Battlefield digitisation: Better Off With Map And Nokia?

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Electronics make up an increasing part of the infantry load 

We’re all used to effortless, high-speed data transfer now, so it seems strange that until very recently armed forces were still restricted to passing information by insecure voice traffic at most levels. Where data systems existed they were only available to high-level headquarters, so information took a long time to make its way down to unit level where the fighting was going on. Giving a unit the locations of friendly and enemy forces could mean encoding dozens (or even hundreds) of grid references and reading them out over a voice link. Many blue on blue incidents – what the media call “friendly fire” – have occurred because troops didn’t know where their own side were. It slowly became obvious that this just wasn’t good enough.

Early moves towards improving the situation through battlefield digitisation were made in the United States, where the Inter Vehicle Information System (IVIS) was fitted to the M1A2 main battle tank. At about the same time the UK began work on a new family of military radios to replace the Clansman family. Both projects were aimed at producing a “network enabled” capability, allowing position and status information to be rapidly transmitted between units. By integrating GPS systems with every radio it would be possible for units to continuously broadcast their position, which could be displayed on electronic maps. Frequency-hopping and automatic data encryption would prevent the enemy from eavesdropping on this information.

Unfortunately the goal of network-enabled warfare was harder to achieve than anyone had thought. Because military kit has to be thoroughly tested for ruggedness and reliability, the technology used was constantly falling behind what was available on the civilian market. IVIS proved to be too difficult for most tank crews to use and the British programme repeatedly ran into serious problems. In 2000, eleven years into the British project, the chief contractor was fired and the project reallocated to General Dynamics UK Ltd. Four years later the Bowman system began to enter service with the British armed forces.

bowman radio data pad

Royal Engineer using a Bowman data pad

Bowman is a complete family of voice and data radios operating in HF, VHF and UHF bands, plus a range of data terminals intended for vehicle and headquarters use. Bowman sets are fitted to all Royal Navy warships and most Army and Royal Air Force helicopter types including the WAH-64 Apache attack helicopter. They are also used by all Army units down to Section level and fitted into every armoured vehicle. Communication within Sections is provided by the H4855 Personal Role Radio (PRR,) which is officially part of the Bowman programme but can’t talk to any of the other radios. This isn’t critical, though, as it’s basically a low level chat net which has replaced hand signals and whistles. Manpack Bowman sets are used at Section and Platoon level, while vehicle-mounted sets are used at higher levels. All radios from Company level upwards have an Automatic Situational Awareness Module which uses GPS to broadcast the radio’s location. Data transmission is also available from Company level upwards. The backbone of the system is the High Capacity Data Radio, a large vehicle-mounted UHF system which provides a secure internet capability using standard TCP/IP protocols.

For data transmission the system uses a number of data terminals, including vehicle-mounted sets and ruggedized laptops for HQ use. Data is exchanged using custom software applications such as ComBAT, a planning and situational awareness tool which lets mapping, locations and graphical orders be exchanged between units. Email and instant messaging applications allow users to chat and transmit documents.

Every Bowman set is programmed with the callsign of the unit it’s being used by. This callsign can be used as a message address by anyone trying to talk to that unit. Because all Bowman systems (except the PRR) form part of an integrated network, they operate together to form a “military cloud.” In theory at least, a message sent to a specific callsign will be routed through other Bowman sets until it gets there even if the sending and receiving sets aren’t in range of each other.

Unfortunately, despite the long development process, there are still a number of serious problems. The ruggedized laptop, known as the User Data Terminal (UDT,) proved to be far too slow and almost impossible to upgrade; to prevent system failures only two applications can be open at once. The vehicle radio fits are massive. When fitted to a standard long wheel base Land Rover Wolf it takes up almost the entire rear of the vehicle, reducing crew capacity from eight to three and leaving no room for their personal kit. It’s also so heavy that it tends to break the back axle on rough terrain. The personal radio sets aren’t much better; the Section radio is several times the weight of the Clansman UK/PRC-349 it replaced, and battery life is notoriously poor. Troops in Afghanistan routinely keep their radios off to preserve battery life until they actually come into contact with the enemy, and even then ranges are very short. It’s been pointed out that the “military cloud” can’t work if half of the radios in it are switched off most of the time. Most of the Army has decided that Bowman stands for “Better Off With Map And Nokia.”

bowman VPT section radio BATUS suffiend

Bowman VPT Section radio on exercise

There’s no doubt that when Bowman works properly it’s a great improvement on the old, insecure Clansman system. There’s a long way to go before it’s at an acceptable standard, though; system weight, battery life and computing power all need to be radically improved. Custom software applications like ComBAT lag far behind modern office software in terms of ease of use, and the use of OpenOffice on UDTs causes compatibility issues with the standard MoD office package, Microsoft Office. Other armies are watching the never-ending saga of the Bowman project with interest, and learning a lot of valuable lessons for their own digitisation plans.