A Soldier’s Eye in the Sky
August 11, 2009
New York Times
By Christopher Drew
The soldiers crouched beneath the blazing desert sun, waiting to burst into the villages in conditions similar to those they have encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But this time, they got some high-tech help in an exercise intended to prove that new devices operated by the soldiers themselves can make those harrowing missions less dangerous in the future.
As the mock attack began on the sprawling military base here, tiny drones hovered overhead, peering through the windows to see insurgents gathered inside the houses. Small robots — like R2-D2 in “Star Wars” — crawled through some of the doors, flashing back live video of the startled enemy’s positions. Electronic sensors placed nearby watched escape routes. And a battery of six-foot-high missiles stood at the ready farther out in the desert to destroy vehicles that tried to rush in to help the insurgents.
“When I was in Iraq, we couldn’t see what we were busting into,” said Specialist Randall Thompson, who operates the robots. “But with this equipment, we can at least get a peek.”
Army officials are trying to distance the relatively small-scale effort, which still faces some technical hurdles, from the shadow of a much broader program recently canceled that was to have created a truly modern military, with a new generation of combat vehicles and a vast wireless network.
As they go back to the drawing board for the big equipment, Army officials say these smaller technologies could make a difference sooner for the soldiers who take on some of the most dangerous missions hunting out insurgents.
The new equipment, being developed by Boeing and other contractors, is expected to cost about $2 billion for the first seven brigades. Each has at least 3,000 soldiers, and the equipment is about two years away from use in the field. By 2025, the Army plans to create similar gear and other improvements for all 73 of its active and reserve brigades.
The changes also illustrate a shift in Pentagon contracting toward more incremental upgrades and a greater use of commercial technologies. For instance, iRobot, a Massachusetts company that has developed robots for home vacuum-cleaning and industrial uses, is building the Army’s robots.
Officials say the new devices will help transform basic infantry brigades, which have shouldered the bulk of the fighting in both wars even though they have far less protection and firepower than armored units.
The drones resemble flying lawnmower engines about the size of a beer keg that land on four curved wire feet. With the cameras on the drones acting like spotters, the ground-launched six-foot missiles, called “rockets in a box,” will eventually enable soldiers to destroy hostile forces more than 20 miles away without having to call in help from artillery units or other aircraft, Army officials say.
The robots could also search caves and cars at hazardous checkpoints. And the sensors could guard outposts and monitor areas cleared of insurgents, freeing more soldiers to fight.
“I think the difference is going to be huge,” Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, a deputy Army chief of staff, said in an interview.
Col. Lee Fetterman, who is helping to oversee the testing here, said the new technologies were “methods of transferring risk from soldiers to machines, which we’re all for.”
The defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, broke up the broader effort to modernize the Army, called Future Combat Systems, in June. He was concerned about potential cost increases — it was headed for at least $160 billion — and he questioned whether the new combat vehicles would provide enough protection against roadside bombs.
Compared with that broader vision, “it seems like an awful lot of expectations have come down to a pretty small litter,” said Representative Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat of Hawaii, who heads a House subcommittee that oversees the Army.
Mr. Gates, who ordered the Army to go back to the drawing board on the combat vehicles, and Congressional leaders like Mr. Abercrombie have urged the military to supply the enhancements for the infantry as quickly as it can.
So 1,150 soldiers, most with experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, have been testing the gear here at Fort Bliss, which straddles Texas and New Mexico, and the adjacent White Sands Missile Range, where the mix of desert, mountains and 100-degree temperatures echo recent combat conditions.
Most of the soldiers are enthusiastic about the new capabilities. Some Army units already have tiny hand-held drones and robots that can disarm roadside bombs while the operator is a safe distance away. But the new drones, made by Honeywell, are designed to hover over a crucial spot on a battlefield like helicopters, instead of flying in a wide circle. And if an assault squad needed, for example, to toss the 35-pound robot though a window, where it happened to land on its back, it would flip itself over and start shooting video.
The sensors, designed by Textron, send alerts and pictures from the field or from the inside of buildings. One device, which can be buried near a road, can even discern from seismic readings whether people, trucks or tanks are passing by or approaching.
The precision-guided missiles could represent a major advance. Fifteen of them can fit into a refrigerator-size launcher. They are being designed, by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, to go over or swerve around hills and mountains and update their course in midflight. The warheads are supposed to be powerful enough to destroy a moving tank, making infantry brigades more potent than ever.
But some of the systems have obvious flaws. Even from several hundred feet high, the drone sounds like a lawn mower, and Honeywell is looking to muffle the noise. The soldiers here have also suggested changes, like redesigning the field sensors to make them less detectable.
And Army officials say it will be the ability, which is still being developed, to link all these systems wirelessly that could provide the biggest enhancement.
In the tests, the soldiers controlling the drones, robots and sensors could receive streaming video on laptops or other devices. But the network does not have enough bandwidth or range to send more than photographs to platoon leaders in Humvees and from there on to headquarters.
Even the photos are a big improvement over the mostly voice and data communications now in use. But the Army expects a sophisticated new radio, which has run into costly delays, to be available to extend the network’s video capabilities by the time the new equipment goes into full production in 2011.
The Government Accountability Office, a Congressional watchdog agency, has warned that the Army is taking a risk in testing the rest of the gear before that radio transmitter is ready. But Army officials say they will take that chance to push out the new devices as quickly as possible.
“It’s like the saying goes: A picture is worth 1,000 words,” said Lt. Col. Kevin D. Hendricks, a battalion commander involved in the recent exercise.
“If I can get early warning that an armored vehicle is coming down the road, and I can hit that vehicle with a precision-guided munition before any of my soldiers come into contact with it, that’s the way I’d like to fight every war,” he added.