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Virtual Target System Eases Navy's Move From Vieques
By BILL KACZOR
July 19, 2003
PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (AP) - An A-10 "Warthog" attack jet dropped bombs and the cruiser USS Ticonderoga fired shells that splashed harmlessly into the Gulf of Mexico last November.
Yet a computer display aboard the ship showed the Air Force pilot and Navy gunners had scored direct hits on a land target - Eglin Air Force Base - many miles from where the munitions had fallen.
The Navy's new virtual targeting system, which simulates land targets at sea, had passed a critical test. That success means the loss of a bombing and gunnery range on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico will not have the dire affect on training and weapons testing that Navy leaders once feared.
The Joint Distributed Integrated Test & Training System, or JDITTS, initially had been seen as only a supplement to Vieques. That changed when protests over the Navy's use of the island escalated after a civilian security guard's death from two errant bombs on the firing range in 1999.
"This became more important once it was decided that we really needed to get out of there," said project engineer Tom Seldenright.
The Navy announced in January that training exercises would move from Vieques to Atlantic and Gulf Coast bases, including Eglin, and the open sea due in large part to the virtual targeting system.
Seldenright is among the scientists and engineers at the Naval Coastal Systems Station here and at several other installations who have had a hand in developing the system. The Navy now has three copies, each costing about $250,000, and plans to acquire 10 more.
Five 60-pound buoys with sensitive microphones are at the heart of the system, said Navy test engineer Steve Shoner. The satellite-based Global Positioning System determines each buoy's exact position in the target area.
"When a bomb drops in the water, whether it's an inert bomb or a round that's exploding, it will make a splash," Shoner said. "Each of these buoys picks up the splash at a different time because of the distance sound travels through the water."
A laptop computer aboard the ship uses data transmitted from the buoys to instantly calculate where each munition hits. Another laptop overlays a selected land mass atop the watery target area.
"When we were shooting at Eglin we were 80 miles offshore, but we were showing the rounds hitting on their main runways," Shoner said.
The pilot and gunners were given at-sea coordinates for their simulated land targets. In real life, a spotter on the beach would radio corrections, if need, to the ship after each hit. Researchers are developing virtual binoculars so spotters also will be able to participate in the training, Shoner said.
Eglin, about 50 miles northwest of here, has an optical tracking system for weapons testing over the gulf that was used to measure the Navy system's accuracy. The testing had to be done close to shore because the optical system has a relatively short range, Shoner said.
The Air Force also is interested in the Navy system now that its accuracy has been verified because it can be used at much longer distances. That's important because both services are introducing new weapons with longer ranges, too long in many cases for testing on land ranges.
The Navy system also is highly portable. Each buoy can be mounted on a hand trolley for easy movement. The two laptops, a radio receiver and satellite transmitter complete the package.
The system can be deployed by any kind of ship and the training done almost anywhere. That means saving time and money. Ships no longer need to travel hundreds of miles to Vieques or other land ranges. Crew morale also should improve, Shoner said.
"Your sailors aren't at sea as much, but they're still getting adequate training," he said.
The satellite transmitter will allow participation and oversight from anywhere in the world.
"Somebody in the Pentagon could be sitting there with some communications with the ship and tell them to adjust their fire," Seldenright said.
The Coastal Systems Station developed a key component known as the Joint Battlespace Viewer - the laptop with the land target overlay.
"It's a virtual globe," said computer engineer Neil Matson, who wrote the software. "This puts the world digitally at your fingertips."
The viewer also can be used in other training and command and control systems. Additional development is planned to make it more realistic with three-dimensional target pictures.
The system relies heavily on technology already in the fleet or Navy laboratories, but there had been little incentive to develop it while land ranges were readily available, Shoner said.
"People before wanted to see a cloud of dust fly in the air when their bombs hit the dirt," he said. "Now that we're being forced out of Vieques, innovation took over."
On the Net:
Joint Distributed Integrated Test & Training System: http://afams.af.mil/Programs/Projects/lftt/projects/enh-oss.htm