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'Google Earth for the Iraq insurgency' gets $115m

Could have bought ordinary Google Earth for that

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Pentagon boffinry chiefs have decided to spend more than a hundred million dollars on a new military database/map system which will let troops in the field collect, share and organise intelligence more effectively.

The system in question is named TIGR, for Tactical Ground Reporting, and it has been described as "Google Maps for the Iraq counterinsurgency". It simply offers an easy way to link information to locations and times.

Mostly at the moment, if Western forces go out on patrol in a hostile area, they have very little idea what happened to those before them. Reports, pictures and so on filed by their predecessors will be accessible to intelligence officers at battalion HQ and up, but even these staff desk-jockeys will struggle to find information related to a particular location.

The idea now is that a noncommissioned or junior officer about to take out a patrol - or go anywhere or do anything - would put his proposed route into TIGR. All previous events of interest which had occurred within, say, 300m either side of the route would pop up: ambushes, roadside bombings, school visits, talks with community figures. Many of these icons would link through, not just to written reports but to pictures or other information collected by previous troops working in the area - just like Google Earth.

TIGR has already been to war. It was in the hands of some US troops as long ago as 2007, and as of last year there were 1500 small-unit leaders using it. The system has received rave reviews from returning troops.

Some have speculated that systems of this sought could force Western armies to become more agile and devolve decision-making down to lower levels and smaller units. Others suggest the exact opposite, that high commanders looking at TIGR - in effect, over the shoulder of those beneath them - will become more tempted to interfere at low levels (this is the dreaded "long screwdriver" effect).

No matter the ultimate result, TIGR seems to be staying popular. Ascend Intelligence, the company behind much of TIGR, has just received a contract award of $14m, with options that will take the deal to $115m if exercised.

To be fair to Ascend, there's a bit more to a system like TIGR than Google Earth. TIGR has to work with much less bandwidth and frequent network outages, requiring the use of many synchronised copies of the database spread across the battlefield net. It will at some point need to tie into various specialised hardware, for instance the Land Warrior wearable combat smartphone or something similar. Security needs to be top-line. With the new focus on Afghanistan, a lot of new background information will need to be put in and new networks set up.

Even so, $115m seems like a lot for this sort of capability. Perhaps the US Army just needs to spend a lot of cash before it can really trust something.

There's an interesting article on TIGR from MIT Tech Review last year here (in pdf). ®

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