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Equipment Priorities Should Change, Say Special Forces 


by Roxana Tiron 

Practical by nature, the Green Berets often shun glitzy technologies. Their equipment requirements are not complex, but the problem, say operators, is that those in charge of buying the equipment don’t always know what the soldier on the ground really needs.

The high-visibility role that the U.S. Army Special Forces, known as the Green Berets, played in the war in Afghanistan may have somewhat sensitized acquisition officials about these soldiers’ equipment needs.

While Special Forces appreciate advanced technology, many said they are apprehensive that some technologies, such as live streaming video and sophisticated sensors, are only meant for the commanders to be able to micromanage them, which sometimes could interfere with the mission.

“The more sensors you add to the soldiers, the more headquarters can see what they are doing,” said Army Special Forces Capt. Patrick. He requested not to be quoted by his last name. In the heat of the battle, commandos sometimes do not like to be over-supervised and they are trained to be self-sufficient.

Several Green Berets who spoke with National Defense during a recent conference in Fayetteville, N.C., said that their requirements for new equipment often are not met, because the higher-ups don’t necessarily appreciate soldiers’ priorities.

“While the guys on the ground, the users, may have the biggest input into what kind of equipment they need, they may not always have the biggest input on the purchase,” said Patrick. “It is their commanders who go to conventions and exhibits and deal with industry.”

Acquisition officials sometimes don’t make the right choices, he said. Senior commanders, who may have been soldiers in the Vietnam War, may not identify with the experience of today’s soldiers, because the circumstances have changed significantly, said Patrick.

Patrick admits that it would be unrealistic to expect the Defense Department to buy everything that every soldier wants. “We have all the equipment” to fulfill a mission, said Patrick.

But, some basic needs are not being met, such as comfortable, sturdy boots. “We just spent all this money on new black berets for the Army,” said Patrick. “Who cares? It’s just a hat.” The Army also should be investing in footwear, he asserted. “We are still wearing boots that were designed in the 50s. How about getting us a new boot that is worth something that a guy can walk in the mountains?”

At command headquarters, he said, they don’t worry about boots and gloves. “As the little guy on the ground, I wish they did sometimes,” said Patrick. “The operators care very much about their gloves and boots,” because they make a huge difference when soldiers are fighting in cold weather, for example.

It is not uncommon for special operators to buy their own gear sometimes, including guns, aiming devices, gloves and boots.

“The unit may issue you Vest A, but you know they have vest D that you think is so much better, and if only it had pouches on this side instead of that side you’d like it,” Patrick said.

In many cases, however, they must use the military-issued equipment. “If I am issued a certain type of body armor, and I wanted to wear something like law enforcement wears, and it does not have the same level of protection, then my boss would not let me wear it,” he said.

“You can exceed the standard, but you can’t come down. You won’t see different helmets; you won’t see different body armor, plus that is really expensive.”

Special Forces can put any kind of aiming device on their small arms as long as they are using the right weapon. “If it makes me faster and more accurate, then they don’t care,” he said. Only the Special Forces can do that. Regular Army troops have to fight with what they are assigned.

“It’s better for us to buy civilian technology than to have to develop it ourselves, so we don’t have any R&D (research and development) costs, we buy it ourselves,” Patrick said.

One source of aggravation can be the lack of lightweight radios with long-lasting batteries, said Patrick. Most operators said that their radios just don’t do their job. They also say that they have been promised lightweight radios for more than 20 years now, but that they still have to haul numerous batteries and heavy radios.

Green Berets frequently joke that they could go “out there naked and in flip flops and, as long as we can have good radios, we could do our job.”

“Radios are a problem, because they burn through a lot of batteries and batteries are heavy, and they are expensive,” Patrick said.

Special Forces Capt. Mark Nutsch appreciated the importance of communications while fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Nutsch was assigned in October to lead a large force of Afghan Northern Alliance fighters, who served under Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the famed leader of Afghanistan’s minority Uzbek community. With the help of heavy American bombardment, Dostum’s troops swept through Taliban-controlled areas, ending the Taliban rule in Mazar-e Sharif, parts of Kabul and Kunduz, and eventually capturing Kandahar.

Nutsch’s Special Forces teams relied on radios to call in close air support. But the radios were heavy and difficult to carry on mules. The arrival of reinforcements meant more radios were available, but it also meant more people to feed, said Nutsch. Food supplies were limited in the mountains and the Green Berets shared their food with Dostum’s fighters. The Northern Alliance warriors’ only prized possessions were their horses and blankets to keep the animals warm. Many Green Berets lost 20 pounds during the operation.

According to Patrick, “Our guys in Afghanistan were up to 30 miles away from where they were bringing in supplies, and they had to move them by mule on these little, rickety mountain passes. So who wants to be carrying cases of batteries down there every couple of days if you could have a piece of equipment that did not use as much voltage and the battery life was longer?”

One system that did work well for special operators in Afghanistan was the MBITR (Multi-Band Inter/Intra Team Radio). However, “the speakers and control knobs require hardening to support the operator,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Haas from the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). “The MBITR proved to be an excellent interim fix,” he told a Special Forces conference in Fort Bragg, N.C.

The Special Operations Command will be heavily involved in setting the requirements for the next-generation handheld radio under the Joint Tactical Radio System. The JTRS program now is getting underway for vehicle and helicopter radios and will not be addressing the handheld systems until at least 2005.

Haas said that the demands of current combat operations call for greater access to tactical-satellite wideband nets. Future sat-com radios must be capable of operating in extreme environments and operational conditions, he said.

He also would like to see radios with remote-disabling capabilities, so operators can make sure the enemy cannot use a lost or captured radio.

A more immediate need is handheld GPS systems for each Green Beret, according to Haas. Also, they would like lighter body armor with enhanced ballistic protection.

More access to real-time intelligence would be useful, said Haas. “A national or theater-level, integrated management-visualization tool is needed,” he said. “SOF requires a common-operating picture software package that is compatible with the conventional force systems.”

Currently, he added, “There is no common operational picture for all services and that needs to be fixed.” Also, the Defense Department needs a more responsive method to produce maps quickly for operators in the field.

“Whatever new technology we put in the force, we have to put into training, ideally ahead of time,” said Patrick. “For example, if there is a radio that is going to be fielded, [we need training on] how to use them before they hit the field. Traditionally, we are very smart about this.”

Regardless of what type of equipment it is, he said, it must be extremely rugged and durable. “There are a lot of cool things out there, but we are really rough on our things, we break things. That is our business: we kill people and break things.”

Thermal night-vision goggles, for example, tend to be “too fragile,” Patrick said.

An ideal gadget for Special Forces, he said, would be a set of laser-rangefinder binoculars with an internal GPS receiver and built-in night-vision capabilities. “A little piece of equipment that I can do all that stuff with. That is a dream for everybody.”

Unfortunately, he said, “If it is durable enough and it is what we want we probably can’t afford it. That is kind of the problem.”

Maj. Gen. Jerry Boykin, the commander of the Special Forces School at Fort Bragg, N.C., said that trying to anticipate future equipment requirements is not easy.

One of the key-issues, he said is “who is going to do the advance operations, put eyes on the target and organize the coalitions.” Based on the experiences in Afghanistan, Special Forces will be the ones to organize the coalition and “have eyes on the target,” he said.

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