FORT BLISS, Texas (Army News Service, Aug. 7, 2008) -- Soldiers of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion participated in a three-day training exercise at DoAfA+-a Ana Range Complex, N.M., July 28-30 that tested the experimental technologies of the Army Future Combat Systems.

The exercise was the culmination of seven months of work for FCS project managers, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Army Test and Evaluation Command, and operational testers for the first formal operational assessment of FCS Spin Out equipment last week.

Originally planned as a way to build a future-combat brigade combat team by 2015, the immediate usefulness of the technologies has since become apparent, said Col. Ralph DeLuca, project manager for FCS Spin Out.

"What we found out, especially with the war coming along, was that we had some capabilities that would be useful for the Soldiers that are in the field today - or at least sooner than 2015," said DeLuca. "So the Army went back, looked at that and decided to spin out some of the systems from the core program."

Two of those systems are the Micro Air Vehicle - officially called the Class 1 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, Block 0 - and the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle. Both are crowd favorites.

"It's really easy," said Spc. David Mitchell, tanker with C Company, 2nd CAB, based at Fort Bliss, referring to the MAV. "It's like flying a remote-controlled plane, really - only it's slower. You can hit 'stop' if you don't know what you're doing, or you can make it hover. It makes it really easy to fly."

Mitchell has been a part of 2nd CAB for a year and a half, and has training on the MAV and the SUGV (pronounced "Sug-vee"). He said it takes a week to get trained up on the MAV, with retraining for new cameras and other upgrades. So far, he's flown the MAV - his favorite piece of equipment out here - about 15 times.

"It's pretty interesting," Mitchell said about his role of testing the Army's experimental systems. "Sometimes it's frustrating because it's new and doesn't work all the time. Other times it works great. That's what we're going to have in Iraq, so we're trying to get it the best we can."

The SUGV is another popular item among Soldiers. The user wears a pair of clear glasses with a camera eyepiece and drives the robot with a video game controller. Soldiers can send the treaded robot, which is equipped with multiple cameras, to inspect possible roadside bombs or to enter buildings with suspected insurgents.

A less visible, but major, component of the systems is the adaptive, network of digital radios and broadband communication tools.
"Part of the future of the Army is to have a ubiquitous network, end-to-end, that allows the Soldier from the foxhole to get intelligence or situational awareness from higher - and also for whatever he's collecting to go higher," DeLuca said.

DeLuca added that most riflemen today don't have their own voice radios, but said he hopes someday each Soldier will have his own digital voice radio and that each squad leader has his own digital satellite antenna.

Though Soldiers weren't using the entire network setup at the FCS site, the core of that system was embedded in their Humvees. More commonly called "B-Kits," the systems make use of equipment called Joint Tactical Radio System Ground Mobile Radios for use in vehicles.

The networking kit enables Soldiers to use new types of radios that use broadband communication across the battlefield, DeLuca explained. The adaptive network could even determine the distance between radios.

"If it has to increase power to send the data over that distance, it will do that if it can," he said. "Or, if it actually has to decrease power - because maybe that's not as important a transmission as another transmission, or the distance isn't as great - it will do that as well."

Other FCS Spin Out platforms include unattended ground sensors designed to alert Soldiers to enemy movement and the Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System, also called "Rockets in a Box."

At one time, DeLuca said, the Army planned three different spinouts. The first spinout initially targeted heavy brigade combat teams, but Army leadership determined a few months ago that infantry brigade combat teams possessed the greatest capability gap, he said.

Now the restructured spinout has the Army focusing all efforts on IBCT's with two phases: the early phase and what's known as the threshold phase. The current and early phase calls for systems to be fielded by the end of fiscal 2011, DeLuca said. Further upgrades - the threshold phase - are scheduled to be tested in 2013 and fielded in 2014.

"We're really at the beginning of a long journey, and one of the reasons we're out here in this culminating event is to make our final assessment of where we have to go," DeLuca said. "We know that some stuff worked; some stuff didn't work so well."

The three-day training scenarios put 2nd Combined Arms Battalion Soldiers through both defensive and offensive postures, each of which they took on with and without the new FCS technologies.

To DeLuca, the exercise showed the capabilities these experimental systems add to the IBCT, in the limited context. With spinout equipment, he said Soldiers used indirect fire to subdue targets. Without the equipment, though, Soldiers couldn't use intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets remotely -- but still accomplished the mission with direct fire.

"You can imagine that when you're doing it by direct fire, you're in more danger than when you're doing it by indirect fire, because what we've allowed the Soldiers here to do is to be able to see the area that they would normally have to go into blind," he said.

"What I like best about all of this is that we're getting an opportunity to use tools we've already learned and integrate them now with the new age of battle - new robotics, early warning devices and all that kind of stuff," said Sgt. Matthew Senna, A Co., 2nd CAB. "It's pretty much, in the long run, going to keep Soldiers alive."

Even though it works in training scenarios, DeLuca said the equipment is in relatively early stages. Normally, equipment in these stages of development wouldn't land in Soldiers' hands to test for about two years. In the past, TRADOC leaders would normally come through Army development labs to give advice, he said - but nothing quite like this.

"What's not normal here is to have an entire unit that's formed to use our equipment in this early stage of development and give us feedback on it - understanding that, for them, sometimes that can be frustrating because parts of it don't work well; parts of it work really well," he said.

"That disparity is confusing," DeLuca added. "Soldiers are used to getting equipment that works right away. What we're asking for them to do is to use stuff that we're just starting with and give us feedback, so when it actually gets deployed, it does work right away for the Soldier."

(Stephen Baack serves with the Fort Bliss Public Affairs Office.)