ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (April 30, 2014) -- Today's consumers enjoy both a common look and feel and interoperability between their computers, tablets and smartphones.
Through recent advances in the Common Operating Environment, known as the COE, the Army is well on its way to providing these same capabilities to Soldiers.
Whether accessing information on secure handheld devices, vehicle mounted systems or command post screens, Soldiers are beginning to see a "plug and play" experience similar to what has become the norm in daily home and office environments.
While technical, security and procedural challenges remain before the Army can fully mirror the simplicity of the commercial communications environment, the adoption of the COE is already supporting improved connectivity on the battlefield and faster development of new technologies, officials said.
"I am very pleased with the progress we have made moving to a COE," said Lt. Gen. Robert S. Ferrell, the Department of the Army's chief information Officer/G-6. "Being able to plug and play, increase interoperability and work seamlessly, based on common standards, really will improve the way the Army conducts operations while in garrison and deployed. I look forward to maintaining this momentum as we build out the remaining computing environments."
Established in 2010, the COE is an approved set of computing technologies and standards designed to reduce stovepipes and support the rapid development and delivery of secure applications that interoperate across several computing environments, or CEs.
The three CEs that support the tactical realm -- the Command Post, or CP CE, Mounted, known as MCE, and Mobile/Handheld CE -- have collaborated to bring greater commonality and simplicity to the maps, messaging and applications that Soldiers use across all of these environments.
"Just like a user becomes familiar with multiple personal devices running an Apple, Google or Windows operating system, a Soldier should be able to automatically recognize and seamlessly access tactical applications no matter where he is or what device he's using," said Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, program executive officer for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical. "The COE initiative is allowing the Army to remove stand-alone systems, which simplifies operations on the battlefield and reduces training and field support requirements as we move to a smaller, more agile force."
Each computing environment addresses some of the limitations commanders and staff currently face to achieve overall situational awareness. For the command post, the CP CE is mitigating the commander's requirement to "mentally fuse" the digital information displayed on multiple screens for the warfighting functions of fires, logistics, intelligence, airspace management and maneuver. The CP CE consolidates these separate capabilities using web-based applications (apps) and displays them on a common, geospatial digital map hosted on a single workstation.
"The applications ride on a common set of software and services," said Col. Jonas Vogelhut, project manager for Mission Command (PM MC). "Like a smartphone's operating system, this is the true power within CP CE."
Using any government-authorized laptop connected to the appropriate classified network, commanders and staff can log into the web-based framework and access the app specific to their mission. By layering applications on a common map, the CP CE will meet commanders' needs for collaborative planning and decentralized execution across all warfighting functions, enhancing their ability to make rapid adjustments according to the combat situation.
Beyond the command post, vehicles on the move provide the vital link between dismounted Soldiers and their headquarters. The Army recognized the importance of communications at the platform level and thus designated the MCE as the standard inside tactical vehicles. The Joint Battle Command-Platform, or JBC-P, system, which provides mounted mission command, friendly force tracking, and situational awareness capabilities, has become the first version of the MCE.
"If you compare the mobile, handheld computing environment to an iPhone and compare the stationary command post computing environment to a desktop computer, MCE -- with JBC-P being the core capability - is the iPad," said Lt. Col. Michael Olmstead, product manager for JBC-P. "You might not necessarily need the same app for the handheld that you need for the command post, but just like the commercial model, they would be compatible and interoperable."
As with the CP CE, MCE developers will provide new apps that ride on top of common software, thus alleviating the requirement for a separate program with its own operating system and services. MCE also leverages the new Mounted Family of Computer Systems, a single computing hardware solution for vehicles, to reduce the size, weight and power demands that would otherwise come with adding new technologies.
The MCE is also piloting a framework that would enable greater compatibility between new Android-based capabilities certified by the Army and the JBC-P baseline, which would streamline product development of emerging technology.
That could further increase commonality with Nett Warrior, the Army's handheld mission command system and the foundation for the Mobile/Handheld CE. Nett Warrior is based on an Android-based commercial smartphone that has been adapted for military security standards.
As with the CP CE and MCE, the Nett Warrior program office has published a software development kit that allows other Army organizations to develop applications that are interoperable with COE standards. Many of these apps replace previous stand-alone systems.
Recently developed apps expected to begin fielding on Nett Warrior devices next year include mobile handheld fires, machine foreign language translation, tactical combat casualty care and counterintelligence/human intelligence reporting. A future version of the software development kit will be released to industry partners so vendors can develop apps that work within the secure Nett Warrior framework.
"If you do it right with Android, if somebody makes an app, it should just run," said Jason Regnier, the deputy product manager for Nett Warrior. "We essentially keep up with what industry is doing with an Army version of it. We use a very low-cost platform -- that we buy for the same price that our teenagers buy their phones -- to create a secure platform that Soldiers are already familiar with. It becomes very easy to train."
The overarching goal of the COE is to increase interoperability between CEs, and the CP CE and MCE are currently supporting horizontal integration between the Command Post of the Future, known as CPOF, and Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System, or AFATDS, in the command post and JBC-P in the vehicles. CPOF is the primary common operating picture system used in Tactical Operations Centers, and AFATDS is the is the Army's comprehensive fires planning system that acts as the central hub for the commander's fire support tactical decision making.
"Right now we can use JBC-P to initiate a call for fires to AFATDS, the AFATDS operator can commence the call for fires chain process, and the fires graphic will display on CPOF to provide situational awareness for the commander in the TOC," said Jeremy Pilkington, chief engineer for PM MC's technical management division.
To support seamless operations across the MCE and Mobile/Handheld CE, the JBC-P and Nett Warrior programs have collaborated extensively to implement common messaging formats and mapping standards. Since the systems are used to pass critical combat information like calls for Medevac, reports of sniper fire or friendly and enemy locations, the messages and mapping engines had to be compatible at the dismounted and mounted level, Regnier said.
"All of combat is map based. You have to know where you are, where you're going, where the enemy is based, and you have to see the same picture," he said. "That was a key part of implementing the Common Operating Environment."
(Editor's note) program executive officer for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical staff writers Claire Heininger and Nancy Jones-Bonbrest contributed to this report.