Boeing Builds Touch Screen Sand Table Replacement

The Army can’t get enough touch screens. Walk through the Network Integration Evaluations at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. They populate the headquarters posts and tactical operations center throughout the desert. The day of the traditional sand table might be coming to a close.

One of the latest models is Boeing’s Virtual Mission Board which the Army is using to train. Dave Irwin, Boeing’s director for Ground Forces Training, said he could see it being used in combat as well.

The Virtual Mission Board is less a board as much as it’s a software program that soldiers or other services could install into whichever PC they choose. Boeing is still working with the software to make it adaptable to iPads and other tablets.

Before and after exercises, soldiers and troop commanders can see exactly where their units are located and how a potential exercise will play out. They can see a 3-D lay out of buildings and virtual battlefields. With a touch of the finger they can move units much like they did on a sand table. Commanders can even map fires and simulate entire exercise progressions, Irwin said.

Soldiers at Fort Sill, Okla., have already started training with the Virtual Mission Board. The Army has bought two boards for Fort Sill, one for Ft. Bragg, N.C., and one for Fort Lee, Va.. The Army is in the process of buying another one for Fort Lee, two for Fort Eustis, Va., one for Fort Rucker, Ala., five for Fort McCoy, Wisc., and one for the Pennsylvania National Guard. The Marine Corps has shown interest, but has yet to buy one, Irwin said.

For the same reason the Virtual Mission Board works as a training tool, Irwin can see Army units using it in deployed locations. Rather than using paper maps or Power Point slides before missions, a commander could outline an upcoming mission on the Virtual Mission Board.

The Army first started using the Virtual Mission Board in 2010. The potential use in combat is a new development.

At the most recent NIE this Spring, the Army tested the Command Tactical Vision touch screen mapping program built by Ringtail, a small company based in Austin, Texas. Soldiers and commanders raved about how easy it was to visualize the battlefield using the large touch screen map and the manner it condensed information that typically required four to five screens at a TOC.

Army and SOCOM leaders have already provided feedback on how Boeing could improve the board. Commanders asked Boeing to include a tool that measures a specific plot of land simply by tracing it with your finger. Boeing agreed and has made the adjustment.

“We’re always looking to make it better,” Irwin said.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to He can be reached at
  • blight_

    Finally processing power and vectorised satmap data (for 3D) is available in sufficient quantities to replace sand tables.

    Yellow box the ceiling for fixed wing aircraft and blue box for helicopters? Wonder what’s going on in the image.

    • majr0d


      Now if it will just fit in a soldier’s rucksack..

      Sufficient quantities aren’t about to replace sand tables.

      • blight_

        If they can figure out how to hack up a haptic sensor to simulate tactile control using a projector, then one just carries the projector unit instead of a giant tablet.

        Time will tell, as it usually does.

        • majr0d

          We’re carrying 60lbs of body armor now. Once you toss in weapons, ammo, water and batteries it’s pushing a 100 and you want to add a projector?

          It’s like throwing a drowning man an anvil.

          Agree, time will tell. Let the tech mature before you inflict it on the grunt… PLEASE!!!

          Former Grunt

          • blight_

            Amusingly, you skipped food.

            The armies of yesteryear that relied on massive supply trains would be shocked at our lack of infantry mobility. Then again, the Romans who had to carry everything might be sympathetic.

            Lighter body armor is not coming anytime soon, sadly enough…

          • majr0d

            I cut food because that’s the first thing that went vs ammo, water & batteries. I went without many times and in Ranger school one meal a day was the standard, two for winter courses.

            Blogs like this score high on info and high tech and shortchange the reality especially of close combat. I wasn’t trying to be amusing. I was sharing hard learned and painful experience.

            Familiar with the Romans. I’ve always been a fan. Besides my personal study and undergrad/grad courses, I was honored with the Order of St. Maurice (Roman Centurion) upon retiring. The Romans would be surprised on how the life for the frontline grunt hasn’t changed as much as the other specialties. Good stuff!

  • elmondohummus

    Now this is a terrific application of technology. I imagine much more can be done, and faster, with this sort of thing than with a sand table.

  • USSHelm

    Are those EMP hardened? If not, that could be a problem in South Korea, or just about anywhere a nuke is detonated.

    • blight_

      After the nuke, going back to the sand table is going to be the least of your worries. You’ll be seizing civilian stockpiles of I-131 and high-filtration masks to avoid inhalation of larger radioactive particles. You’ll also need body bags to bury the half of your army that will die in the first seventy-two hours if they are close enough to ground zero to not be burned into the ground as shadows, but close enough for lethal doses of radiation.

      Our military medical infrastructure seems geared more towards high-care towards a low number of casualties with the ability to send critical patients back to Germany for care. Is the medical system ready for the day hundreds of simultaneous casualties come through the door?

      Edit: HEPA filters were originally developed as part of the Manhattan Project, to contain radioactive contaminants..

      • ben

        Fun fact… the nuke flash only vaporizes the first few millimeters of most surfaces, and even the 50m steel ball target at the trinity test only had a few cm ablated…

        The “burned to shadows” effect was actually from the flash cleaning the grime off the concrete everywhere except for the shadows leaving dark patches.

        this effect was also visible on a smaller scale in people exposed to the flash. the different pigments in clothing created differential burning of the underlying skin.

        The stereotypical burned out wasteland pictures of hiroshima and nagisaki were taken after the wreckage had been incinerated by secondary fires started by stoves buried in the rubble.
        The initial aftermath would have looked a lot more like tornado damage

        • blight_

          Still need to deal with radiation poisoning, evacuating wounded/dying troops from the front line and replacing them. The status of your fancy touch-screen sand table will be second to immediate consequences of a nuclear weapon.

          Our nuclear testing on ships post-WW2 did indeed suggest that nuking metal objects will not annihilate them, but they’ll definitely be hopelessly contaminated.

  • coolhand77

    one word: Triage
    It won’t be pretty.

    • blight_

      Indeed. Nuke proof just means gold-plated.

      Edit: There *are* things that need nuke proofing: airborne command centers and the like. What would be the point of a deadman’s switch that could be defeated by killing the operator?

  • majr0d

    “The day of the traditional sand table might be coming to a close.”

    Guarantee the writer was never a grunt. How do you fit one of those in a rucksack let alone a Bradley or tank? Sure, probably a great tool at battalion or above but considering a battalion order generates at an absolute MINIMUM four company op orders, twelve platoon op orders and 48 squad order, each needing a sand table.

    Writers just can’t help themselves sometimes :)

    • Thunder350

      3rd paragraph…

      “Boeing is still working with the software to make it adaptable to iPads and other tablets.”

      So how do you fit something like this in a rucksack? Order one online, or if you still go to the store for some reason, go to your local electronics dealer and pick a tablet of your choosing!

      • majr0d

        Not buying it. The FEWEST folks at a Co or Plt order are six folks (mine typically had ten CO, XO, 3xPLs & their RTO, FO, 1SGT), a squad has nine people. Enjoying a movie on a tablet with six people is pretty ridiculous but acceptable when there are no other options. It’s a akin to everyone solving a crossword puzzle at the same time. The sand table isn’t “going away”.

        Might behoove listening to someone that has walked in those boots for a couple of decades?

        blight – You are ABSOLUTELY right. The contractors will quickly be selling the idea.

        BTW, NETT Warrior basis of issue (BOI) plan wants to issue a tablet to dismounted combat arms platoon leaders and above in addition to the android based phone. It does facilitate planning and reporting from what I’ve been able to gather (more feeedback from the field is needed, a BDE just deployed with it). It’s not going to replace the sand table but may facilitate one on one brief backs during the orders process of troop leading procedures.

  • blight_

    Shhh! The contractors are already salivating at the thought.

  • Speedy

    Umm.. when was the last time you saw a sand table in a tank??

    As a wargamer, I always hated sand tables anyway. the sand scartched the paint off my miniatures. A nice green table cloth, and good looking terrain is much nicer anyway.

  • Chewy 0311

    Cool toy! You can’t make it Grunt Proof. If it can be broken, it will be broken by a grunt. Besides, the grunts have more than enough kit to carry, that includes Spec Ops units too.

    • Thunder350

      Tablets weigh less then a pound.

      • blight_

        Perhaps he meant in terms of line items. Maybe a smaller smartphone-sized object will suffice, especially if it comes with a projector.

  • MGC

    Grunts humping what, that big screen is battalion HQ kit just add it to the 100 tons of crap they already haul in their gas guzzlers. When was the last time you saw a grunt lug a 120mm mortar.

    • Riceball

      I agree, I like the idea of it but it does really belong at the BN level and should stay in the BN HQ and not out there with the grunts in the field.

    • Thunder350

      As the article states, the grunts would have tablets, and tablets are extremely thin and light! (And always getting thinner and lighter too!)

      • majr0d

        A tablet isn’t adequate to do a sandtable for CO, PLT or Squad orders. Check my earlier post about the numbers involved in an order at those levels. You can’t gather 6 – 10 people around a tablet and see the detail required. If so we would have just used paper maps for the last 80 years.

  • bobbymike

    The future of warfare one step away. Imagine a single commander with this technology, the area had a few UGV’s and UAV’s.

    Now a UGV spots some Talibs laser designates them and then the commander simple touches the screen where the UAV is, touches the screen where the enemy is and a Hellfire or JDAM is on its way.

    • blight_

      Oh jesus, like it would be so hard to tell whoever has eyes on target to fire at will.

      • majr0d

        Funny! I saw exactly this same phenomena when working on FCS.

        The questions that stumped the eggheads were; who’s controlling the UGVs? Does he come out of the Infantry squad or do we increase the size of the force? Who’s providing security for the operator while he operating the UGV?

        When running this in simulation we saw the operator get left behind because he wasn’t aware of his immediate situation or the enemy would kill him. We have to be constantly wary of those so enthralled by technology it replaces common sense.

      • bobbymike

        I don’t think you understand. There are no eyes on target unless you mean mechanical eyes and the only man would be the commander in this scenario. The U means unattended or unmanned there is no man on the scene that why it is clean kill. So no soldiers at risk at yet you still have a man in the loop.

        Right now I can sit on the beach in the south of France and see who is ringing my doorbell at home on my Ipad, I can turn lights on and off, etc. It would be one small step to have a remote weapons station kill them if they happened to be a burglar.

        • A.g.

          Until you’ve got electricity.

  • Private

    Maybe if they could do their planning, orders, and rehearsals at the FOB they wouldn’t have to carry the big screen TV around.

    • majr0d

      Unfortunately it’s the follow on orders that can’t be given at the FOB that become a problem.