company. “We use [Common Hardware Systems] as that contract vehicle to have General Dynamics aid us in development and upgrades,” Maj. Tyler says.

Northrop Grumman served as the prime contractor for PM FBCB2. The company integrated and tested the software on representative CDAs.

Web Resources
Program Executive Office Soldier:
Project Manager, FBCB2:
General Dynamics:
Northrop Grumman:


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