In 2012, the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division will deploy to Afghanistan, and when they do, they will be bringing along with them a good chunk of what remains of the Future Combat Systems package--a suite of technologies that at one time included everything from unmanned ground and air vehicles to soldier radios.
Despite the hype surrounding Secretary Gates’ “canceling” of the program in April 2009, much of the FCS kit continues life in two separate programs, the Ground Combat Vehicle program which replaced the Manned Combat Vehicle, and the E-IBCT (ahem, Early Infantry Brigade Combat Team) package which consists of such FCS stalwarts as the Urban and Tactical Unattended Ground Sensors; Unmanned Aerial Vehicle; Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle; and the Network Integration Kit (NIK) which enables data sharing and the Command and Control (C2) of systems.
About 800 soldiers from the Army Evaluation Task Force have been camped out in the desert at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico since June, putting these technologies (save the Ground Combat Vehicle) through their paces in a series of face-offs between two small American-manned forward operating bases (complete with Afghan National Army soldiers) and two “Afghan villages” populated by soldiers playing locals who were sitting on hidden weapons caches, launching IED attacks, and trying to disrupt American operations.
Standing in front of a Taliban “safe house” last Friday, Lt. Col. Luke Peterson, product manager for network systems for PEO Integration told Ares that “we’re really stressing the network” during these tests, with soldiers sending and receiving a large volume of data over the network just like they would during real operations. “This is now a planning factor for the commander,” Peterson said. “How do I plan my network? How do I fight my network? Where do I strategically place my assets in the field so I can optimize the bandwidth to the right unit that might need it at that time?”
The units are using the new MRAP All Terrain Vehicles (M-ATV) equipped with Network Integration Kits (NIK)—which house the network, radios, and computer systems—to pass this information along the chain of command. Much like the Land Warrior system does, one of the most popular aspects of the new NIK is a chat function, which Sgt. Michael Gimble said he likes “because on the regular [Blue Force Tracking] screen, you have to click on it, display, open, reply to,” making the process slow and cumbersome. But using the NIK, a soldier can simply send a chat to another vehicle, or create a small or large group of people to include on the message. Users can also send large files, operational orders, or photos using the chat function, meaning that as long as the network can bounce information off a series of nodes, units will be able to stay dispersed across a large area. Peterson said that during testing, units have been able to share information up to about 20-25 km. away using the system.
But what about the rest of the technologies? In short, the Urban Unattended Ground Sensor looks like something of a bust, since the blocky, garage door opener-sized units can be easily seen and disabled when placed in a village. Conversely, Tactical Unattended Ground Sensor appears to be a win, since opposing force soldiers told Aresthat they had not been able to find the systems the Americans had placed in the desert surrounding their villages, and which give the soldiers real-time intel on comings and goings into the Taliban stronghold.
But the biggest win – aside from the network which has made huge improvements over the past year and has been up and running consistently during the exercise—appears to the UAV, dubbed the “flying beer keg” due to its small, round shape. 1st Lt. Eric Muirhead, the village Imam and elder at one of the two Taliban strongholds, said that the UAV had been the Americans’ most effective weapon against them, saying that it can be “really annoying.”
The best scene of the day came toward the end, when Capt. Andrew Hitchings, an elder at the other Taliban village, told reporters that he was able to partially neutralize the UAV's effectiveness by flying a kite in its line of sight. The lightweight, manpackable UAV, which can hover in a fixed position a few dozen feet off the ground, is extremely valuable in that respect--but is apparently vulnerable to kites when flown close enough to obscure its view. When his leadership found out what was going on, Capt. Hitchings said, he was told to cease and desist.