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Digital World Meets Combat During Desert Exercise

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 18, 2001 – "A hammer isn't a tool until you learn how to use it," said a specialist with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Aviation, here. "It's the same with this."

"This" is a computer set-up that allows commanders at many levels to talk, exchange information and perform many missions. The Army calls the 4th Infantry Division the first "digital division." Members of two brigades of the division are here learning to use their new digital tools during the Capstone Exercise April 1-14.

Officials said the system is a concrete example of what the term "information superiority" means. Army Col. John Antal, exercise chief of staff, said the system allows commanders to know exactly where all their vehicles are and -- with input from intelligence systems -- where the enemy is.

At the heart of this capability is the Force 21 Battle Command, Brigade and Below system. The FBCB2 system is mounted in vehicles and gives commanders a network to work from. This wireless digital network allows them to share information in a way impossible before. It's a concrete example of the route all the services will take to create the U.S. military detailed in Joint Vision 2020.

"You hear the expression 'reading from the same sheet of music' all the time," said Army Maj. Gen. Steve Boutelle, program executive officer for command, control and communications systems at Fort Monmouth, N.J. "This really does put commanders on the same sheet of music."

Essentially, the tactical network mimics the Internet. Commercial software runs the system and any casual computer user should be able to figure out how to navigate the system easily. On the screen, friendly forces are shown in blue. Enemy forces -- when found -- appear in red.

Each vehicle has an FBCB2 unit that continually updates the network with the position of the vehicle. Commanders can access the network and pull out the information they need. Like the Internet, a number of users can use the information at once. Gone are the days when commanders put out information via radio, land line or by delivering map overlays in person.

"Now, with the FBCB2, if an Abrams spots an enemy vehicle, the crew puts a laser on it and automatically it appears on the net," said Col. Tom Begines, an Army spokesman. But that red symbol doesn't just show up on the FBCB2 display in the tank, it appears on every console in the network.

The information grid includes many means of getting information into it. A sandstorm at Fort Irwin demonstrated the facility of this. Officials said that at one point during the exercise a wind kicking at up to 60 miles per hour obscured the battlefield. An attack was coming in and all aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles were grounded. Yet the 2nd brigade of the 4th was able to continue the mission and in fact kick butt because JSTARS aircraft flying above the storm put information into the grid. Antal said the brigade destroyed roughly 60 percent of the attacking force.

Command and control issues are obviously the big plus on the networked battlefield. Commanders know precisely where their forces are, which helps cut down on friendly fire incidents. In addition, data such as grid coordinates become a digital transmission rather than having people try to radio in coordinates.

A forward observer, for example, can call for fire, give the coordinates and adjust fire using the FBCB2. There need not be a radio call.

The FBCB2 has access to the latest maps from the National Imaging and Mapping Agency. Weather information can also be part of the display.

Officials said operations orders could be modified as an operation progresses. New information and new situations can be fed into the network and all on the net can access these.

The system is having teething problems. "We're still learning," Antal said. He said as the crews use the system, they are becoming more familiar with its capabilities. It is entirely possible, he said, that the warfighters might come up with uses for the system that the technical experts did not foresee.

The system does crash, he said. Individual consoles lose communications with the network. "But others still work," Antal said. "And the 'carbon units' jump off their tanks to pass information to others."

Officials said they would take the lessons learned from the exercise and apply them to newer issues of the system. Army officials said the system is part of a heavy division now, but it could be fielded by the lighter divisions envisioned for the future.

"This really is transforming the military to meet the threats posed by enemies in the 21st century," Boutelle said. "The war here has taken the theory and made a leap to reality."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe battalion intelligence NCO briefs a soldier during the Division Capstone Exercise at Fort Irwin, Calif., April 5, 2001. Behind the NCO is the display showing the position of friendly and enemy forces. Photo by Jim Garamone.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA computer sergeant places orders onto the tactical internet during the Division Capstone Exercise at Fort Irwin, Calif., April 5, 2001. Photo by Jim Garamone.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageUnits that have gone through training at Fort Irwin, Calif., paint their insignia on these rocks near the entrance to the desert training center. Photo by Jim Garamone.  
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