U.S. military researchers take aim at Command Post of the Future

Arlington, Va. ? The military command post ? whether at headquarters, brigade, or battalion level ? has been the nerve center of war planning and operations since the creation of the first organized army

By J.R. Wilson

Arlington, Va. — The military command post — whether at headquarters, brigade, or battalion level — has been the nerve center of war planning and operations since the creation of the first organized army. As technology and information flow has increased, so has the size and complexity of the command post.

The decision-making teams at the typical division-level command post alone may exceed 1,000 people and hundreds of computers, map boards, and communications consoles.

But now technology is on the verge of creating one of the most dramatic changes in military command operations in millennia. At least, that is the hope of experts from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., for their project to build the Command Post of the Future — better known as CPOF.

"We're starting from the notion that the command post is not a place, but a function," says Ward Page, DARPA's CPOF program manager.

"The commander's job is to make decisions and monitor their execution in the midst of great uncertainty. To do this effectively, the commander must be freed from the tyranny of the doctrine and technologies that define the current military command post," testified DARPA director Frank Fernandez before the U.S. Senate Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities last March.

"The goal of the CPOF program is to shorten the commander's decision cycle to stay ahead of the adversary's ability to react," Fernandez told senators. "The visualization and interaction technologies developed under CPOF will enable radically faster situation assessment and response, resulting in a more efficient use of manpower and military assets."

DARPA experts are now about a year and a half into a four-year program to find the technologies that will best improve communications between the commander and his subordinates, staff, and superiors. Toward that end, experts are building for DARPA a multimodal dialog system, in which the four primary modes are tailored visualization, multimodal interaction, context management, and dialog management.

"Tailored visualization is looking at information transfer — what should the screen look like, what the audio should be, what the text generation should be," Page says. "We're all at the mercy of the wiring of our brains. We want to take advantage of that, so if a commander looks at a picture, he translates that into something more meaningful — the distribution of forces, for example. So we're building models of what we think the commander sees."

Working from the concept of decision making based on pattern recognition and filtering, CPOF designers are attempting to reduce the cognitive load of the filtering mechanism — the commander's brain. Experiments are beginning to reveal ways to do that.

"Every pixel on the screen should answer a question the commander has," Page says. "Right now, we have very poor visualization in the command and control role because we tend to give them everything we have. As a result, the commander backs away from it, puts bodies between him and the image, which is why command posts have grown so large."

That is where context management comes into play, as an information filtering function designed to get the right set of information to the commander, which Page says "is really the riskiest part of the program."

The trick is to compensate for human cognitive weaknesses. "We believe we should automate what the commander does not do well and let him do what he does do well," Page says. "We're trying to move as much of the staff functions into the software as we can. We're experimenting with which are most effective to move and the optimal command post staff size," Page says. "If you look at the decision making teams right now at the division level, you have 1,100 guys, but only seven are actually making decisions. The rest are basically interface devices; they know which buttons to press to get the answers."

Also vital to the end result is the concept of dialog. This requires commanders to determine the dynamics of all individuals talking about a problem, then deciding on a solution. It is an important dynamic to understand, Page says, because "basically, every utterance changes every future utterance."

Another element in restructuring the command post is to separate situational awareness from battle planning.

"If you can present the commander with enough information that he understands the situation on the ground and keep him informed of what's changing, then give him a display that gives him all the options at once, then you have a continuous planning environment," Page says.

"We're not making radical assumptions about better sensors or full knowledge about where everyone is on the battlefield," he says. "We realistically expect there to be continuing confusion on the battlefield. But good commanders account for that. They understand how the battle is going and keep a couple of options going. And we think that is really where the decision-making will be helped, in making the patterns really pop out."

By bringing all of the concepts together with state-of-the-art computers, displays, and communications, DARPA officials say will make the Command Post of the Future a radical departure from what the military currently fields.

"So far we've spent a lot of time analyzing command posts and looking at future technologies," Page says. "We don't believe in applying future technologies to current concepts of operations. A lot of doctrine is encoding artifacts of old technology."

Looking forward, DARPA officials say they do not want to develop something in the laboratory that soldiers on the field will not accept, or that is not effective. To avoid that, DARPA has brought subject matter experts, including retired and senior military officers, into the program to work with the labs in developing new doctrine and conducting experiments to verify which technologies will be effective.

Program leaders say they also intend to justify every technical decision with experimental results. Any new concept must maintain the existing command post functions — at brigade and below — of intelligence and communications. It also must enable the commander to interface with the system in a natural way.

"So we are getting rid of mice and keyboards and building in voice and gesture recognition," Page says. "Symbology recognition is the next generation of handwriting recognition."

Such elements are important because the CPOF, as Page notes, will be a function, not a place.

"Most commanders spend very little time in the command post," he says. "Instead, the commander goes where he's needed most and when he is out of the command post he is in touch by radio, which is really inefficient for advanced planning," he says. "We want the commander and his officers to be able to travel around and carry the command post with them."

In his official position paper on CPOF, Page says the commander's success in the battlefield of the future will depend on the use of information dominance to increase the speed and precision of his decisions, while survival will depend on being small and mobile.

"Large command complexes will not survive in the highly lethal, future battlefield, Page states. "The commander's portal into this information environment will need to be easily operated by a small, distributed staff. The goal of CPOF is to shorten the commander's decision cycle to stay ahead of the adversary's ability to react. To achieve this operational goal, the technical objective is to develop the technology necessary to create an adaptive, decision-centered, information visualization environment for the future commander and his immediate staff."

Obviously, that does not mean 1,100 personnel.

"We think the right size of interaction is between three and seven," Page says. "The commander, intelligence officer, and the operations guy have to be there." That also means reducing the massive physical size of today's command post down to something that will fit — and survive — inside a light battlefield vehicle such as a HUMMV. Such shrinking involves not only portable computers, communications, and displays, but also designing the content to be shown on the displays and the form it will take to make communications effective.

"So we have to know what information is truly critical to the commander's ability to execute a plan and know how what happens affects the plan, where are the critical places where small changes can have large effects on op tempo and force projection and other critical areas, then present those to the commander in effective ways," Page says.

Need for displays

"Not looking at a place has really focused our technology. When you talk about a room, you can do 3D tracking of individuals and gestures. When you talk about a portable system, you can't do that. Portable computing and power isn't really an issue anymore, but displays are. We need large, thin displays that are 36-inch diagonal. The technology is getting closer. For example, there's the foldable display, but there are some real hard manufacturing issues there."

Hardware is not the only issue, he adds, "the software we're developing will tune itself to whatever display is available," Page says. For example, if the commander is operating from a fixed base and has access to several different displays, the software will be able to spread the information across each available display. On the other hand, if the commander walks out into the field with a personal digital assistant such as a Palm Pilot, the software will adapt itself to that medium. "That's a hard problem, making the software adapt itself to the tools it has at hand," Page points out.

In line with government mandates to keep everything as simple as possible, to avoid military specifications, and to use commercial-off-the-self (COTS) components to the greatest degree possible, the current CPOF program is not looking to develop all its own technologies. "The CPOF program will not attempt to develop all of the needed technologies but will focus primarily on the visualization, human-computer interaction and knowledge-based information integration needed to realize the envisioned system," states DARPA's project description.

At the same time, the project description points out that the envisioned Command Post of the Future would require development of a wide range of technologies that do not exist today, such as high-bandwidth wireless communications, a comprehensive distributed data management and distribution system, integrated battlefield situation models and databases, a wide array of planning and decision aids, and survivable command vehicles.

Many other technologies necessary to implement CPOF are being developed or evaluated under other DARPA and DOD projects, with CPOF expected to identify and use those developments wherever possible.

The first three years of the DARPA effort entail developing and testing of candidate technologies at the military service battle labs, with the final year taking the resulting technology into an operational field exercise. While those technologies ultimately are for all services at any command level, the current four-year zeroes in on Army and Marine Corps command levels from joint task force through brigade, with a primary emphasis on the joint forces land component commander.

Program officials are planning for a joint distributed CPOF user experiment environment at the service hubs at the Army Battle Command Battle Lab at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and at the Mounted Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Knox, Ky. and the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab at Quantico, Va.

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