"Where the bloody hell are you?" The problem with our current pers tracking systemsBy Matthew Crighton August 6, 2020
This submission is based not only upon my experiences while participating in Exercise Talisman Sabre 19 (TS 19), but on almost two decades within various roles related to personnel capability, particularly my experiences on operations, onboard the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD), and previous exercises. This article will address how we can improve the current force to fight and win a conflict today (through personnel tracking) and the need to invest and certainly modernise in this space.
We appear to have gone backwards when it relates to personnel tracking over the past 20 years or so. I can currently ask a commander where a tank (or any piece of their ‘capability’) is within their area of operations (AO) and they could give me an eight figure grid reference, utilising various forms of tracking systems, such as Battle Management System (BMS) or Blue Force Tracker. But when asked where personnel are (particularly when dispersed through an AO), the response is generally nowhere near as convincing – and I thought people were our most important asset? Is tracking personnel not as ‘sexy’ as tracking materiel? I would even argue cargo is tracked better than personnel within the ADF, through use of a multitude of (mostly) Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems with Lotus Notes Interim Demand System (LNIDS), cargo visibility system (CVS), and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, etc.
The current problem
Before I raise some solutions, I need to go through some examples of issues the ADF has with personnel tracking to provide some perspective.
While I was on TS 19, I was a little underwhelmed (yet, unfortunately not surprised) that the way we were tracking approximately 34,000 personnel into, out of, and throughout the AO, was on an Excel spreadsheet. This was at all levels (units to Bde, Bde to Div and Div/other countries to EXCON) with an unacceptably high error rate, all based off information essentially 24hrs old by the time it was reported. Though there are many examples, below are just a few:
- With regard to the error rate (this is just one case), the New Zealand (NZ) contingent were being recorded by the NZ reporting team, by the admin personnel where they were lodging, and by HQ 1 Div, thus triplicating their numbers for a period, if all was taken to be correct.
- Attachments and Detachments were rarely deconflicted between the commands reporting on them, again meaning double counting.
- There was an amphibious landing, yet the numbers that came ashore could not be provided until 48 hrs afterwards. Even then it was incorrect, with a mixture of Japanese, US and Australian forces again double and triple counted between different ships.
- Nobody going to hospital was ever recorded by an S1/J1 cell, even though hospital updates occurred daily with numbers obviously fluctuating.
- Personnel staying in Rockhampton for a day or two were never identified (at least not to higher).
- Trying to find individuals attached to other units started a long path of tracing through home unit, to the next command, to the next and so on until the member was located, mostly by mobile phone for those that had coverage.
In a lot of cases it unfortunately falls to a poor Private (PTE) soldier in a Bde HQ to track personnel. These individuals have far less situational awareness as to what is happening with the overall battle and planned movements indicating that:
(1) pers tracking is not a high priority for the commander, and
(2) a rate of error seems to be accepted.
If part of the exercise was to exercise tracking of personnel movements, it was essentially pointless and not given any priority.
A systemic issue
With regard to TS 19 specifically, I continually found myself asking, ‘Why are we not training as we fight?’. For years we have used PTRAKA on operations (PTRAKA is the software used in the Operations Personnel Tracker (OPT) system). However, I have since learned that the PTRAKA is also not in use on operations any more, which again leaves me wondering what is being done to track personnel movements? So many of the ADF's allowances are based off locations and timings, and I’m confident in saying that most personnel that have been serving for more than a few years have probably found themselves a victim of the ad-hoc nature of personnel tracking, resulting in them having to fight for an allowance / entitlement and force through the correct documentation. This is not necessarily the fault of the poor PTE Clerk who is often at the receiving end of the soldier's ire. Rather, it is a failure of the system to lower the error rate and ensure personnel movements are captured correctly.
In this day and age, there are many tools available to the ADF which could provide a low-cost system that involves minimal training and can provide instantaneous reports that also require minimal maintenance (certainly much less than an Excel spreadsheet), particularly when maintained at various levels. A simple ‘Google’ search for personnel tracking gives a multitude of low-cost, easy to use systems (such as GAO RFID, BAT, Fastwave, Litum, etc.). We even have systems already in use within Defence, such as manpower analysis planning software (MAPS), PTRAKA and even BMS. Large exercises would be the perfect time to trial these platforms or systems. What seems to be lacking here is the emphasis from a higher level across the three services. Personnel are our greatest asset, but not a priority in this regard, it seems.
As a soldier it pains me to say this, but from my experience onboard the LHDs, Navy have a good system in place for personnel tracking, monitoring souls on board, ashore, time at sea, etc. all through a card scanning system that uploads to MAPS. Through having the correct push / emphasis, at least onboard a ship, 1000+ personnel could be tracked with almost a 100% degree of confidence, whether transferred to another ship, ashore, conducting beach operations, on a flight from the ship, etc. All of this is available nearly instantaneously for the commander and serves as a permanent record for entitlements etc.
From an operational / exercise perspective we already have theatre gateways tracking personnel in and out of theatre (though in Australia, this still relies on an individual reporting to the gateway, which can be an issue where there are numerous entry / exit points). Yet we have nothing to assist Unit / Bde personnel track personnel within an AO other than ad-hoc systems / procedures that can’t be viewed externally and which do not giving real-time data. Bolstering these theatre gateways with the right ‘system’ across all services, and ensuring there is drive from command for individuals to ensure they are reported on, would see at least the right numbers of personnel known within an AO. Internal movements should be able to be tracked in real time (same as we do for our materiel via BMS) and, while this lies firmly within the ‘1 shop’ domain for the commander, this is something that could be developed within/for the ECN 150 trade.
In short, we need a capable system (either one we have to be rolled out, or for CASG to put out to tender), all three services to agree to its’ use, and for it to become a commanders’ priority that pers tracking SOPs are adhered to. Personnel are capability.