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Tactical Internet Key to Digital Battlefield

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 6, 2000 – U.S. Army Spc. Kevin Lash may not realize it, but he is truly a soldier of the future.

While he's learning military tactics and strategy from senior service members, they're also learning some skills from the young soldier that will help them on tomorrow's digital battlefield.

Since Lash joined the military as a combat engineer less than three years ago, he has used advanced technology to do his job. Like most young people today, the 24-year-old native of El Paso, Texas, grew up with video games, computers and software programs and is accustomed to the tools of the information age.

This high-tech background serves Lash well in his current assignment with the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. Each day the young soldier applies his ingrained computer skills in the Army outfit that has been on the cutting edge of the digital battlefield for more than three years.

As the Army's experimental unit known as Force 21, the 4th Infantry Division has worked with contractors, acquisition experts, trainers and strategists to develop warfighting skills and equipment for the 21st century. Lash and other division personnel are learning exactly what advanced technology can add to the battlefield.

Satellite imagery, unmanned aerial vehicles and other advanced equipment are at one end of the digital spectrum. Lash, who drives a High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle -- a "Humvee" -- for Lt. Col. Jeff Bedey, commander, 299th Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade, 4th Inf. Div., is at the other end. He's at ground level.

In the past, the driver and the commander would navigate using terrain maps. No more. Lash and Bedey now have a computer installed in the front seat of their Humvee that they say vastly improves their situational awareness. Along with standard radio transmissions, they can now use the computer to send and receive digital messages.

By the end of 2000, each division fighting vehicle -- or "platform" in Army terms -- is slated to be equipped with a computer linked to the Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below system. The vehicle-mounted network of computers, radios, routers and integrating equipment exchanges location and status information with each other and with higher echelons.

A digital map shows a near-real-time location of friendly and enemy forces, according to officials at TRW Systems and Information Technology, one of the companies helping the Army apply new information technology as a force multiplier. As the vehicles move, the wireless network adapts to the terrain and other factors. The system automatically identifies the vehicle's location and keeps it centered on the map as the vehicle moves.

The network allows the force to coordinate movements even when visibility is limited. It also enables the force to spread out further, covering more area, more uniformly.

The system serves as a "tactical Internet," TRW officials said. Soldiers can enter a "spot report" on an enemy location, for example, which is then relayed to brigade- level intelligence officials. At the same time, network screens throughout the force display the spotted enemy as a red icon.

The link to intelligence systems and the future potential for close coordination with unmanned aerial vehicles give the force unmatched knowledge of what they face on the battlefield, TRW officials said. The network also enhances the unit's ability to pass command and control messages such as warnings of a chemical or biological attack.

To get a feel for what this all means in the field, take a quick Humvee ride with Lash and Bedey as they talk about their state-of-the-art equipment.

"The display and keyboard is an all-weather, CPU (central processing unit)," Lash explained, indicating the computer screen and attached keyboard positioned between the front seats. "This is our precision lightweight GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver -- this gives the system its global positioning. On the rear left fender is mounted the EPLRS (Enhanced Position Location Reporting System) which lets our computer transmit all the data for messages.

"This is our stylus," he continued, indicating a pencil- like pointer attached to the monitor by a wire. "This lets us utilize the touch screen. This is your date-time group, local coms and GPS. This is our Flash, Immediate Priority Routine message box.

"Each one of these small blue icons represents a different platform, which is an individual vehicle," Lash said. "These rectangular icons represent battalion-sized elements. The autocenter button centers the map to the vehicle that this is mounted in. Whenever the vehicle is in motion the map will continually update itself as far as keeping this icon in the center."

"This is a Hook dialog box that let's us view specific information on any group of platforms," he said. "Right now, this is Platform 1 of 11 platforms in that specific circle. It gives you the tag of the vehicle, what it is ." He pointed to an icon on his screen. "This is an MP vehicle. The system gives you the date and time group, what their grid is, the quality of their GPS, where it is and what kind of vehicle it is."

Absorbing the information the moving icons and other digital data conveys comes easy to Lash, who said the system is "a great benefit" on the battlefield. "It makes navigation a lot easier. It helps a lot as far as combat goes. It lets us know where our guys are so we don't end up hurting anyone that we don't want to.

"The messaging is a great help. The way the system is set up, you'll always know that the place you were trying to send the message to actually got it. With the radios, you can't always be too sure, or you just may not be able to contact them."

Bedey, of Hamilton, Mont., has spent the past nine months of his 17-year Army career with Force 21. He said computers were not commonplace when he joined the Army in 1983. For some older service members, working on the screen instead of on paper takes some getting used to. He said it's like "going from the horse to the Model A."

"There was nothing like this in the past," the commander said. "This is a cultural change. It may be more of a cultural change for the older generation -- me -- compared to my driver, who grew up in a computer-based environment and society. I have a five-year-old who can sit at my computer at home and do things that amaze me. My 10-year- old can do more than I can do."

"My overall reaction is that this will prove to be a great combat multiplier for the Army and Department of Defense," Bedey said. "This system is going to save the lives of a lot of soldiers. I truly believe this will help us to reduce fratricide throughout the armed forces. And it's going to give us an edge on the battlefield here in the 21st century."

Young soldiers quickly adapt to the new equipment, Bedey commented. "This system is just a means of communicating digitally, and its the same keyboard as on a computer and the same basic type of applications."

Getting back to the exercise under way, Bedey pointed out that the screen would soon show a company-sized element as it maneuvered forward of the brigade's main body. "You're about to see a movement to contact -- a form of offensive operations that the Army will fight when they do not know the disposition of the enemy.

"They'll be maneuvering in M-2 Bradleys and M-1 Abrams tanks," he said. "They'll be moving forward in an attempt to locate and fix the enemy. You'll be able to look with the binoculars or the naked eye and see the tanks, and you'll be able to look down on the screen and see where they're moving."

As the tanks rumbled past, Bedey highlighted the fact that information about enemy forces can also be plugged into the system. "This is situational awareness, almost on the verge of being situational dominance," he said.

"Here we have a scout who spotted an enemy T-80 tank," he said, pointing to a red icon on the screen. "He entered it on his keyboard and was able to broadcast. No more sending by voice, where it might be garbled in transmission. It would pop up on the screen throughout the force as a red icon.

"This tells you, as you're moving, that you need to stay away from that location because there's a bad guy there. Or, this is how I can outmaneuver to close with and destroy that enemy."

Bedey's unit includes combat bulldozers and other engineer equipment. He said the new navigational and communication aspects of the system would help both combat and support assets.

"You no longer have to worry about that soldier driving that fuel-tanker getting lost," he said. "He can see himself (on the screen) and can see where he's going."

Eventually, Bedey predicted, the system will be voice- activated. Soldiers will be able to speak commands rather than use a touch screen or keyboard.

"We're a society that continues to progress," the commander said. "That's why we're the most powerful nation in the world. Because of that, we'll continue to go forward and we need to really leverage this information age and the technology before us. We, the Army, and we, the United States of America, are doing that."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Spc. Kevin Lash (left) watches tanks rumble past his location as Lt. Col. Jeff Bedey watches the action on the Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below computer system mounted in their Humvee. Both soldiers are assigned to 299th Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. The vehicle-mounted network of computers, radios, routers and integrating equipment exchanges location and status information with each other and with higher echelons. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageLt. Col. Jeff Bedey, commander, 299th Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, at Fort Hood, Texas, uses a stylus while checking data on the Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below computer system mounted in his Humvee. The vehicle-mounted computers, radios, routers and integrating equipment exchange location and status information with others in the network and with higher echelons. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.   
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