Developing capabilities for a 21st-century Army

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. — In the Amer­i­can Old West, some 130 years ago, a horse­back-rid­ing U.S. Army cav­al­ry scout would cross a seem­ing­ly end­less desert to relay hand-writ­ten bat­tle­field infor­ma­tion to his com­man­der, with noth­ing more than a com­pass and map to guide him.

 After receiving orders from his chain of command through a mobile digital system, a Soldier from 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, prepares to enter a military operations in urban terrain site
After receiv­ing orders from his chain of com­mand through a mobile dig­i­tal sys­tem, a Sol­dier from 1st Squadron, 1st Cav­al­ry Reg­i­ment, 2nd Brigade Com­bat Team, 1st Armored Divi­sion, pre­pares to enter a mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in urban ter­rain site
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 The Rifleman Radio incorporates radio-to-radio-to-radio relay capabilities that greatly extend the range of hand-held radios. A small computer screen displays specific battlefield information that can be updated by Soldiers throughout the field.
The Rifle­man Radio incor­po­rates radio-to-radio-to-radio relay capa­bil­i­ties that great­ly extend the range of hand-held radios. A small com­put­er screen dis­plays spe­cif­ic bat­tle­field infor­ma­tion that can be updat­ed by Sol­diers through­out the field.
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Fast for­ward to 2011: Sol­diers of the 2nd Brigade Com­bat Team, 1st Armored Divi­sion, from Fort Bliss, Texas, stood in the vast wilder­ness of White Sands Mis­sile Range, N.M., equipped with the lat­est forms of ruggedi­zed com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy, and in sec­onds shared crit­i­cal bat­tle­field infor­ma­tion with com­man­ders and dozens of oth­ers, locat­ed miles away across the desert.

For three weeks in Novem­ber, the brigade sent approx­i­mate­ly 3,800 Sol­diers and 1,000 vehi­cles 45 miles north­ward into the New Mex­i­co wilder­ness, to test and eval­u­ate dozens of com­put­er­ized, dig­i­tal sys­tems that could give the Army a future tac­ti­cal edge, dur­ing an exer­cise called the Net­work Inte­gra­tion Eval­u­a­tion 12.1, the sec­ond in a series of semi-annu­al eval­u­a­tions designed to inte­grate and mature the Army’s tac­ti­cal net­work.

Brigade Com­man­der Col. Daniel A. Pin­nell said all of the approx­i­mate­ly 45 sys­tems under eval­u­a­tion are poten­tial­ly fea­si­ble, but that he is look­ing for can­did feed­back from his Sol­diers — near­ly half of who are sea­soned com­bat vet­er­ans — to help the Army make smart deci­sions on which sys­tems are most viable. For his Sol­diers to be tasked to see if these new sys­tems work is “pret­ty cool,” he said.

“New tech­nol­o­gy such as this helps our com­mu­ni­ca­tions and sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness for all our Sol­diers on the bat­tle­field,” said Pfc. Dustin A. Belshe, a cav­al­ry scout with A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Cav­al­ry Reg­i­ment, a sub­or­di­nate unit with­in the brigade. This tech­nol­o­gy can help the Army from los­ing Sol­diers and pro­vide bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion between high­er ups and the Sol­diers on the ground.”

The NIE 12.1 pri­or­i­ties includ­ed work­ing to extend the net­work to the indi­vid­ual Sol­dier on the bat­tle­field, advanc­ing mis­sion com­mand on the move and con­tin­u­ing to estab­lish the inte­grat­ed net­work base­line, Army offi­cials said.

Sol­diers here put their hands on the new forms of tech­nol­o­gy, learned how the sys­tems work and repli­cat­ed bat­tle­field cir­cum­stances to deter­mine how the sys­tems would per­form. From hand­held devices that dis­play detailed maps show­ing loca­tions of indi­vid­ual Sol­diers and build­ings, to mine-resis­tant, ambush-pro­tect­ed vehi­cles, known as MRAPS, equipped with mobile, secure “hot spot”-type transmitter/receivers that reach indi­vid­ual Sol­diers scat­tered in the field, to Rifle­man Radios that incor­po­rate radio to radio to radio relay capa­bil­i­ties that great­ly extend the range of hand-held radios, the hard­ware and sup­port­ing soft­ware test­ed here are cut­ting edge.

“Most of the tech­nol­o­gy is ahead of its time. As sci­en­tists and engi­neers devel­op these ideas, the Army tasks us to use our train­ing and expe­ri­ence to see if it is use­ful in a real­is­tic envi­ron­ment,” explained 1st Lt. Eric V. Muir­head, exec­u­tive offi­cer of B Troop, 1st Sqdn., 1st Cav. Regt. “If we think this equip­ment has poten­tial, it moves on toward full adop­tion, but if we don’t think it is worth it, the Army pass­es. This is both to save mon­ey, but more impor­tant­ly, lives.”

“It’s an excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ty for my Sol­diers, and they take a lot of pride in what they’re doing here and take it very seri­ous­ly,” said Pin­nell.

Gaz­ing upon a hand-sized com­put­er screen with noth­ing but desert and moun­tains as back­drops, and a lay­er of dust vis­i­ble on the screen, 2nd Lt. Adam E. Mar­tin can share pre­cise bat­tle­field infor­ma­tion with dis­tant Sol­diers and his chain of com­mand the moment his team encoun­ters an “ene­my.”

“My role in this exer­cise is to test out a new sys­tem called Nett War­rior. It’s a spe­cial­ized Android phone meant to help with sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness, plan­ning process­es, report­ing ene­my infor­ma­tion and assist­ing with exe­cut­ing mis­sions,” said Mar­tin, a pla­toon leader with B Troop, 1st Sqdn., 1st Cav. Regt.

Just as in the harsh, moun­tain­ous, desert con­di­tions found in Afghanistan, radio trans­mis­sions at White Sands can be dif­fi­cult. The Sol­diers con­duct­ed field oper­a­tions and entered mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in urban ter­rain sites, equipped with sys­tems that near­ly no one in the Army has seen, and sub­ject­ed the hard­ware to the rig­or­ous motions.

“Our pri­ma­ry focus right now is what the Army calls ‘the net­work,’ ” said Muir­head. “Our goal is to devel­op sys­tems that cut through the fog of war and give every­one, from pri­vates to gen­er­als, access to rapid and accu­rate infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The net­work has the poten­tial to make even the sin­gle rifle­man a major play­er on the 21st cen­tu­ry bat­tle­field, allow­ing him to com­mu­ni­cate to all lev­els, con­trol unmanned drones and sen­sors, and even call for indi­rect fire or mede­vac at the touch of a but­ton.”

While the brigade Sol­diers put the new equip­ment through its paces, stop­ping just short of smash­ing the tech­nol­o­gy into pieces on the ground, they report­ed both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences.

“The way I am inter­act­ing with the tech­nol­o­gy is incor­po­rat­ing it in the dif­fer­ent mis­sions we con­duct dai­ly,” said Mar­tin. “It can be frus­trat­ing at times because of tech­no­log­i­cal hic­cups. Dur­ing mis­sions, if the sys­tems fail, it can cause the Sol­diers to not want to use it, but this is all a part of our eval­u­a­tion.”

“The new tech­nol­o­gy can help down the road,” added Spc. Colleen E. Pell­ish, a unit sup­ply spe­cial­ist with For­ward Sup­port Com­pa­ny, 1st Bat­tal­ion, 35th Armor Reg­i­ment. “Test­ing it now and know­ing the pros and cons can help to make the tech­nol­o­gy bet­ter for use in the future, or (lead us to) try some­thing else.”

Spc. Scott R. Vitale, a mor­tar­man with 1st Bn., 35th Armor Regt., agreed. “It’s nice to know that we help our broth­ers and sis­ters in the­ater by help­ing fine tune the new and upcom­ing tech­nol­o­gy.”

Michael Tolz­mann works for the Joint Home­town News Ser­vice at Fort Meade, Md.

U.S. Army

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