In Hand: A Revolution in Command and Control

Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander Jones is preparing for a three-day mission in Afghanistan. He and his fellow SEALS have spent hours reviewing maps and hundreds of details they must have immediately available during the mission. In front of each is a modified Palm©-driven Personal Digital Assistant (in the Navy they call them JPAs, for Job Performance Aids).

Each device is synched to the others and to a central PC by short-range broadband HF. As the final briefing proceeds, all seven JPAs receive the maps, directions, special individually tailored orders, and other information that used to be recorded in each warrior’s Wheel Book and sometimes memorized as well. The memorizing still happens, but the Wheel Book is no more.

In the chopper on the way to the drop, Jones displays a nearly real-time satellite photo of the target area that just arrived in his JPA. Calling up a checklist from his digital field manual and the notes he took during the briefing, he makes sure that the drop site will still work, and annotates the photo with modified deployment positions based on this recent information for the other six. A tap on his screen transmits this data to the others.

Just before they disembark, Jones notes on his screen that each JPA is networked, that each SEAL is live on the audio link, that each SEAL has his assigned weapon suite, and that every team member JPA is loaded with team member-specific information, and the correct software including the SEAL Survival Manual and an English-Pashto translator. In the field, Jones uses his JPA to coordinate the team’s actions, and to transmit digital photos and his exact position back to headquarters by satellite.

At the end of the mission, Jones transmits his current location and new pick-up coordinates to the incoming chopper. Since he can pinpoint his position with his Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) unit, and uplink it through his JPA by satellite directly into the chopper’s navigation computer display, he does not need to use signal flares. Even though his team is deep inside enemy territory, functionally surrounded by enemy snipers, he can effect a complete extraction before the enemy soldiers are even aware of the chopper’s presence.

Is all of this real? Almost, but not quite. Since 1999, JPAs have been issued to every newly commissioned Navy officer. Several Marine units are experimenting with the devices. So are selected Army platoons. Unofficially, thousands of officers and noncoms are going this route on their own. Several software firms run by retired military officers are competing to supply off-the-shelf software to meet their distinctive needs.

Still missing is a battle hardened version of the devices, standardized networking and up- and down-links, and standardized audio links. Further in the future, but within easy reach of today’s technology, are personalized heads-up displays that place desired information, photos and drawings directly before each trooper on helmet-mounted transparent drop-down face shields. This will enable the officer in charge to coordinate the actions of his men by voice and image with unheard of precision and accuracy.

The effect of applying this technology universally across the spectrum of forces in the field and aboard ships and aircraft is to enhance the effectiveness of command and control to heights never before experienced. Past snafus, especially linked to SOF operations, have seriously compromised many missions. With this technology in place, these operations will run significantly better with enhanced probability of success.

Shipboard, Division Officers will have at hand all the time details of their personnel, and of their divisional budget, capabilities, shortcomings, training, schedules, etc. With the complete integration of JPAs throughout the fleet, orders coming down the chain of command and responses moving back up will no longer be subject to “word of mouth” or written transmission and its inherent delays.

Eventually, with complete downward integration of the concept to each individual sailor, the chain will be complete, and shipboard operations will significantly increase efficiency. For example, the Plan of the Day will appear on every JPA each morning. When a change to these orders is promulgated, it instantly displays on every shipboard JPA. Senior Petty Officers distribute individual work assignments and follow their progress by JPA.

Eventually, a failing machine will signal its failure directly to the JPA of the sailor tasked with its repair, and to his supervisor (and perhaps Division Officer). I even envision a machine about to fail transmitting its condition to the appropriate individual so that preventative maintenance can forestall the actual failure.

The same principle applies to aircraft and their associated groupings of men and machine, both in the Navy, the Air Force, and the other military air branches. With the eventual inclusion of shore stations, the web will be complete, and we should see a transformation of command and control within our armed forces like nothing ever experienced before.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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