Next-Generation Fire Support Systems Boost Lethality

Soldiers view live-stream full-motion video from unmanned aerial vehicles via a smartphone. They access 3-D digital maps to send precision target coordinates. Soldiers are now relying on these advanced technologies to improve lethality and maintain battlefield dominance. These are among the improvements that will be embedded in future fire-support capabilities because the Army has started testing four upgraded systems for its Field Artillery units to provide more accurate and timely fire support to maneuver formations.

Sgt. Nathaniel Shaver trains on the Precision Fires-Dismounted system, a software application hosted on the Nett Warrior End User Device, Feb. 7 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. (Photo Credit: Dan Lafontaine (PEO C3T))

"These improved capabilities allow us to be lighter, faster and more lethal by optimizing the sensor-to-shooter digital chain," said Lt. Col. Kevin Taylor, commander of 3rd Battalion, 319th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division (Artillery). "They assist us in providing faster, more accurate firing data to our cannon crews, enhancing our effectiveness on the battlefield."

The Precision Fires-Dismounted (PF-D) system has undergone the most significant changes. The hardware is smaller, lighter and less expensive through its transition to a software application hosted on the Nett Warrior End User Device, an Android-enabled smartphone. PF-D is the first major program of record on Nett Warrior. The new PF-D has greatly expanded the ability of forward observers to conduct completely digital calls for fire, which provides Field Artillery soldiers with precise target location coordinates derived from imagery. Commanders then gain more accurate digital fires solutions, which are vital for conducting precision targeting in urban areas where collateral damage is a major concern because of close proximity.

Digital communications also greatly reduces transmission error, with significantly less intervention than when using voice commands, according to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Stoll, operational test officer with the Fires Test Directorate at Fort Sill.

A combination of hardware and software improvements make up the upgrades to the other three systems:

  • Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System provides fully automated support for planning, executing and delivering fires and effects, and controls weapon systems such as mortars, field artillery cannons, rockets and missiles, close air support, attack aviation and naval surface fire support systems. The software upgrade adds counter-fire target lists for functionality and updated munitions.
  • Joint Automated Deep Operations Coordination System functions as a complementary system to AFATDS that is fielded to joint and coalition units, primary at the division level. Using JADOCS, commanders can coordinate the joint execution of fires across the battlefield.
  • Profiler Virtual Module is the replacement for the Profiler Meteorological Data Computer. The Profiler system automates the collection of digital meteorological data to AFATDS operators. Current and accurate wind speed and direction are necessary to ensure rounds hit their targets, which is important for both precision and conventional munitions.

First Lt. Matthew Ray, a Field Artillery officer, served as officer-in-charge during the soldiers' testing. The first week was classroom instruction, followed by technical testing and reviewing Army field manuals, and finally live tests to provide feedback to the developers, engineers and instructors.

Understanding how Army research and engineering eventually transitions into the hands of soldiers is an essential part of these updated command and control systems for the Field Artillery, said Lt. Col. Chris Anderson, product manager for Fire Support Command and Control at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

Research psychologist Dr. Pam Savage-Knepshield is embedded in Fire Support Command and Control office, and she brings expertise in studying how soldiers interact with the technology being tested and fielded by the Army. She works directly with soldiers through interviews, surveys and observation to understand their needs, priorities and how they use technology. Savage-Knepshield conducted early user assessments of the updated PF-D in August 2016 with 82nd Airborne soldiers to identify usability issues before development was complete. She analyzed their feedback and then designed a survey to compare that data with responses being collected in January and February.

"Usability has moved to the forefront. Everyone is expecting things to be easy to use," she said. "Soldiers are asking, 'Why do things have to be this hard?'

"I focus on soldier-centered design. You have to get soldiers involved in the process very early on to understand their needs. What do they need? How do they expect things to work? What are they using now? That drives their expectations. We should be leveraging in our system design what they already know from working with the systems. They can transfer their training and experiences to what they're going to be using."

Obtaining soldiers' feedback early in the development process ensures that engineers and test officers are not learning of usability issues after it is too late for fixes to be implemented, Anderson said. "The soldiers in August gave us a lot of input. We gave that information to the developers and refined the software in the user interface so it would work better for soldiers."

Savage-Knepshield first looks at the intent of the equipment and how Soldiers will use it to accomplish their missions. She measures Soldiers' cognitive workload as it relates to equipment design and functionality. Based on the usability criteria, she is able to develop a ranking of soldiers' preferred capabilities as well as their thoughts on likely risk factors. Based on her analysis of the data and recommendations, the project officers and engineers can determine what is feasible and cost effective.