High-Tech ‘Toolbox’ Crucial for Safety

Posted May 23, 2007 at 2:05pm

Place yourself, for a moment, in the boots of a platoon leader preparing to enter a narrow, dusty street in a bad part of Baghdad. In all likelihood, this young lieutenant has been here before. But this time the streets are deserted, a sign that he and his platoon are in danger. He knows it is likely that an enemy sniper is sitting patiently somewhere along the street with his finger on the trigger of a high-powered rifle or the detonator of a 1,000-pound bomb newly buried under the sidewalk.

More than 3,000 American troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have died in circumstances just like these. They are required to place themselves in harm’s way with nothing but their own instincts and unreliable local intelligence to determine whether they are walking into a deadly ambush.

Fortunately, about five years ago, the Army began developing a system of high-tech tools that would give our troops much more to rely on than raw instinct and sheer luck. This high-tech “toolbox,” known as Future Combat Systems, employs the latest technology to enable soldiers to detect danger and defend against it without putting themselves in the cross hairs of an enemy. The FCS tools available to our troops will include unmanned aerial drones, ground sensors, robots equipped with cameras and weapons, and communications devices capable of sharing critical intelligence data with troops on a real-time basis.

For the Army, FCS is as groundbreaking as it is essential. In the words of the recently retired Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, “The Army remains totally committed to fielding this essential component of Army modernization to close the almost four-decade gap in the modernization of our ground forces.”

When deployed in battle, FCS can fundamentally change the warfare equation in the types of conflicts our troops are engaged in today and likely will encounter in the future. One of the most important strengths any force can have, in any conflict, is knowledge of the terrain. Terrorists and insurgent forces leverage their intimate familiarity of urban streets and neighborhoods into a deadly advantage. But the highly sophisticated sensing devices and remote-controlled drones that are a part of FCS will deprive indigenous enemy forces of that advantage, enabling our troops to “see” around corners and into narrow alleys and to determine changes in the environment that may indicate the placement of weapons and explosive devices.

Immediately after the invasion of Afghanistan, Gen. Schoomaker realized the capabilities provided by FCS could change the war-fighting equation to the United States’ advantage. He understood that while the system in its entirety is still in development, some of these critical tools were ready to be “spun out” of the bigger program and fielded very soon in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few early versions of these tools are in Iraq today. Others are being prepared to go to our troops in the field soon. They will be delivered over the next few years if Congress maintains the necessary level of funding.

Unfortunately, over the past several years, Congress has reduced funding levels for FCS by $825 million. This is a very substantial cut in funds for what amounts to the first comprehensive modernization of the Army in 40 years. Further cuts would be a tragic mistake with potentially deadly consequences for our fighting forces.

In addition to the Congressional reductions, the Army has cut $3.4 billion over the next six years from FCS to fund more immediate needs. This Army decision resulted purely from budgetary considerations. The program is meeting cost goals and schedule commitments. The Army’s action will involve eliminating four of the 18 systems intended for FCS. The service will cancel two of the program’s four planned unmanned aerial vehicle classes and suspend development of an armed robotic vehicle. Additionally, production and fielding will be stretched out for an additional five years, extending production to 2030.

Despite these fiscal challenges, the Army will begin to introduce some FCS technologies between 2008 and 2010. It will complete its first fully FCS-equipped brigade in 2015 and field the remaining 14 brigades through 2030. To meet this timeline with no further qualitative cuts, it is essential that Congress support the Department of Defense’s request for $3.7 billion in fiscal 2008. As Congress continues the fiscal ’08 appropriations process, it is vital that FCS be given the priority befitting a project that is, according to the Center for Security Policy, “nothing less than a total revolution in American military affairs.”

Let’s play back the scenario above to see the difference these tools can make once they are available to our lieutenant. Weeks prior to his patrol, Special Operations personnel hid dozens of remote sensors in the doorways and stairwells of buildings along the street. Concealed cameras provide the platoon leader and his soldiers with a consistent picture of the neighborhood.

The sensors and cameras enable the lieutenant to detect patterns of change along the street — perhaps a road construction project that dug too deep a hole or took too long to complete. The lieutenant decides to send a small robot equipped with video cameras and sensors ahead of his patrol. It detects a group of armed insurgents laying in wait in an abandoned building a few hundred meters up the road. He pinpoints the location of the enemy with a laser device and launches a small precision rocket, which finds its exact target. The enemy is killed in a limited, surgical strike that spares nearby civilians and surrounding buildings.

Put yourself in the boots of that lieutenant on that dangerous street in Baghdad. Now imagine he is your son, brother or husband. FCS will give him high-tech tools to accomplish the mission effectively and safely. We must fully fund the Army’s FCS program.

Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) is ranking member of the Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations. Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) is a member of the Armed Services Committee.