Magazine article National Defense

Urban Battles Highlight Shortfalls in Soldier Communications

Magazine article National Defense

Urban Battles Highlight Shortfalls in Soldier Communications

Article excerpt

The chaotic door-to door warfare seen in Iraq offers glaring proof that dismounted U.S. troops need better communications devices, experts is contend.

A team of observers from the U.S. Army Infantry Center, at Fort Benning, Ga., spent several weeks in Iraq last year, alongside combat units from the 101st Airborne, 4th Infantry and 82nd Airborne divisions. Of particular interest to the team was the effectiveness of the units' tactics and equipment in an urban battlefield.

In most cases, soldiers were operating in small groups of three to five, entering and clearing buildings, and arresting suspected insurgents.

It did not take long for observers to conclude that the lack of functional radios hampered soldiers' ability to execute their missions without undue risk.

Current Army line-of-sight radios in many instances proved inadequate for urban operations, because the signals could not penetrate the thick masonry walls and surrounding fences of many Iraqi buildings. Satellite radios are not the answer, because they don't work inside buildings. As a workaround, soldiers in some instances would enter a building and leave a radio at the door as a "bread crumb" that provided a relay point once the soldiers were inside and their satellite signals got blocked.

When the radios failed, soldiers resorted to the only available and reliable form of communication: screaming.

Yelling their positions clearly that the soldiers in danger, the Infantry Center team concluded, and prompted efforts at Fort Benning to seek funds for new radios.

Unlike current military handheld radios, the devices best suited for urban combat are so-called "network radios," according to Infantry Center analysts. These terrestrial radios feature "frequency hopping" technology, which allows them to reroute the transmission around obstacles, until the message reaches the intended target. Everyone who has a radio acts as a relay. Low-flying unmanned aircraft also can function as relays.

The Infantry Center plans to evaluate several types of network radios. An Army source said that at least seven to eight vendors would provide candidate radios for testing.

Among the systems to be evaluated is a pocket-sized internet-capable radio called Microlight. The Army already is purchasing the 1.4-pound radio for the "land warrior" next-generation infantry modernization program. Under land warrior, the Army intends to provide soldiers with miniaturized communications and navigation systems so that members of a squad, for example, can operate in a large area and stay connected to one another via secure radices and computers.

That is not possible with current radios, because they don't have enough range and are limited to line-of-sight connectivity. Land warrior, however, will be fielded in small numbers, to perhaps 10 percent of the Army. The Infantry Center is turning its focus to the other 90 percent.

"Soldiers in Iraq don't have any secure communications for urban close in fighting," said Tim Strobel, director of wideband data link programs at the Raytheon Company, which developed the Microlight radio. "Their current tactics are flat out dangerous ... They run up and down hallways, yelling their positions, shouting out windows."

The Army has yet to field effective technologies for urban warfare, for several reasons, Strobel noted. One is a "lack of focus on the Army's part. …

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