I have long advocated that our warfighters and first responders deserve the best equipment available so they can answer the basic question, “Where Am I?” quickly and with complete certainty. Or, “Where am I now and how do I get to someplace of relative safety quickly?” Unfortunately, government-furnished equipment (GFE), in this case the GPS handheld equipment we supply our warfighters, does not do a good or even adequate job of answering that question.
At this time of year, while everyone else is busy making New Year’s resolutions and breaking them, I tend to wax nostalgic. About 45 years ago when I was a college newspaper editor — yes my fascination for the written word has been going on for at least that long — I had the opportunity to interview a wonderful elderly professor who taught a combined psychology and philosophy course on the human condition. I am absolutely sanguine he gently pontificated marvelous, life-changing platitudes, many of which are unfortunately long forgotten, but I do remember his famous Daniel Boone quote related to being lost, and I present to you the slightly modified version. When Daniel Boone, the famous wilderness scout, became a legislator later in life, he was asked by a senator if he had ever been lost while he was roaming around in the wilderness. Daniel Boone thought for a moment and replied, “No, I have never been lost, but since my compass was government furnished equipment supplied by the lowest bidder, I was mighty bewildered once for about three weeks.” This kindly professor also encouraged his graduate students to constantly ask themselves, metaphorically of course, “Where Am I?”.
It is a philosophy that we should all adopt, one I have followed through the years. It has served me well, certainly much more so than the plaintive words from the 7th Cavalry General Custer query, where we hear the oft-cited and mournfully questioning lyric, What Am I Doing Here? Recently, the troubling aspects of the “Where am I?” and “What am I doing here?” questions have come home to roost. Of course, I am speaking of when and where I am physically, as in time and place, not metaphorically. While the answer seems straightforward and simple for most of us, emails I have received over the last ten years from our warfighters indicate this may not always be the case for everyone. Many of us, and in fact I hope, all of us, at one time or another, ask that question: Where in the heck am I anyway? When you and I ask that question and we are momentarily disoriented or just trying to find the location of our next appointment, it can be mildly frustrating, but when our warfighters ask that question in the heat of battle, it can be a life or death interrogative.
In this column from day one, I have strongly advocated that our warfighters and first responders deserve the best equipment available that enables them to answer that basic question — Where am I? — quickly and with complete certainty, no ambiguity. Where am I now and how do I get to someplace of relative safety quickly? Unfortunately the GFE or government furnished equipment, in this case the GPS handheld equipment we supply our warfighters, does not do a good or even adequate job of answering that question. Let’s face it — the government furnished equipment fails miserably at what should by now be a simple task.
Our warfighters may eventually be able to determine where they are located with the help of a paper map, but the handheld versions of GPS GFE do a lousy job providing situational awareness and indicating the route to a safe haven. If there are still doubters, one need only remember the Jessica Lynch story as you contemplate the disasters resulting from disorientation, being lost, or making a wrong turn in combat conditions. That one infamous wrong turn will affect Jessica Lynch and her comrades for the rest of their lives as well as the families of those who died because of a simple and basic navigational error.
Since that very public scenario played out almost eight years ago, our GFE GPS equipment has unfortunately not changed one iota for the better. Our warfighters are still using . . . let’s be precise, are still issued the same outdated, overweight, battery limited, lousy handheld equipment, with a monochrome screen, that they actually rarely use as a stand-alone device. The current GPS GFE functions almost adequately when it is embedded in another piece of equipment and our warfighters do not have to deal with the sorely antiquated and frustrating user interface. When bullets are flying and our warfighters are enmeshed in the fog of war is not the time to deal with an infuriating user interface.
The bottom line is thousands of our warfighters — if their cards, letters, telephone calls and public testimonials are any indication — consider the GFE GPS they are issued to be vastly inferior PNT equipment.
As a natural consequence, many warfighters have turned to commercial equipment for their PNT (Position, Navigation and Timing) needs. Familiar commercial GPS providers such as Garmin, TomTom, Trimble, and Apple have seen their devices proliferate in theater. Service providers such as Verizon have seen a ten-fold increase in commercial spectrum since the conflicts began more than eight years ago. Face it: When your life is on the line, you are going to quickly determine what you really need to survive, purchase it, and learn how to use it. This is why in my previous column I mentioned that the new Apple iPhone 4S may prove to be the most useful and versatile PNT device on the market today. This is true especially for our warfighters and first responders, who have stated categorically in more than 8,000 letters and emails to me that availability of PNT signals is the critical metric for judging the efficacy of a handheld/portable PNT device in war time and emergencies.
Consider the following iPhone attributes:
- Receives 30+ GPS satellites.
- Receives 24+ GLONASS satellites.
- Receives WASS and EGNOS GEO satellite transmissions where available. Note that a GEO (geosynchronous Earth orbit) PNT satellite may be the geometric equivalent of more than three MEO (medium Earth orbit) satellites. As I have said many times, where PNT is concerned geometry matters.
- Receives Wi-Fi signals and un-encoded GPS signals processed by Skyhook wireless software, which providing a TTFF (time to first fix) of only four seconds.
- Receives 3G and 4G signals from cellular towers and provides a position when all other signals are obscured or otherwise unavailable. Note: While the Apple iPhone GPS chip is sensitive enough to work indoors, even when that fails due to electrical interference or dense shielding, the Wi-Fi signals and cellular signals usually penetrate. Warfighters tell me even in Afghanistan it is rare not to have an accurate position and time displayed on an Apple iPhone, iTouch or iPad.
- The iPhone user has access to 30+ PNT programs with highly accurate color terrain maps and satellite views that the GFE GPS does not provide.
- The Apple iPhone fully incorporates the multi-sourced PNT derived position with other applications on the iPhone and makes the most of situational awareness, which is critical to a warfighter and first responder.
- The Apple iPhone fully incorporates the PNT position with the communications capabilities of the iPhone to include cellular, Wi-Fi and SMS or texting for the younger generation.
- The iPhone allows users to take photos of their surroundings and encode the photos with PNT information, alerting others to their situation. It provides situational awareness for the users and those communicating with the users.
- The embedded and integrated communication capabilities of the iPhone allow the user to talk with mission planners, taskers and superiors while simultaneously reporting findings or accepting mission changes, all on the same device.
- If the iPhone is lost, its position can be determined with another iPhone or Apple computer. If it has fallen into enemy hands, it can be tracked and found, or if that is not feasible all the information on the Apple device can be deleted and the device rendered inert.
While this is quite a list of capabilities, it is far from a complete or exhaustive list. The really tragic part of this true story is that with just a little imagination and subject-matter expertise combined with some planning, the GFE GPS could have incorporated the same capabilities, and more; who knows, The iPhone could be the future GFE for PNT. As it is of the eleven PNT and related capabilities listed for the Apple iPhone, only one can be accomplished by the current GFE handheld GPS — a tragic state of affairs!
To make matters worse, officially our warfighters cannot use the iPhone and its abundant situational awareness capabilities, or devices like it, for official mission or mission-related activities. To the U.S Army’s credit, it is attempting to change this inane and life-threatening policy. Until that happens or new GFE PNT equipment is developed, U.S. military personnel are forced to use the worst handheld equipment available, from a size, weight and power perspective (SWAP) that provides the least amount of information possible. This makes current DoD policy concerning PNT hardware, software and frequencies about 20+ years out of date and consequently, or should I say thankfully and to their credit, our warfighters have basically totally ignored this antiquated policy.
To be perfectly clear, I cannot and would never advocate ignoring official government policy or denigrate those who do. The current GFE GPS serves a purpose, or so I am told, and even though it is marginal, the equipment should be utilized where officially mandated. However, the smart warfighter will incorporate numerous GPS/PNT backups and utilize them judiciously — or as one clearly frustrated warfighter wrote, “…I use the GFE GPS and Viper combination, which is very unwieldy and cumbersome, to call in or direct fire because I can be prosecuted by the military if I don’t, but I use my iPhone [PNT capabilities] for everything else including communicating with and getting my comrades and I back to our unit at the end of our patrol. Why can’t the military furnish me with something like the iPhone that works, is a tenth the size and weight, and costs only one fifth what the current GFE GPS costs? It already exists, just authorize my teammates and me to use it. How hard can that be?”
You can literally feel the warfighter’s confusion in that statement. Let’s hope the U.S. military is successful in mandating desperately needed changes. We will keep track of those efforts and let you know. Meanwhile, buy your favorite warfighter a backup PNT device such as a Trimble, Garmin or iPhone — anything so they can answer the age-old question of “Where am I?” and then find their way safely home.
Until next time, with full apologies to CWO5 William Dagenhart (USMC) and to the men and women of the 7th Cavalry, happy navigating.