Battlefield Internet gets first war use

/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s not the earth-grinding Paladin howitzers and Abrams tanks that give the Army’s 4th Infantry Division its moniker — the “digitized division.” The heavy hardware is guided by a sophisticated computer network that, in its first use in battle, tracked the division’s 1st Brigade during a skirmish Wednesday for the Taji air base north of Baghdad.

THE SYSTEM is known as Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below, or FBCB2, and works as a battlefield Internet that keeps track of fast-moving combat vehicles.

It gives a videogame-like view of friendly and enemy forces on the battlefield that “provides a level of situational awareness that is second to none,” said 1st Brigade commander Col. Don Campbell.

Ensconced in a command post at the rear, Campbell and his staff used the battlefield networking system Wednesday to direct his troops — represented by blue icons — toward the positions of “red” Iraqi paramilitaries identified by spotters in helicopters.

Soldiers of 1st Brigade took control of the Taji base, killing four combatants and taking at least two dozen prisoners. There were no American casualties.

The FBCB2’s key component is a rugged touch-screen computer mounted in vehicles that, proponents say, could have prevented the March 23 ambush deaths of nine soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company after their convoy took a wrong turn.

The FBCB2’s global positioning satellite navigation system warns whenever a vehicle strays from its planned path. Knowing exact vehicle positions also can prevent friendly fire deaths.

On the system’s networked screens, blue icons denote friendly forces and are constantly updated. Red icons show the enemy, which are added as they’re spotted — in this case by helicopter. The 4th Infantry also has unmanned aircraft that can handle surveillance tasks.

Hazards like minefields, areas where poison gas has been reported or other pitfalls can be added so units can steer clear.

CUTS DOWN ON RADIO CHATTER The FBCB2 transmits by bouncing data from vehicle to vehicle until it hits the brigade or division command centers. This “mesh network” lets the 4th Infantry update its positions faster than the rest of the Army, which must cope with the five-minute delay inherent in its satellite communications systems.

By touching a screen icon, anyone from a commander in the rear to a tank crewman can get specific data about a vehicle — what it is, how fast it is moving and in which direction.

Another touch allows soldiers to send text messages between vehicles or back to the command post.

By cutting down on radio chatter, commanders can use voice communications for more detailed reports, said Maj. Mike Silverman, operations officer for the 1st Brigade.

“If you want to get a no-kidding assessment of what’s going on in an area of operations typically it’s voice,” Silverman said. “What a commander doesn’t have to do is spend half of the time saying ‘Alpha company is here, Bravo is here.”’

For Chief Warrant Officer II John Hanks, a maintenance technician for the 4th Battalion, 42nd Field Artillery, the text messaging means troops can send quick assessments of problems without miscommunication through radio garble.

“The faster the vehicles can get to me saying, ‘We need a part,’ the faster I can come up with it and get them back into the fight,” Hanks said.

BUILT FOR BATTLE Like any computer system, the FBCB2 needs maintenance.

Capt. Anthony Whitfield, the 4th Battalion signals officer, spent a day in Kuwait recently repairing hard drives, processors and cables that sat unused for months as the division’s vehicles were shipped from Fort Hood, Texas, where the 4th is based.

“This is like a car. You’ve got to drive it. If you don’t she’s due for repairs,” he said as he worked on a system in a Paladin howitzer.

FBCB2 computers sit in shock-resistant ribbed cases that help dissipate the heat. Developed by Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, they were first fielded in 1995, said Mike Iacobacci, a Northrop technician traveling with the 1st Brigade. The computers carry no cooling fan that could suck in sand or water. They run Sun Microsystems’ Solaris operating system, which allows the scale of maps to be changed or overlaid with satellite imagery or terrain features.

If a vehicle is captured, FBCB2 has a self-destruct mechanism that can be triggered remotely.

Younger soldiers quickly take to the FBCB2, Iacobacci said.

“Some of these kids grew up on Nintendo and Play Stations, so once they get on it’s easy,” he said.

The 4th is considered the Army’s most lethal heavy division, boasting the latest tanks, troop carriers and Apache attack helicopters. But it missed out on nearly all the fighting in Iraq after Turkey refused to let the United States use that country as a staging ground.

Wednesday’s skirmish was the first combat the division has seen since the Vietnam War.

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