Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Britain tests new ways to track soldiers

British military officials are testing new technologies that they say will make operations with the United States and other coalition partners more efficient and responsive to threats.

More important, British officials said, they will be able to give a better accounting of troop locations on the battlefield, making for quicker action and avoiding friendly-fire incidents.

Brigadier David Cullen, commander of the British 12th Mechanised Regiment, said this week that closing gaps between British and American systems is critical, especially given the complex operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Combat units need to exchange critical information, such as the location of improvised explosive devices, those roadside bombs that have become the insurgent's weapon of choice.

He said troops must be positioned to "move faster in purpose and deed".

"We're up against some very smart people out there," Brig Cullen said.

British soldiers were in Kansas for several weeks testing the system as part of the Omni Fusion multinational exercise at Fort Leavenworth, which also included contingents from Canada and Australia. The exercise, which began July 14, is a five-year experiment to test battlefield concepts for current and future military operations.

Brian Hodges, a senior operations research analyst at Fort Leavenworth, said the British used their current military applications but integrated them in a new way to enhance coalition operations.

"We are emphasising operational interoperability over technical interoperability," Hodges said. "The technicians can make the boxes talk to each other. Our interest is whether or not what the boxes are saying is useful to the warfighters."

One hurdle is granting security clearance to networks. Officials say that despite fighting as allies as far back as World War I, security issues prevent the British from simply plugging into US systems.

"The national security piece is not a trivial bit," said Paul Martin, a former Royal Marine and programme manager for Niteworks, a technology firm developing the systems. "We have to have a much clearer picture of how to network."

In Afghanistan, Brig Cullen said US commanders can see their troops, and the British theirs. However, communicating each other's troop positions frequently requires voice confirmation, which takes time.

Mr Hodges said it's not acceptable to have the Army fighting alongside the British or other nation and not fully integrate them in missions.

"You can no longer just put them on the flanks so we don't shoot them," he said.

The system will also enable units thousands of miles apart to train and collaborate before they deploy. Next year, US and British forces will conduct Talon Strike, an exercise spanning the Atlantic Ocean. British troops will remain at home and be linked with Army units, including the 1st Infantry and 101st Airborne divisions.

Lt Col Julian Moir of the Land Warfare Centre in Warminster said such training will help units establish relationships before going into combat. Those efforts will save time and money in an age when defence budgets are tight.

But, he said, the experiments and development can't be focused only on the future.

"You have to focus on the here and now or it's not going to survive scrutiny," Moir said.

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