A U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) designed to field improved personnel recovery technology to the warfighter continues to progress through the transition phase.

USJFCOM's Personnel Recovery Extraction Survivability aided by Smart Sensors (PRESS) successfully concluded a Joint Military Utility Assessment (JMUA) last year on the technologies and concepts that would be used as part of the plan.

A JMUA looks at the joint effectiveness of a product or capability to ensure its ability to support the joint warfighter. All five of the services and the United Kingdom participated in this particular assessment.

The ACTD is sponsored by the deputy undersecretary of Defense for advanced systems and concepts and includes USJFCOM's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), Air Force Special Operations Command and Air Combat Command as major program team members.

JPRA's Ric Fontaine, technical manager for the PRESS ACTD, said the ACTD initially consisted of eleven technologies designed to recover personnel behind enemy lines faster and with a better understanding of what's happening in the battlespace. Prior to the final JMUA, that number had been narrowed down to one.

"Of the eleven technologies that were examined and explored under the PRESS concept, ten of those fell out for a variety of reasons, either the immaturity of the technology or the technology was already a program of record and available to the warfighters. The only remaining technology is the Global Personnel Recovery System," he said.

"It's a two-way short messaging system data capability. I say capability because it's not designed to replace any particular device that's currently deployed by the warfighter. It's designed to enhance them," said Fontaine.

The Global Personnel Recovery System (GPRS) is a secure two-way, over-the-horizon capability that allows a rescue command center and recovery forces to track and communicate with a downed pilot or even a hostage.

Gregg Koumbis, a contractor who supports USJFCOM as ACTD science and technology manager, explained how GPRS can expedite the process of the identification, tracking and recovery of isolated persons and make it safer for both the rescue crew and individual on the ground.

"A scenario could involve an F-18 in jeopardy while providing close air support to a maneuvering ground unit. The pilot ejects and a beacon activates indicating that the person is out of the aircraft and needs to be recovered. Now that individual is on the ground and evading capture. The search and rescue effort begins immediately as the Joint Rescue Coordination Center receives notification," he said.

Koumbis said GPRS provides greater confidence to all the personnel involved and enhances safety in a scenario such as this.

"What that does is provide safety for the rescue crew and the individual on the ground. The crew is really not searching for the individual. They're just going to recover the individual. They'll arrange to meet at a location and make the rescue."

Koumbis said this unique capability will provide a transmission between the isolated person on the ground and the rescue crew. This near-real time transmission is secure and uses a wave form that provides for a low probability of intercept and detection. Because GPRS uses this databurst transmission, users do not need to talk, but have pre-formatted messages that are used to communicate.

"This gives the opposition little opportunity to geo-locate that signal," said Koumbis.
"It's a quick micro-second burst and we get the signal and try to go in and rescue the individual. There's a low probability that an adversary could intercept or detect the signal so the person on the ground feels secure that they're not revealing their location to the enemy. The only person who knows where they are is the rescue crew."

Koumbis said the capability also provides a significant enhancement to handheld devices such as survival radios.

"The GPRS capability, specifically the Global Interface Network Card (GNIC) may be integrated into existing radios, or other communication systems expanding their capability with over-the-horizon, secure databurst capability," he said.

Koumbis also explained the benefit that a rescuing crew with GPRS may no longer need to be concerned with having a similar radio as the isolated person.

"Anyone with GPRS-enabled capability can communicate with each other regardless of the radio being used," he said. "Eventually, this interoperability feature will save the expense associated with procuring, operating and maintaining unique survival radio systems."

Koumbis said the PRESS ACTD has changed since it initially began in 2001 as a combat search and rescue capability for someone like a downed airman.

"Nowadays, the battlefield may include more than a downed airman; there are contractors, and government personnel that work in theater. Soldiers may be captured or avoiding capture as a result of combat or convoy operations," he said.

"Initially, [the ACTD] was started as a combat search and rescue capability but now we have discovered that GPRS has a broader application for blue force tracking and situational awareness," Koumbis said.

Koumbis said the success of GPRS capability at the JMUA essentially brought the ACTD to a close. This launched the transition phase in support of fielding the capability.

"It went through an ACTD process, which means we've developed a concept of operations," he said. "USJFCOM with JPRA identified the warfighter requirement, and while working with the users built a relevant and precise solution. GPRS was then evaluated during a series of seven technical and operational assessments and concluded the last set in 2006. The deputy commander [Army Lt. Gen. John R. Wood] signed a letter and a report that says the ACTD is complete and that the GPRS is a success and should transition into acquisition."

Fontaine said that as a result of the PRESS ACTD, software and hardware are under development.

"The GNIC has the capability to communicate over different satellite constellations. It runs at a higher frequency which allows you to do short data messaging as well as blue force tracking," he said.

The PRESS ACTD developed 15 GNICs that fit into a number of systems that are available for immediate use, including survival radios, portable computers, lap top computers used by isolated personnel, rescue aircraft and forces, and command and control centers.

The GNICs operate along with network software called the Task Force Administrative Server (TFAS) which allows the user to reconfigure the network at any given time.

"If you wanted to track a device for five seconds or every five hours you can go in to the network and change the characteristics of the device to where it will only transmit every five seconds or every five hours," said Fontaine.

The system, originally designed to support the personnel recovery, has been identified by the warfighters, themselves, for potential use to support blue force tracking and situational awareness.

Koumbis said the future looks bright as existing programs would like to use GPRS, but there are also a number of new organizations interested. The U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and the U.S. Coast Guard have expressed interest in hopes of using it for their own missions.