The chaotic door-to-door warfare seen in Iraq offers glaring proof that dismounted
U.S. troops need better communications devices, experts contend.
A team of observers from the U.S. Army Infantry Center, at Fort Benning, Ga.,
spent several weeks in Iraq last year, alongside combat units from the 101st
Airborne, 4th Infantry and 82nd Airborne divisions. Of particular interest to
the team was the effectiveness of the units’ tactics and equipment in
an urban battlefield.
In most cases, soldiers were operating in small groups of three to five, entering
and clearing buildings, and arresting suspected insurgents.
It did not take long for observers to conclude that the lack of functional
radios hampered soldiers’ ability to execute their missions without undue
Current Army line-of-sight radios in many instances proved inadequate for urban
operations, because the signals could not penetrate the thick masonry walls
and surrounding fences of many Iraqi buildings. Satellite radios are not the
answer, because they don’t work inside buildings. As a workaround, soldiers
in some instances would enter a building and leave a radio at the door as a
“bread crumb” that provided a relay point once the soldiers were
inside and their satellite signals got blocked.
When the radios failed, soldiers resorted to the only available and reliable
form of communication: screaming.
Yelling their positions clearly put the soldiers in danger, the Infantry Center
team concluded, and prompted efforts at Fort Benning to seek funds for new radios.
Unlike current military handheld radios, the devices best suited for urban
combat are so-called “network radios,” according to Infantry Center
analysts. These terrestrial radios feature “frequency hopping” technology,
which allows them to reroute the transmission around obstacles, until the message
reaches the intended target. Everyone who has a radio acts as a relay. Low-flying
unmanned aircraft also can function as relays.
The Infantry Center plans to evaluate several types of network radios. An Army
source said that at least seven to eight vendors would provide candidate radios
Among the systems to be evaluated is a pocket-sized Internet-capable radio
called Microlight. The Army already is purchasing the 1.4-pound radio for the
“land warrior” next-generation infantry modernization program. Under
land warrior, the Army intends to provide soldiers with miniaturized communications
and navigation systems so that members of a squad, for example, can operate
in a large area and stay connected to one another via secure radios and computers.
That is not possible with current radios, because they don’t have enough
range and are limited to line-of-sight connectivity. Land warrior, however,
will be fielded in small numbers, to perhaps 10 percent of the Army. The Infantry
Center is turning its focus to the other 90 percent.
“Soldiers in Iraq don’t have any secure communications for urban
close in fighting,” said Tim Strobel, director of wideband data link programs
at the Raytheon Company, which developed the Microlight radio. “Their
current tactics are flat out dangerous … They run up and down hallways,
yelling their positions, shouting out windows.”
The Army has yet to field effective technologies for urban warfare, for several
reasons, Strobel noted. One is a “lack of focus on the Army’s part.”
Another inhibiting factor has been the slow progress by the industry in slashing
weight and power requirements. Dismounted soldiers are unlikely to employ any
system that weighs too much or requires frequent battery replacements. Batteries
alone can add several pounds to a soldier’s already overburdened rucksack.
A radio also has to be simple to operate, so soldiers can keep their hands on
The technology that has helped miniaturize cell phones and other commercial
electronic devices is mature enough to be transitioned into military radios
and handheld command-and-control computers, Strobel said.
Another radio supplier, ITT Industries, unveiled a 1-pound military network
radio, also designed for urban operations, said Larry Williams, director of
In recent months, the Infantry Center shipped an undisclosed number of network
radios to Iraq, said an Army source, who declined to identify the type or model.
But the reality is that the dismounted soldier has not been a top priority when
it comes to buying communications systems in the Army, the source said.
The lack of radios for squad and team leaders is not a new problem by any means.
Experts note that similar issues were experienced in Vietnam, where many operations
were carried out by small units.
Since the beginning of the Iraqi conflict, the Army has spent hundreds of millions
of dollars to equip units with satellite communications systems, which have
proved invaluable in a war zone where platoons and battalions cover large areas
and need to be able to stay in touch with higher command. But satellite receivers
don’t work inside buildings, leaving small units without reliable communications
when they fight counterinsurgency operations in built-up areas. Further, there
are not enough radios to equip every soldier.
“The operations in Iraq are very decentralized,” said the Army
official. “That drives up the need for more radios.”
The U.S. Infantry Center has requested funds to buy large quantities of network
radios during the next two to three years.
The Army already is addressing the need for small-unit network radios under
the joint tactical radio system program, but that technology is not scheduled
to be in operation until at least 2010. “We need something we can field
in the next two to three years,” the Army official said.
It is not yet clear how much these radios will cost. The level of encryption
is the largest cost driver. The most secure radios, with type 1 encryption,
are the most expensive. Industry experts said the Army could expect to see price
tags in the “low thousands” for each radio.
Given the big-ticket prices of satellite communications systems, the Army should
not balk at the cost of the network radios, the official said. There is an institutional
bias in the Army favoring high-level communications for command posts and vehicles,
which don’t necessarily help foot soldiers, he added.
The official blamed this bias on the fact that most general officers in the
Army today haven’t been platoon leaders in 20-25 years. “They know
more about brigade and division level communications. The lower echelons don’t
get the same level of attention. … Big, fancy satellite communications
systems are what industry pushes, too. Small radios are not sexy.”