Usmc Cpl Shawn C. Rhodes
Marine Cpl. Wesley S. Fomin checking to make sure the counter mortar radar at his base camp in Iraq is sighted properly to maintain its accuracy.
By Senior correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 7/18/2005 10:25:14 AM ET 2005-07-18T14:25:14

In an aging office park not far from the Ferris wheels and boardwalks of the New Jersey shore, the Army’s fight against Iraq’s insurgents and Afghanistan’s Taliban is in high gear.  Here, where among other things the aircraft altimeter was invented (1933), the first “walkie-talkie” was developed (1936), and where the Army trained courier pigeons until 1957, engineers and researchers are working on ways to counter two of the most deadly and effective weapons in the arsenal of America’s enemies: mortar attacks and IEDs -- or “improvised explosive devices.” Collectively, these two weapons have taken more than 500 American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past three years.

“A very significant portion of Army casualties comes from mortars and IEDs,” says Larry Smith, deputy chief of staff for operations and planning at the base. “We have people working on things that save American lives, and we’ve been working full out ever since Sept. 12, 2001.”

At the start of next month, Fort Monmouth will begin shipping to eager units in Southwest Asia the fruits of its research  -– an important software update to a portable radar array its engineers developed several years ago.

The array is known as “Lightweight Counter Mortar Radar” and it was designed to provide protection for special operations forces routinely forced to set up camp behind enemy lines, where attack can come from any direction.

Deployed by U.S. Army Rangers for the first time in early 2004, it allows American troops to quickly identify the exact spot that a mortar round originated and, if all goes well, destroy the weapon before it can get off another round or move to a new position. In June, after just six months of seeing the LCMR in action, the Army named it one of the inventions of the year, and commanders have credited Fort Monmouth and the LCMR’s contractor, Syracuse Research Corp., with saving dozens of lives.

Larry Bovino, the senior engineer who oversaw development of the radar, says the updating coming this month is much in demand: a software rewrite that will allow the very same radar system not only to direct “counter battery fire” but also to give off a warning signal before even the first round hits.

“Over the past year or so, with the LCMR in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, people came to us and said that the early warning piece would really be nice,” he said. “The update will go out in a CD. It should be as easy as putting a new game on your computer.”

'Not very sexy stuff'
Work like that done at Fort Monmouth and the two dozen other major military laboratories in the United States often gets obscured by the more compelling news from the front lines. “Sometimes, it’s just not very sexy stuff,” says Smith, who has risen to the upper levels of management at Fort Monmouth since arriving in 1976 as an intern. “But we also have a lot of sensitive stuff that can’t be discussed freely for security reasons.”

Michael Moran / MSNBC.com
Larry Smith, deputy chief of staff for operations and planning at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.
Among the more recent “home runs” hit by the Fort’s various labs: new “Joint Network Node” radios that allow even small units to bounce vital communications off of satellites rather than relying on unreliable “line-of-sight” radio signals; the phraselator – a handheld device that “speaks” up to 30,000 pre-programmed phrases in dozens of languages, and “Blue Force Tracking” systems that are credited with reducing “fratricide” or friendly fire deaths to virtually zero, an amazing and underreported aspect of the war given the high friendly fire casualty rates of previous conflicts.

Right now, the Holy Grail is something called Crew 2 — a product of the Information Warfare unit at the fort that commanders hope will help prevent the Iraq insurgents and other groups from using cell phones to detonate IEDS.

Like the counter-mortar radar, Crew 2 is built on the back of an existing system — a countermeasures device known as Warlock which proved ineffective in the end because it could not block the frequency of a radio detonator unless it intercepted it, which is very difficult. Crew 2 is said to work differently, but just how is being kept very quiet. 

“We don’t talk much about Crew 2, and we certainly don’t describe its capabilities in any specific way or even describe the device it counters,” says Tim Rider, an Army spokesman. “There’s a chess game going on between us and the insurgents, and we’re not giving away our moves.”

Race against time
What is public record, however, is a $550 million contract awarded two weeks ago to Syracuse Research Corp., the same company that produces the counter-mortar radar, in early July. The five-year contract includes money for development, training, production and maintenance -– a typical “full life-cycle” project that will be administered by Ft. Monmouth.

Meanwhile, other military labs run by the Navy and the Air Force are working on similar devices, each racing against time as the insurgency adapts from cell phones to garage door openers to television remote controls to set off its mines. 

Even as its scientists and engineers drill down on these problems, another challenge that could prove as disruptive as any IED has arisen: Fort Monmouth has been listed for on this year’s Pentagon base closings list.

But Fort Monmouth is fighting an uphill battle against its own age, a uniformed military that wants to consolidate facilities to put more money into weapons, and parochial factions in Congress bent on taking jobs to their states. The current base closing template announced by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in May would move much of Fort Monmouth’s work to Virginia’s Ft. Belvoir and the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a weapons testing depot in rural Maryland.

Smith, a professorial-looking man nearing the end of his long Army career, is not at liberty to discuss his views of the proposed move. He concedes, however, that a move like that would pose some challenges. “If the recommendations are implemented, we’ll be expected to complete our mission and relocate at the same time. “It will be challenging.”

On Monday, a report by the General Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed this, noting concerns about the disruption such a move might cause. "The potential loss of a largeretirement age population must be balanced against the impact on ongoing mission activities providing real-time assistance to warfighters," the report says.

Besides extensive labs working on communications, radar, electronic countermeasures and information warfare, Fort Monmouth’s offices contain hundreds of white-collar workers who manage large defense contracts. There is also a support center that operates 24 hours a day providing what amounts to customer service to soldiers all around the world who are having trouble with the Army’s increasingly complex array of systems and software programs.

Indeed, except for the guard and signs at the front gate, the average person could probably drive through a facility like Fort Monmouth without ever realizing they were on a military base. Its 1126 acres employs about 8,000 people – only 467 of them uniformed military. The vast majority of the fort consists of civilian federal government employees, some 5,085 people, who drive to work in skirts or shirts and ties, then drive back out again to homes in affluent Monmouth County, New Jersey.

“Often people come here and say, ‘Where are all the soldiers’,” Smith says. “We’re definitely lopsided toward the civilian side. But we know what our troops need and we’re here to provide it. That’s our mission.”

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments