The Army is rolling out a new streamlined tool for updating critical software on thousands of vehicles that use the Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P) system.
Vehicles depend on the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below system to deliver communications, friendly and hostile-force tracking, maps and other key intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functionality. But FBCB2 is out of date, and upgrades have required the pricey and time-consuming replacement of both hardware and software.
“We wanted to give war fighters the option of doing a software-only upgrade,” said Dan Ghio, JBC-P deputy product manager. “We will still hit them with the full hardware upgrade eventually. This just gets us to a more common software baseline in the meantime. It’s a stopgap for those who can get at least some of the upgrades done.”
The upgrades started rolling out in the spring and so far over 800 vehicles have completed the process. Of the 103,000 fielded platforms, roughly 20,000 to 30,000 can be updated using the new approach, which applies to platforms such as Humvees and Mine-Resistant Ambushed-Protected vehicles. All upgrades should be completed by fiscal 2023, said Lt. Col. Shane Sims, JBC-P product manager.
“We started with a unit at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, just to see if we were on track,” Sims said. “The process is pretty easy. You call our help center and our folks will send out a new hard drive with the new software loaded on it. Once you attach it to the system it’s a 10-minute process to load it up.”
While it would have been technically possible to upload the software via the internet, connectivity constraints made the hard drive a better option. “These are users with very limited bandwidth. It would take a very long time to fully download a new operating system,” Sims said.
By sending out new hard drives, the engineers also help to position the system for future enhancements, while reducing the overall burden of system support.
“We want to keep pushing more and more capabilities out into the field, but right now our support teams in the field have to support 18 different hard drives. There is a huge sustainment cost to supporting all of that,” Sims said. “We’re a huge Army and the more we standardize, the better it is.”
The latest software version includes a few significant functional enhancements. The user interface has been modernized and made more intuitive; engineers have hardened the security on the back end and made the system more reliable, Ghio said.
By creating a “standardized, repeatable and intuitive process” for upgrades, he said, Army aims to empower war fighters to take control over their most critical technologies.
“We believe solders and commanders can take on some of the [technology] mission themselves if given the right tools and the right instructions,” Sims said. “As we move to the future, we are going to have to rely on our units to modernize things on their own. That will allow us to inject new capabilities at a much faster pace.”
Looking ahead, Army engineers are still looking to overcome the bandwidth limitations that presently prohibit them from pushing out upgrades online.
“We are definitely looking at ways to do an over-the-air update,” Sims said. “It would be a lot of easier, just the same way you do an update to an iPhone or an Android. We could send a message to the entire force and have everyone updated at once. That would improve our security posture and would serve to keep everyone current.”
At the same time, safety and security concerns factor heavily, as the Army looks to enhance systems on vehicles that are equipped for live fire. “A software malfunction on a firing system would be a catastrophic event, so we have to make sure that our software doesn’t interfere with any of the safety mechanisms on these platforms,” Sims said.