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Electronic eyes on the battlefield

Post by Scott Fontaine on Aug. 29, 2009 at 12:59 pm |
August 29, 2009 1:00 pm

Gunmen fire on American troops in Iraq. The soldiers pursue, but they can run into problems if the terrain is unfamiliar. Landmarks are confusing. They focus on the wrong building. Or they get turned around in the urban setting.

Now, a communications system that two Fort Lewis Stryker brigades are fielding in Iraq aims to provide leaders with more real-time information – and a better chance of tracking insurgents.

The Tacticomp system can link soldiers on the ground with commanders back at the operations center, using troops’ geographical coordinates and live video from cameras soldiers carry or from drone aircraft circling overhead.

The information streams back to computers inside the Stryker vehicle and to the unit’s tactical operations center.

Soldiers carrying the device can send texts to each other or broadcast a message in an ad-hoc chat room. And the ability to send video or still photos to the operations center can be used to verify identities of targets.

Tacticomp is part of the Army’s continuing emphasis on technology for its Stryker brigades, which blend infantry training with the ability to make quick, precise strikes on enemy positions.

Fort Lewis’ 3rd and 4th Stryker Brigades – both part of 2nd Infantry Division – are fielding the equipment in Iraq. The 3rd Brigade left earlier this summer for Diyala province; the 4th Brigade leaves in the coming weeks for Baghdad. Between them, they have nearly 8,000 soldiers.

Meanwhile, the 5th Brigade from Fort Lewis is using Land Warrior, a somewhat similar system, in southern Afghanistan. Like Tacticomp, unit leaders can see the geographical coordinates of their troops in real-time. The key difference is Tacticomp’s video capability.

The Tacticomp system, made by Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation, costs about $12 million for a brigade.

Soldiers from 4th Brigade tested the equipment two weeks ago, with mixed feelings. Many liked the idea of live video – especially with the ability to tap into the data stream from unmanned aerial vehicles overhead – but some believe carrying the extra gear will make them stand out.

“The video feed is a really good concept,” said Spc. Anthony Morris, an infantryman preparing for his second deployment. “I like the ability to see what guys are talking about. But the extra equipment makes you a big target.”

The individual kit weighs about 8 pounds and includes a handheld controller with a video screen and a camera that can attach to the helmet or body armor. Battalions will decide which soldiers field the equipment, but previous units that have deployed to Iraq with the system have distributed them to platoon leaders and higher.

Each unit receives and transmits data, with a range of 0.6 miles for a handheld device to 1.8 miles for the vehicle computers. Those ranges can be boosted with the help of other antennae or satellites if needed, said Gary Cox, who trained Fort Lewis soldiers on the new system this month.

One battalion of 4th Brigade fielded an early version of Land Warrior during its 2007-08 deployment to Iraq. After some initial hesitation, the soldiers became believers in the system.

“If you know enemy forces are somewhere, I’d like to see it,” said Staff Sgt. Philip King, who used Land Warrior on his previous deployment. “To be able to keep eyes on them as they move, the advantage is astronomical. Before, we had to guess where they were going.”

Pfc. Charles Lane, an artilleryman from Minnesota, agreed that the video is the system’s best feature.

“If you can spot a target (with the system), it’s easier to identify where it’s coming from,” said Lane, 27. “Telling people where a target is just doesn’t always do it.”

Some soldiers disliked how the system didn’t interact with the Stryker vehicle’s internal communications network. Instead, they had to tap into Tacticomp from a freestanding computer.

But the most frequent complaint many soldiers had with the new system was the timing.

This month was the first time many members of 4th Brigade had a chance to use it, but their vehicles and other hardware had already been shipped to Iraq. So instead of wearing their full battle kit and storming a mock village in the forests of Fort Lewis, they studied PowerPoint slides and tested the Tacticomp gear while walking around a gravel parking area.

Joe Reed, vice president of Sierra Nevada Corporation, acknowledges the training timetable “is not really ideal.” But he said the troops will get more practice with it when they arrive in the Middle East.

“Honestly, we’re not sure what the system is capable of,” said Spc. Charlie Denune, a Tacoma native. “I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

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