HONOLULU — One by one, soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen marched up to a podium before an industry conference here and gave a litany of battlefield deficiencies they have recently encountered in operations around the globe.
Many requested improvements in communications devices, batteries and weapons, that in many cases are failing in the fight.
“We need a different bullet. We need a different personal weapon,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Kennedy, who returned from Afghanistan last June and has also completed tours in Iraq.
On his most recent deployment, enemy fighters crossed the mountains wearing body armor. In one case, a man was shot by military forces five times in the chest. But he kept walking. Troops eventually stopped him, and upon examination of his plate, they learned that two bullets had simply ricocheted off the armor, which wasn’t even fractured.
Curious, the soldiers fired five rounds into their military-issued body plates, which are supposed to withstand up to six rounds of 7.62 mm rounds.
“We know for a fact that our 9 mm pistols do not penetrate even our body armor,” he said, which is good for protection from enemy fire, but prompts enemies to acquire more effective weapons and armor.
“The longer we stay somewhere, the better technologies they get, because they’re learning about the gear and are using the same things we have,” he asserted.
Two years ago, an Army official in North Carolina told him the service was planning to field .45-caliber handguns, which penetrate armor better, but he hasn’t seen any sign of them.
Units have received improved body armor, but the added weight impedes movement, troops complained.
“It’s huge, it’s bulky, you can’t move in it,” said Kennedy. Sitting in a turret is fine with the body armor, but “sitting behind the wheel of a civilian vehicle when you’re doing human operations like I was, you can’t get out of your vehicle,” he pointed out.
As he spoke, another soldier struggled to put on his armor to demonstrate the challenges. Even with the assistance of two comrades, it was still a feat and proved his point.
“It weighs more than the gear I was wearing two years ago, with all my ammo and everything,” said Sgt. Maj. Errol Snyder of the Army’s 2nd Stryker Brigade, 25th Infantry Division.
With all the communications equipment, weapons and other technologies loaded on top of the armor, troops face a hazard when they need to escape from perilous situations.
“If you had to go into a state of evasion mode at any time, you’re not going to move with that on,” said Kennedy. “You’ve got to drop it, you’ve got to get rid of it.”
That could become especially problematic for troops who are traveling inside armored vehicles, such as the Stryker.
“We’ve got what we call the hell hole — a very small door, two on top and a driver’s hatch — which is impossible to climb out of. If you have a whole infantry squad of nine dismounted soldiers in the back, plus the driver and the gunner, that’s 11 folks trying to get out of one point of exit,” said Snyder.
Troops also want better communications equipment, said Kennedy. When he was in northern Afghanistan, being able to talk to soldiers back at Bagram Air Base proved so difficult that they bought satellite cell phones.
The Army-issued PRC-148 multiband inter/intra team radio didn’t work well. Its battery life wasn’t sufficient, and the device was too long and too big to fit into soldiers’ kitbags. Troops purchased commercial walkie-talkies, which had a longer range than the 148s, he said.
The personal role radios are useful when you have jammers on, said Marine Master Sgt. Andrew Lowe. But the problem is that they’re high frequency, line-of-sight systems that don’t work once a person turns the corner. In addition to having a short battery life, the radio lacks the ability to switch quickly between two channels. Troops must take the control panel off and spin a knob to the appropriate channel.
“If you want to talk to just your squad leader, or to your team, it would be easier if we had one button for the squad leader and one for the team,” said Lowe, who added that making radio operations more conversation-based, like that of a cell phone, “would greatly increase communication.”
In the Philippines, where jungles grow thick canopies, radio communications are difficult, and operators often resort to cutting down bamboo to access better reception, said Army Capt. Kirk Brinker, of Special Operations Command, Pacific. During the Vietnam War, his father used helium balloons to get reception above the jungle canopy, he said. A system with a helium source would allow troops to send up an antenna for better radio transmissions.
Troops repeatedly said they wanted longer lasting and lighter power sources.
“What operators would like to see is a smaller battery with longer life,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Adam Vizi, who returned from a deployment in Iraq in February. As a joint terminal attack controller who calls in air support for ground forces, Vizi lugged around military-issued 5590 batteries, which weigh 2.1 pounds each, to power his communications equipment.
To establish coordinates for targeting, Vizi relied upon a computer-based mapping program that often produced stale imagery.
“Operators would like to see a program that uses a satellite link that updates the imagery monthly … so when we’re getting ready to employ coordinates, we have a more current imagery overlay to utilize when we’re planning our ordnance and munitions,” he said.
The rugged laptop, called the remotely operated video enhanced receiver, or ROVER, which allows Vizi and other controllers to see video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles and other aircraft, is cumbersome and requires a lot of cabling, he added.
“Operators want to see more of a PDA-sized device that has all the encryption and all the antennas in it so that when we go man-portable, we don’t have to lug around all this gear,” said Vizi.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, troops carry jammers to prevent homemade bombs from detonating via small electronics.
The man-portable counter remote control improvised explosive device electronic warfare system “doesn’t cover what we need because of power requirements,” said Senior Chief Michael Lentz of the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 5.
A system that weighs less than 20 pounds and can scope 25 to 50 feet will benefit anyone on the ground, he said.
Lowe added, “We need something that can protect us from the larger spectrum range and something that’s got a read out on the battery — how much battery life and protection you’re actually getting.”
Currently, the system has on and off indicators and an orange warning light. Troops have no idea of knowing whether they’re being protected fully or when the batteries are running low. The antenna could be on, but it might not be giving you protection, said Lowe, who was injured by an IED that blew up behind him after he kicked in a door during his most recent deployment to Iraq.
“If we had something that we could hold up and measure how much protection we’re getting from all these devices … we’d be good to go,” he said.
Though the system jams low frequency devices, such as keyless entry systems or garage door openers, it doesn’t thwart signals from high frequency devices, such as cell phones, he added.
Some of the deadliest attacks come from IEDs that are buried in roadways.
Vehicle-mounted jammers offer some protection, but troops said they need something that works faster and at higher rates of speed.
“When you’re traveling as personal security detail for somebody and going down road at high rate of speed, you’re not going to pick up a jamming signal,” said Kennedy.
Convoys have been irresistible targets for enemies who use IEDs to stop traveling troops and then ambush them with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
One possible solution is vehicle holograms that could be projected ahead of convoys to dupe enemies into setting off IEDs prematurely. That would alert troops to a possible ambush and allow convoys to take an alternate route.
“That would be a huge challenge for the enemy,” said Lentz.
For units charged with dismantling IEDs, warriors are asking for vehicle-mounted systems that not only can detect explosives, but also give them a picture of what they’re about to encounter.
“Insurgents know they can put IEDs next to an infrastructure,” said Lentz, who recently returned from Iraq’s Al Anbar province where his explosive ordnance disposal team alone completed 205 missions in six months. “We need something to be able to look at a water main and actually see an anomaly, whether it’s a projectile or a barrel. I need to be able to see that and say, ‘okay, everybody needs to shift right, we’re going to avoid that area.’”
Once an IED has been confirmed, units often deploy robots to dispose of the bomb.
Just back from a second tour in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Tanner Catrett, with the Army’s 706th Ordnance Company, said he wants the operational range extended for those robots.
“If I’m on base and they tell me my robot can go 300 meters, my robot does go 300 meters. When I go into combat … I’m lucky if I get 100 meters.”
He also said he wants lighter operational control units for the robots as well as communications systems inside the bomb suits he wears to avoid “becoming a down range monkey.”
When attacked by IEDs, the overpressures created by the blasts can be immense. To protect their hearing, many troops wear Peltor headsets, an earphone and noise mitigation system that plugs into military radios, said Brinker.
However, that same protection system makes troops vulnerable to ambushes. When troops are hit by IEDs and escape out of their vehicles, the Peltor system makes it difficult for them to determine the direction of enemy gunfire.
“If you have no way of knowing where it’s coming from, it could add confusion to an already chaotic situation,” said Brinker.
Because the earphones come down low on the jaw, the face to rifle connection isn’t what it needs to be, he added. Troops have to train on their weapons to get used to that impediment.
Any system that’s more ergonomic, smaller and lighter and allows troops to tell which direction noise is coming from would be an improvement, he said.
Night vision goggles also come up short.
When Marines are going on night patrol, Lowe said, “It’s all fine and great until all of a sudden there’s street light and a giant green glow blinds you. We need something that auto adjusts to the amount of light within your read-out.”
Also, he pointed out that the technology lacks depth of field — Marines using the devices can’t distinguish what’s nearby or further out. “It’s a static read-out. All I can see is green on black,” he said.
The fragile optics sit heavily on the front of the helmet and bounce around when troops are on the move, which means they’re often in disrepair.
“If you go into an armory in Iraq, there’s five good ones and 60 beat-up ones because of how rough we are on our gear. The plastic just doesn’t hold up,” he said.
On the Internet, he found a device used by pilots and high-level operators that fits all those qualifications, but which would be too expensive for ground troops.
Operators also are looking for hands-free binoculars to keep weapons readily available for use, said Army Sgt. Maj. Steve Hornbach.
In the urban environment, troops want standardized breach kits that would allow them to get into rooms and buildings faster. They also need portable vehicle spotlights that they can carry with them to illuminate rooms that might be harboring insurgents.
“If you’re in a dark room and all of a sudden someone comes in with a sun in his hand, that would blind you and give him an advantage,” said Snyder.
Because of a lack of translators in Iraq, many units conducting door-to-door searches are unable to communicate with occupants. Some units have language translation devices that allow operators to speak in English and play back the phrase in Arabic. Snyder said having more of these devices in companies and other smaller units would be helpful in daily interactions.
The number of canals and other open waterways in Iraq poses a threat to forces that are traveling in up-armored vehicles.
“I’ve watched guys die because their humvee goes into a channel,” and they’re unable to get the armored doors open to escape, said Snyder. “These kids drowned because there was no breathing device that could’ve saved their lives.”
Snyder suggested installing oxygen tanks — much like those found in aircraft — inside humvees and Strykers, to buy troops more time to extricate themselves from submerged vehicles.
“An hour’s better than nothing to get out of the hell hole in an organized fashion and not panic,” he told National Defense.
Other services, such as the Navy and Air Force, have cockpit training systems in which pilots are submerged and blindfolded and are taught how to escape.
“But nothing replicates the up-armored Stryker or humvee going into water,” he pointed out. It’s a training deficiency that ought to be fixed.
Pulling disabled vehicles out of harm’s way is another challenge because there are numerous towing systems strapped to those trucks, said Brinker.
“Every one I saw in Iraq and the Philippines had different modifications on how to do this.”
The systems need to be standardized, so that “if I’m in the 25th Infantry Division or I’m in the Marine Corps, I know how the system is mounted and I can recover any vehicle, as opposed to vehicles just in my team,” he said.
When it comes to saving fallen comrades, troops have plenty of Skedco litters to transport their casualties. But they fumble with the straps when they’re trying to secure the wounded. Troops say they want litters similar to those used by Special Forces, which use clips rather than straps to anchor patients. To stanch bleeding and save more lives, troops need a more effective war band tape.
Please email your comments to GJean@ndia.org