The Night Hawk unmanned aerial system cut a small black figure in the darkening sky, repeating a pattern that began at the treeline looming about 50 meters from the village’s outermost houses, and disappearing for a few minutes as it traveled out over the forest. Third Squad had set up shop in two of the houses facing the treeline and sat tight listening to the deep growl of an unmanned ground vehicle prowling through the streets.
From time to time some locals would walk by, watched intently by soldiers wary of suicide bombers. When a small clutch of men seemed to show deference to one man in particular, indicating that he was someone of importance, Staff Sgt. Robert Hollett grabbed his iPhone, snapped a picture as the man walked by, and immediately uploaded it to a digital map viewable by everyone in the company and accessible on the various handheld devices issued to the other squads elsewhere in the village.
Just after Hollett snapped the picture, third squad was told to move to another house, as the Night Hawk had picked up enemy forces moving toward the town from another direction. As they moved out, they flipped on brand new night vision goggles that gave them not only the ability to zoom in on an object, but also a one-flip thermal imaging capability so sensitive that it is capable of picking up the residual body heat left on a wall after someone had leaned against it, or left by recent footfalls on the ground.
But even with these multiple sensors and communications tools and unmanned systems at their disposal, when the enemy finally attacked, the soldiers put away their whizbang technologies and were ordered to plunge into the woods to flank and eliminate a heavy machine gun that was causing havoc. Seems that in the end--tablets and digital maps aside--combat is still conducted by infantrymen maneuvering and shooting people at close range. They're assisted by technology in this work, but the brute facts of closing and eliminating the enemy remains much the same.
During the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment (AEWE) currently taking place at Ft. Benning, Ga.—where all this action went down late last week—the service is putting forty-six experimental technologies in the hands of a company of infantrymen and connecting it all to a 4G wireless network to see what the soldiers make of it.
The exercise has pitted a company-sized force against a hybrid opposing force that also has access to an unmanned drone and some night vision equipment, and which moves against the soldiers in trying to gain control of the town. But the focus of the exercise is on the squad, and what technologies squad leaders may be able to employ to allow them to act more independently on the battlefield.
One of the big winners from the event appears to be Raytheon’s One Force Tactical Communications System, which SSGT Hollett used to upload the picture to the network and which acts something like a handheld Blue Force Tracker. Another hit is the new night vision goggles made by ITT, which was the first thing soldiers praised whenever I asked what piece of gear they liked most. Some soldiers have also been issued tablets from which they watch feeds from unmanned systems and sensors and track troop movements, and the Army has rolled out a number of new fuel cell technologies, sustainment gear and new remote resupply technologies.
The exercise is kind of like the littler, scrappier cousin of the brigade-sized Network Evaluation Exercise that the Army conducts at Ft. Bliss twice a year, which has become central to testing modernization efforts. But what is happening at Benning is pretty important stuff too, and I’ll have a few more posts this week about my time there.