Command and conquer: Game-like system helps SAF choose weapons on battlefield more effectively
SINGAPORE: The interface of the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) new command and control information system (CCIS) is similar to what you would find on any war strategy video game.
The left side of the screen shows a mission portal indicating all that needs to be done on the battlefield, from surveillance to taking out enemies.
The main part of the screen depicts a real-time, full-colour map with little blue icons shaped like fighter jets, attack helicopters and artillery rocket systems moving around.
But the CCIS is not any game. The map is of an actual battlefield, while the blue icons are of real SAF assets out to achieve mission success.
The SAF has equipped the command post at Exercise Forging Sabre 2021 with the CCIS to help commanders make faster and more effective decisions when fighting on an actual-scale “battlefield” with real assets and simulated enemies.
The exercise is taking place in Idaho, US from Sep 14 to 25. Prior to that, the SAF on Sep 6 demonstrated for the media how the CCIS works.
The CCIS provides commanders with an accurate picture of the battlefield, instantly letting them know where SAF assets are, what missions they are undertaking, how much fuel they have left and what weapons they are carrying.
The system can detect enemy assets automatically based on unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveillance, and uses artificial intelligence to recommend which weapons to use against these threats.
“This alleviates the cognitive workload of our soldiers, especially when tackling unexpected and imminent threats, and allows commanders to coordinate responses with greater precision and accuracy and tightens the reaction time for decision-making,” the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said in a factsheet.
The CCIS, developed together with the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), instantaneously recommends strike options based on parameters like mission success, timeliness and survivability.
Once the enemy is hit, the CCIS relays a quick battle damage assessment, again based on drone surveillance, to confirm that the target has been neutralised.
This AI and data analytics-driven process is a significant step up from how SAF commanders used to manage the battlefield, when they had to pull information from various assets before deciding on a course of action.
Different teams in charge of various sense and strike assets had to manually communicate and propose solutions before putting them into a stitched together picture.
These old methods were cumbersome and time-consuming, especially when a real battlefield could contain dozens of assets and enemy targets, with new threats popping up from time to time.
The CCIS also takes care of this by automatically detecting new threats and offering commanders the option to re-route the most optimal strike assets based on factors like their proximity to the new threats.
This allows them to take out the new threats before going back to their original mission. “Through this, the SAF is able to remain agile and nimble and guard against threats decisively in an evolving battlefield,” MINDEF said.
HOW THE CCIS WORKS
During the demonstration, the CCIS kicked into action even before any enemies were detected. The map already showed the locations of SAF assets, including the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), Apache AH-64D helicopters and F-15SG fighter jets.
Based on prior intelligence, commanders select on the map which areas to surveil, and the CCIS automatically plots optimal flight plans for the Heron-1 UAVs to get to these areas quickly and effectively.
Once the UAVs get there, real-time footage from their cameras is piped back to the CCIS, which overlays this footage on the actual map so commanders know exactly what they are looking at.
Suddenly, a blinking red rectangle popped up in the middle of the screen, with the words “NEW TARGET”. The moving enemy target appeared in the surveillance area as a red icon with a pulsating yellow circle.
“Sir, Target 1 detected!” a command post officer shouted across the room. While target detection is automatic, an image analyst would have studied the UAV footage and confirmed that it was indeed an enemy target.
At the same time, a warning taskbar appeared on the right side of the screen showing that this needed to be attended to. A commander clicked on a button that said “recommend”, and another pop-up appeared showing two options.
The first option was to use a nearby F-15SG carrying a bomb, although the jet was on its way to another mission. The second option was to use a missile-equipped Apache helicopter located a little farther out.
The pop-up box also had a diagram that showed how each asset fared in different parameters like mission success, impact to other missions, survivability, timeliness and resource optimisation.
The commander clicked on the first option to re-route the fighter jet to the enemy target. A yellow line connected both icons, indicating the jet was on its way.
Soon after the F-15SG flew over the target, a grey rectangle appeared with the acronym BDA, which stands for battle damage assessment, and a notification that the target has been destroyed.
“Target 1 destroyed,” a commander said, as another pop-up box showed live UAV footage of an enemy truck being hit by a bomb before exploding.
WILL MACHINES REPLACE HUMANS?
Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Ray Lee, branch head of the Integrated System Development Group which worked closely with DSTA to develop the CCIS, said the quicker decision making by machines is critical in dynamic, large-scale missions where time is of the essence.
“Can you imagine if we scale this up five-fold?” he said.
“For a human being to look through all the different assets – to know whether it is carrying a bomb, how much fuel it has, whether the weapons are ready – it will take time.
“This is where we think the decision support system can aid the commander in making faster and more robust decisions.”
Nevertheless, LTC Lee said commanders will still need to be in the decision loop, for instance to give firing orders, due to the very targeted and consequential nature of SAF missions.
“You really need to be careful because there’s a lot of things to factor, especially when your job is dropping a bomb in the vicinity of people and such,” he said.
“So, it’s not meant to really replace a human being, but it will actually support the commander in making faster decisions.”
When asked if the CCIS’ game-like interface is designed to cater to younger commanders or tech personnel, a DSTA representative agreed, saying that the agency is continually improving user experience.
“We know that we deal with new generations; there will definitely be certain designs that click more,” said Mr Sim Jian Ping, DSTA’s head of capability development (military information) at its Information Programme Centre.
“It also depends on how familiar the operator is with the keyboard and mouse.”
The SAF will continuously improve and develop the CCIS, particularly in the use of AI and data analytics, and consider the deployment of these technologies for future systems.