While U.S. military commanders in the Middle East generally are satisfied by Pentagon efforts to move needed technologies to the front lines, much remains to be done.
This is the assertion of Army Maj. Gen. Lloyd Austin III, chief of staff of U.S. Central Command, who added that technologies to counter improvised explosive devices are at the top of his wish list.
He identified other needed technology advances, such as managing the electronic spectrum, accelerating linguist training, upgrading sensors so their “unblinking eyes” can provide full-motion video to fighters on the ground, developing data-fusion systems that can improve tactical intelligence, advancing automated security systems to minimize the number of troops required for base defense, and addressing the need for compact mobile command posts.
“The requirements are evolving because we’re fighting an adaptive enemy, and as we get very proficient at one thing, he will change the problem set. You can see that with improvised explosive devices,” said Austin at a recent industry conference in St. Petersburg, Fla., sponsored by the Association for Enterprise Integration. “We’ve got to be forward thinking about what the requirements will be, and we’ve got to step out ahead and create solutions for those requirements.”
Mundane tasks, such as being able to identify people, are a huge problem in Iraq, he added.
“We’re engaged in a man hunt in a place that doesn’t have a structured way of identifying people,” Austin said.
Meanwhile, a technology provider noted that software originally designed for law enforcement agencies, such as i2 Inc.’s “Analyst’s Notebook,” has expanded into the military. Use of this analytical tool has picked up momentum in recent years, said company officials.
The Windows-based information-fusion product “allows analysts and investigators the ability to manage volumes of data from several different sources and visualize the information in a temporal or network layout,” said Chuck Izzo, a former Army intelligence officer, who is the company’s federal account manager for the Defense Department. “They then can quickly discover relationships between entities and then clearly communicate their findings to an intelligence consumer,” he said.
Officers who have served recently in combat said that the expanding array of non-traditional missions required to fight in Iraq expose deficiencies in equipment.
“We are being tasked, in the fighter Air Force, to take on all kinds of roles out in the field. Not just the standard, traditional interdiction,” said Lt. Col. Louis Dupuis, an F-15E weapons system and operations officer. “We’re going anywhere from task to strike and reconnaissance … to convoy escort. We’re doing airborne interdiction, real-time targeting; we’re doing some ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] not only on strike platforms as well as F-16s, but even in the bomber world, B-1s and B-52s,” he told the conference.
Air Force Col. Jon Klaus, who commanded a KC-135 tanker squadron, said he, too, saw firsthand the need to employ equipment in new ways. For example, he said, to get fighter jets closer to the battle, tankers must linger longer in the air and accomplish refuelings at lower altitudes.
As a result of this shift, Klaus said he wants to see defensive technologies, such as a missile warning system with counter measures, installed in the aircraft, as well as some sort of de-confliction system to prevent mid-air collisions.
“When you’re stacked on top of each other at 500 feet, egressing and ingressing, you need some system like that,” he said.
On the fighter side, Dupuis said items topping his list are advanced targeting pods, better technologies to destroy moving targets in the urban environment and communications suites inside fighter jets that will allow pilots to talk to ground forces.
Lt. Cmdr. Creighton Holt, a Navy F-18 Hornet pilot who was part of the squadron in Afghanistan that dropped a historic amount of ordnance, said that 75 percent of the missions he flew were in support of troops on the ground, ranging from special forces units to battalion-sized conventional forces.
Working with so many different teams that often had incompatible communications systems — even amongst squads — was an issue with which to contend, and it remains one of the biggest challenges today.
“Anytime we brief a flight, whether a combat flight or a training flight, communications receives the brunt of the brief,” he said.
A system such as the Army’s “blue force tracker would be very nice to have in our aircraft,” he added.
Blue force tracker was the most advantageous equipment in the field for Army Lt. Col. Rich O’Connor, support squadron commander for the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He said the digital networking and communications system gave him “situational awareness” in the air and on the ground when moving convoys in northern Iraq.
“I just wish I had more of it,” he told conference attendees.
The officers on the panel repeatedly stressed the importance of having thorough knowledge of their battle environment, or “situational awareness.” Yet achieving more of it doesn’t mean simply acquiring additional video streams and data.
While commanders and troops desire more information, they already are becoming overwhelmed by the flow of uncoordinated sources. This virtual flood can contribute to faulty tactical decision making.
“The fact that I’m in the back seat of a [fighter jet] … and I have the opportunity to bring in visuals and photos, and I have two radios going off in my ear, I have a front-seater, I have a wingman, I have an AOC [air operations center] — I have so much information to the point where I’m overloaded to make those type of decisions,” said Dupuis.
Even from the vantage point of U.S. Central Command’s front office, Marine Col. Mant Hawkins, director of the commanders’ advisory group, said he also perceives the same problem for leaders.
“There isn’t a driving need to see everything. The volume is just overwhelming,” he said.
The fighters are searching for intelligent systems that can “cherry pick” the information that they need to help them make the right decisions.
“If we had a system that allowed everyone to have the same information … it would be perfect,” said Dupuis.
Marines, for their part, find that one of the most difficult duties on the ground is to secure Iraq’s borders, said Lt. Col. Wayne Sinclair, operations officer with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. Troops need technologies to ensure a persistent presence on the border — through aerial imagery or ground-based sensors — as well as devices that can help them identify people crossing the border. They would like, for example, to be able to retrieve background information and histories rapidly via a wireless digital device, he said.