Soldiers are putting the Army's futuristic systems through their paces.
Under pressure from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Army leaders will be spending the dog days of August at the drawing board reconfiguring the service's mammoth modernization program known as Future Combat Systems. In a key change, instead of fielding 15 combat brigades with FCS components, the service will begin integrating FCS technologies as they become ready into all of the Army's 73 brigade combat teams beginning in 2011. Units scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq will be upgraded first.
While leaders grapple with how best to salvage the service's $18 billion investment in research and development of an array of sensors, manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles, and the communications network linking them, one aspect of the program will not change, says Army spokesman Paul Mehney. "All of these technologies are being tested by combat veterans who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan," he says.
In 2006, service leaders established the Army Evaluation Task Force at Fort Bliss, Texas, a brigade designed specifically to test FCS technologies before they are put in the hands of soldiers. "You often find there are third-, fourth- and fifth-order effects," when you introduce new equipment into combat formations, says Col. Patrick Fetterman, deputy director of the Future Force Integration Directorate, which oversees the task force and integrates lessons learned there into Army training and doctrine. "You may need more people, you may need to adjust how [the equipment] operates with regard to other systems."
It's a phenomenon Fetterman understands well. The first time he saw a robotic ground vehicle being developed under FCS, he was commanding troops in Afghanistan in the summer of 2002. The small tracked vehicle, a 30-pound collection of optical and audio sensors connected to an operator by a 200-meter fiber-optic cable, looked more like an expensive child's toy than anything in an infantryman's arsenal.
"Soldiers are initially skeptical of anything, especially in combat," he says. "It's new. It probably doesn't work." Fetterman, then a lieutenant colonel in command of an infantry battalion in the 101st Airborne Corps, turned the machine over to one of his soldiers. "At first he was like, 'Sir, I don't really want to use it.' And then after we'd used it a couple of times, it was like, 'Hey sir, this is great,' " Fetterman says.
The robot proved useful for exploring caves-potential al Qaeda hide-outs-and saved grunts from having to crawl through animal droppings or confront an enemy ambush. It was especially helpful when sent into enclosed courtyards where insurgents were thought to be hiding.
He recalls one particular operation to clear a compound where a high-value target was believed to be staying. "We didn't have a lot of options, so our plan was to go in hard to the compound because we thought the target was there." When the soldiers discovered a hole under the locked gate large enough for the robot to fit through, they sent it in first. "We got back pictures of women and children," Fetterman said. "There was no threat we could discern."
So instead of going in hard, the soldiers cut the lock and walked into the compound. The insurgent they sought wasn't there. In fact, they found no men at all. "I became a believer" in the robot, says Fetterman.
Because the unit was using the robot under an experimental program in Af-ghanistan, they didn't have it when they deployed to Iraq in 2003. There, they were given responsibility for clearing the Baghdad Airport of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard forces. "We sure could have used it," Fetterman says. "It took a whole company of soldiers to run down [a number of] tunnels, chasing a relatively small number of bad guys."
That's not to say the robot was perfect. After working with it, soldiers realized it would be a lot more useful if it could operate wirelessly, without the fiber-optic cable. They wanted it to be lighter, with a handle on it, to make it easier to throw over an 8-foot wall. The contractor has since made those modifications.
By establishing the Evaluation Task Force, Army leaders are able to test elements of FCS "in a relatively benign environment, where there's nobody actually shooting at us, but with soldiers and all the other systems [they use in battle] so we can understand the impact and interoperability challenges associated with putting this into a regular formation," Fetterman says. "I recognize there are warts with this program, but it's going to contribute immeasurably to the effectiveness of our formations if we can stick with it and deliver some aspect, if not the whole thing."