As the Army's flagship dismounted leader situational awareness system, Nett Warrior has long promised to bring the power of apps to the combat soldier through an integrated system of smartphones and radios.
With upgrades to a key precision-fires system, the service is moving one step closer to fulfilling that promise.
The new Precision Fires-Dismounted, or PF-D, system is the first major program of record on Nett Warrior. The software-based tool represents an incremental step forward from the fires system that has been in use since 2004. "We have good technology now, and this makes it even better," said Lt. Col. Chris Anderson, product manager for Fire Support Command and Control within Project Manager Mission Command.
The system manages fires control for a range of systems including mortars, cannon, close-air support and combat aviation.
PF-D will replace a 3.2-pound, Windows-based tablet that initially cost $30,000 and has become substantially outdated in the course of more than a decade's use. "The user interface is not modern, it doesn't work like a cellphone, like what current soldiers are used to," Anderson said.
The new device costs about $8,000 and weighs less than a pound, yet boasts more than 100 times the computing power of the previous version. Essentially an Android smartphone, it also has a more familiar look and feel in the user interface.
Anderson predicts the price will drop even lower as the Army builds out its PF-D inventory, which may top 5,000 devices. They'll go primarily to light infantry brigades for use by field artillery support soldiers including fire support officers and forward observers. Fielding is slated to begin in fall 2017, rolling out at a pace of about three brigades per year.
The software-driven system is designed to make good on Nett Warrior's longstanding promise of apps-driven information sharing for the soldier in combat. "It is optimized to do things more quickly," Anderson said. Rather than drill down through a cumbersome series of menus, "a soldier can zoom into a map and pick a target and call for fires. It's all very intuitive."
Because the system is integrated into the Nett Warrior network, users will have access to multiple battlefield data inputs, rather than being constrained to the visualizations available on a single map. This in turn should significantly increase their overall situational awareness.
"Now he has a picture of where the friendly forces are, in addition to the enemy forces. He can do clearance of fires much quicker and reduce the risk of fratricide," Anderson said. "All those forces share their positions across Nett Warrior, and now the fires support can tap into that."
While Nett Warrior integration is the big advance for PF-D, it was also the biggest challenge. Nett Warrior itself is still a work in progress, and planners on the fires side had to ensure that their efforts stayed in sync with developments on the network side.
"When you have two programs in development simultaneously, it requires a lot more coordination," Anderson said. "We have to really work with the other program managers to make sure we are synchronized, that our software is going to work in their software environment. Communications have to be frequent and ongoing."
In building PF-D, the development team has put a premium on usability, with two "human factors" engineers embedded in the program office as part of the development effort.
"Typically you don't get much human-factor feedback until you are at an operational test, by which time it can be too late to make any significant changes," Anderson said. "We sent our human factors folks out early to get feedback while we were still doing ones and zeroes in the software development. We wanted to do it up front and early, rather than risk putting a device in the field that was not optimal."
That early testing led to some design modifications, such as the inclusion of an extensive digital user guide on board the device. "It turns out people don't want to read a 100-page manual, and they certainly won't carry that into the field," he said.