FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The nine infantrymen sweeping through a mock village sent the robot in the targeted building first. Its camera showed that the room was clear. As the squad entered the building, a soldier stuck a surveillance camera above a door jam. All nine soldiers continued with their sweep as the sensor kept an unblinking eye on the front door.
The exercise held earlier this year in the Southwest desert was designed to test the first technologies scheduled to reach soldiers’ hands from the Future Combat Systems — an Army modernization program touted as a family of manned and unmanned systems connected by a common network. Rather than waiting for all the pieces to be put into place, the Army plans to “spiral out” the technologies in three two-year cycles by integrating them into units as the devices become available.
“We are now entering into major integration activities,” said Allan Resnick, director of requirements integration at the Army Training and Doctrine Command.
Among the first technologies to be integrated are the unattended ground sensors, or UGS, which come in two variants — one intended for urban environments as soldiers clear buildings, and the other for wider views to keep a watch for enemy movements on flanks or outside perimeters.
The Army and lead contractor Boeing Co. debuted a video of the exercise, dubbed Experiment 1.1, at the Association of the United States Army winter conference. It served as a reminder that after years of FCS development and controversy over its budget, the first pieces of the program could be distributed to the service’s 76 combat brigades sooner rather than later — beginning as early as 2008.
Barring no abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan or Iraq, the unattended sensors manufactured by Textron Systems Corp. will likely be among the first of the FCS technologies to reach the battlefield, although there has been a debate within the Pentagon on how to protect the technology if it should be left “behind enemy lines.”
Meanwhile, soldiers giving testimonials on a video released by the FCS program office said the unattended sensors could make an immediate impact on the battlefield. When entering a building, current procedures call for at least one soldier to stay behind to guard the rear. The urban sensor will allow all nine members of a squad to proceed.
Manpower will also be saved by the tactical unattended sensors, which are intended to be left outdoors — hidden in brush for example — to ensure opposition forces don’t attempt to outflank a unit once they have entered a village or neighborhood. Normally, infantrymen would have to remain behind to keep an eye out for enemy movement.
Dan Zanini, FCS deputy program manager and senior vice president at co-lead contractor, SAIC, said the recent conflict between Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah in Lebanon highlighted the value of unattended sensors.
“Most casualties [the IDF] took were from forces that they bypassed, and forces that came in from their rear,” he said.
The exercise, which took place in a cluster of abandoned buildings straddling Fort Bliss, Texas and the White Sands Missile Range, also employed two other technologies designed to improve situational awareness: the Class I unmanned aerial vehicle and the small unmanned ground vehicle. These are scheduled for the second spiral in the 2010 to 2012 timeframe.
The squad first sent a ground robot through the door to make a quick sweep of the room. Seeing no enemies, they entered the building as the UAV hovered outside to see if any suspected insurgents tried to escape out a back door. The experiment was designed to both test the systems and to receive early feedback from the soldiers. About 75 percent of the 44 participants had served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Unlike some of the futuristic technologies scheduled to be spiraled out in later years, the UAV, ground robots and the unattended ground sensors are relatively mature. The unmanned ground vehicle, for example, is based on the Packbot, manufactured by iRobot Corp., and is widely used for explosive ordnance disposal. The urban unattended sensor is similar to home-protection devices used in residences.
Maj. Gen. Charles Cartwright, FCS program manager, said the three technologies are designed to increase situational awareness. They will help decentralize decision-making for lower ranking officers as they lead operations.
“We’re moving the decision-making and the situation understanding much lower in the NCO ranks,” he said.
The experiment was “ultimately … about how the soldiers are trained and how their leaders employ the equipment,” Cartwright said.
Also part of Spiral I is the system of systems common operating environment (SOSCOE), which is the communication and network backbone, or glue, that connects all the components. Kits to install SOSCOE into Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles will also be part of Spiral I.
During the exercise, the hovering Class I UAV, manufactured by Honeywell International, demonstrated the ability to transmit real-time video to the cockpit of an AH-64D Apache. A dismounted soldier controls the 15-pound UAV. Each system, consisting of two UAVs, spare parts and a control unit, weighs 40 pounds and is designed to fit in a backpack. The Army is aiming for 60 minutes of flight time.
“It will also perform limited communications relay in restricted terrain, a tremendous deficit in current operations,” according to an FCS fact sheet.
The most challenging function for the UAV will be autonomous flight in tricky urban environments, which often include low-hanging electrical wires, buildings of various heights and telephone poles.
The unattended ground sensors are broken down into two groups — tactical and urban.
The urban UGS are relatively simple with a black and white camera and motion sensor to identify enemy combatants attempting to enter or re-enter a building where U.S. forces are conducting a sweep. Soldiers or unmanned ground vehicles can place them inside or outside buildings.
“It means I don’t have to dilute my combat power. I can now take those nine soldiers and use them as a team to accomplish that mission,” Resnick said.
Tactical UGS will provide intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance and are designed to accommodate “modular and tailorable” sensors depending on the mission, FCS officials said. For example, they can be outfitted with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear detectors. If the sensor picks up movement, a camera will pop up and take a series of three pictures and transmit them back through the network where they can be analyzed.
The sensors will give platoon leaders a better idea of what the individual squads are doing, and let them know what is happening at their rear or flank, Cartwright added.
They “will include low-cost, expendable and multimode sensors for target detection, location and classification; and an imaging capability for target identification,” an FCS fact sheet said.
It is the “expendable” aspect that has caused some discussion within the Pentagon.
An Army FCS official said last year that the office of the secretary of defense had questioned whether it was a good idea to leave the sensor package behind enemy lines, where it could fall into an opponent’s hands. One concern was the closely guarded global positioning system codes that give the U.S. military more precise coordinates than commercially available receivers.
Cartwright and Resnick both said they were unaware of any controversy.
“They’re meant to be truly disposable,” Cartwright said.
However, Rickey Smith, director of the Forward Army Capabilities Integration Center, told National Defense that Army officials are still working through the tactics, techniques and procedures spelling out when to leave the sensors behind or when to retrieve them.
“Do we need a function that can erase encrypted codes through a radio signal for relatively simple sensors like the tactical and urban UGS?” he asked. The ability to remotely “zap” or “z-out” sensitive technology has been around for decades. The consensus now is that the UGS can be left behind.
“You make it so you can no longer enter the encrypted net remotely,” he said.
The larger question still under discussion concerns all the cutting-edge FCS technologies that may be left behind if U.S. forces are overrun. What if a command and control vehicle fell into enemy hands or a non-line of sight cannon? How much protection is needed?
“That debate is still raging,” he said
If it’s something of value, it could be disabled remotely or through direct or indirect fire. How much protection it would receive will depend on the benefit the enemy could get from the technology, he said.
“You would figure out a way to prevent him from having it,” Smith said.
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