Magazine article National Defense

Incoming Fire: Force Protection Moves from Bases to Battlefield

Magazine article National Defense

Incoming Fire: Force Protection Moves from Bases to Battlefield

Article excerpt

As casualties continue to mount in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department is seizing on technology to protect combat soldiers from snipers, mortars and roadside bombs.

As of early-June, more than 1,660 U.S. personnel had died in Iraq, and 12,762 had been wounded. In the wider war on terrorism--including Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines and Djibouti--another 188 had died and 472 had been wounded.

As these conflicts have dragged on, the whole concept of force protection has changed dramatically, said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who has dealt with the issue repeatedly during a military career that included four combat tours.

For a long time, force protection didn't receive the attention it deserved, said McCaffrey, now an independent national security and terrorism analyst.

"The low point was Khobar Towers," he told National Defense. In 1996, a terrorist truck bomb struck the towers, which housed U.S. personnel in Saudi Arabia. "That attack--which killed or wounded 300 of our people--was absolutely preventable."

Even as recently as the 2001 attack on the Pentagon, "we didn't know what we were doing," McCaffrey noted. Since then, however, improvements have been made.

No longer is force protection largely a matter of stacking sandbags and stringing concertina wire. "Now, we're seeing technology--and the people using it--performing miracles," McCaffrey said. "Technology is not only saving thousands of lives, but it also is providing an overwhelming deterrent capability."

Some of the equipment being deployed is so formidable that terrorists are dissuaded from launching attacks, he said.

McCaffrey got a close look at the latest technology during the fifth biennial Force Protection Equipment Demonstration, which was held recently at Quantico Marine Corps Base, Va. The event is sponsored by the Defense Department's Physical Security Equipment Action Group, which is made up of representatives from each of the services and the Defense Treat Reduction Agency.

The amount of equipment on display has increased tremendously over the years, said a spokesman, retired Marine Sgt. Maj. Joe Houle. The first FPED, held shortly after the Khobar Towers attack, exhibited force-protection products from 184 vendors and was intended primarily for the military services. The focus was on protecting U.S. military installations at home and abroad.

FPED V attracted more than 500 companies showing off more than 2,500 pieces of equipment designed for use by U.S. and foreign military troops; federal, state and local police officers; emergency-response teams, and prison guards.

This year, more than in the past, the emphasis seemed to be on equipment that could help hold down U.S., coalition and civilian casualties in the streets of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.

For example, Kontek of New Madrid, Mo., displayed a family of portable steel structures that are 75 percent lighter than concrete shelters and strong enough to withstand 81 mm and 120 mm mortar shells, according to operations manager Roger Allen Nolte.

"We test fired mortar shells into them, and they didn't penetrate," he said. Mortars are popular weapons of choice among insurgents because they are highly mobile, he said.

Kontek's modular structures "can be used as sleeping quarters, guard shacks, office space, shops, even dining facilities," he said.

The structures, 9.5 feet high, come as small as 8 feet by 8 feet and as long as 45 feet. They can be outfitted with built-in, foldaway bunks, gun racks or workstations. One canopy design can serve as covered parking for trucks or aircraft, Nolte said.

Special Tactical Services LLC, of Virginia Beach, Va., exhibited a four-foot-high portable shield designed to replace sandbag and concrete emplacements at security checkpoints at military bases and ports. The shields, which are used by all the services, have been deployed in Afghanistan for about a year, according to company spokesman Dale McClellan. …

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