WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Feb. 13, 2007) - Testing for some of the systems slated for the first "spin out" of the Army's Future Combat Systems program has gone well, except for one minor glitch: the Soldiers testing them don't want to give the prototypes back.
"They won't give me back my stuff," joked Maj. Gen. Charles A. Cartwright, program manager for the Future Combat Systems Brigade Combat Team, as he briefed reporters on the progress of the program at the Pentagon last week.
The FCS is a "family" of a variety of manned and unmanned vehicles, sensors, launch systems and unmanned aerial vehicles. All are connected by a common network with the Soldier. Some systems within the family are marked for an early fielding in an effort to get the technologies to the Soldier as early as fiscal 2008.
Dubbed Experiment 1.1, the testing ran in three phases, starting in July 2006 and finishing this month. Already, some of the systems are garnering rave reviews from the combat veterans testing them. It was the first time that Soldiers collectively employed FCS systems in "live" training and used the system's computer-based training support package, officials said.
"They loved it," said Col. Charles C. Bush, FCS division chief. "What the FCS spin-out is all about is getting information down to the Soldier level so they can use it. Experiment 1.1 was designed to test the tools that will get them more tactical information on the battlefield."
Soldiers tested the initial version of the network operating system, the joint tactical radio system, the tactical and urban unattended ground sensors, the small unmanned ground vehicle, the Class I unmanned aerial vehicle and the non-line-of-sight launch system.
Officials taped responses from the Soldiers testing the equipment and played them at the briefing. The common theme among the mix of commissioned and noncommissioned officers was that using the new systems will save lives in combat. The systems worked together to increase efficiency and mitigate risks to Soldiers. The combat veterans extolled the usefulness of the equipment, giving examples of actual fights in Iraq where they could have used the systems.
"I became a big believer," one NCO said.
"All they need to do is get it out to the Soldier and start training on it," another said.
One Soldier said the robot vehicles, sensors and the unmanned aerial vehicles help eliminate what he referred to as "The Big 'What if''"
Robots can be sent into buildings instead of Soldiers to identify booby traps and insurgents. Unmanned aerial vehicles can be flown over hills and walls, allowing Soldiers to see what is on the other side. The sensors can be placed on flanks and in buildings to detect enemy movement. All are tied to a network that the Soldier can monitor on a screen mounted in his Humvee.
It's about seeing the enemy before he sees you, Bush said.
"Instead of sending 'Private Snuffy' in the room to see if there is a booby trap, you send a robot in there," Bush said. "From a tactical perspective, giving the Soldier the ability to see inside a room is pretty powerful."
Two Soldiers testing the robot vehicle agreed.
"It would have saved our lives," one said, referring to a booby trap discovered by the robot vehicle during the testing.
Bush said nothing like the tactical and urban sensors are currently fielded at the Soldier level. Some sensors are used by specialized military intelligence units, but that information is not immediately accessible by the Soldier at a squad or platoon level. An earlier prototype of the small unmanned ground vehicle is being used in Iraq to investigate tunnels and possible IEDs, he said.
The Class I unmanned aerial vehicle was tested in Hawaii by 29th Infantry Division Soldiers working through a mission readiness exercise.
"The Soldiers loved that thing," Bush said.
Its effectiveness was problematic for the trainers, though, because the Soldiers were finding all of the "planted" roadside bombs and taking alternative routes. As a result, they were missing out on intentional training on how to react to an IED.
"It gives them ability to see the enemy before they run into them, and lets them maneuver more effectively," Bush said.
The FCS systems will also help Soldiers make better, faster decisions on the battlefield. A sensor will let them know, for example, that a vehicle is approaching, and video from the sensor will let the Soldier know if it is a suspicious vehicle.
"It will put capabilities into the hands of Soldiers that they don't have now," Bush said.
"It's tough in that kind of environment to identify one individual from another individual - who's the terrorist," he said. "The more tools you give the Soldier the easier it is."
The bottom line for the combat veterans testing the new systems was that robots, sensors and information on the battlefield translate to more troops coming home alive.
"If the robot gets blown up, oh well. You still have a Soldier with you," an NCO said.
One combat commander said if his unit had had the systems in Iraq, it would have saved an NCO's life, his squad leader's legs and his team leader's hand.
The initial version of the network operating system, the joint tactical radio system, the tactical and urban unattended ground sensors and the non-line-of-sight launch system are funded for the first spin-out of FCS systems starting in fiscal 2008.
There is no funding currently for the small unmanned ground vehicle and the Class I unmanned aerial vehicle for the first spin-out. They are slated as options in spin-out 2, if funding is available.
(Fred W. Baker III writes for the American Forces Press Service.)