Adding laptops to arsenal

SUN JOURNAL

Weapon: In the Mojave Desert, troops test computers, unmanned drones and other equipment that could transform warfare.

August 22, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT IRWIN, Calif. -- It was not long ago that Army Col. Abe Turner would look to a rumpled paper map and a hand-held FM radio to get a fix on an enemy's location.

Now he looks to his laptop computer, where the enemy glides across the screen, red icons on a glowing green relief map, updated every few minutes.

"The system we have now is so much better at painting a picture of what is out there," said Turner, an assistant operations commander with the 82nd Airborne Division, as he sat outside his field tent. "You don't have to waste time guessing anymore. `Is the enemy over the hill?'"

Turner, a 26-year Army veteran, jumped into Panama for the 1989 invasion and two years later was among the first U.S. soldiers deployed for the Persian Gulf war. But on this blazing August afternoon he is taking part in a sweeping multiservice training mission in the Mojave Desert and elsewhere called Millennium Challenge.

During the three-week mission, Turner and the other troops here at the Army's National Training Center are testing a vast array of computers, unmanned drones and lightweight armored vehicles that can quickly maneuver around a battlefield.

Some of the vehicles even sniff the air for chemical and biological weapons. It's all part of an effort to gain an upper hand over a future enemy and defeat him quickly.

"We need to be smarter and quicker, use our guile and leverage information technology to get inside the enemy decision process and affect the operation," Gen. William F. Kernan, commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., told reporters.

Kernan, whose command has mounted the training maneuvers, said that it's possible that information technology could soon transform warfare, much as the crossbow, the tank and the airplane did in earlier times. "The computer may well be the next revolution in military affairs," he said.

When Turner and hundreds of other 82nd Airborne troops parachuted into a desert airfield and captured it from defending forces as part of this exercise, they had nearly a dozen durable laptop computers. The screen showed the enemy in red icons and friendly forces in blue icons. He was able to pinpoint enemy locations and call in artillery and warplanes to suppress those forces.

And other military officers could also see the same bird's-eye view of the battlefield on their computer screens back in Norfolk, Va., or in warships off San Diego. As a result, commanders can watch the pace of the battle, plan for additional forces or determine how a particular fight will affect an overall operation.

Turner said another benefit of a computer pinpointing the location of friendly forces is that it will cut down on the incidents of "friendly fire," the accidental killing of soldiers by their comrades. In the gulf war, one-quarter of the 148 U.S. combat deaths were the result of friendly fire, according to Pentagon statistics.

With the battlefield computers, such deaths "would probably be nonexistent," predicted Turner.

Although the desert war game is set in the year 2007 and involves an unidentified country armed with chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles and armored vehicles, the talk here often turns to a specific nation, Iraq, and the likelihood of a future invasion.

After one Army major demonstrated the computer, called a Maneuver Control System, he remarked, "It could be useful in Iraq."

Besides providing the location of friendly and enemy forces, the MCS is the hub for myriad other computer systems providing details on everything from the location of enemy missiles sites and aircraft to weather conditions and available supplies.

The computers are also able to operate with the information systems of Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Canada.

Besides laptops, soldiers at the Mojave range were also testing the new Stryker, an eight-wheeled 20-ton armored vehicle, chosen by the Army as a lighter and more maneuverable alternative to the Abrams tank and the Bradley fighting vehicle. Two Strykers can fit on a small cargo plane that can land on a primitive airfield.

At the captured airfield, 14 Strykers roll down the ramps of C-130 transport planes. Aided with similar battlefield computers, they are off to attack a chemical weapons facility and a ballistic missile site.

There are no live rounds fired in the exercises. Sensors on soldiers and equipment are used to keep score of hits and misses.

Maj. Jim Lechner, the Stryker battalion's executive officer from Fort Lewis, Wash., said the superior information they received and the vehicle's easy maneuvering help them capture the two enemy sites, after letting air power and artillery soften up the targets.

"We were able to learn where the enemy was and avoid them," he said.

But even with better information, there are hazards.

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