Old IT risks pilots over Kosovo

Air Force and Navy pilots flying missions over lethal anti-aircraft sites in Yugoslavia this month lack advanced technology systems that could better ensure their safety, including a new survival radio for downed air crews that the Pentagon rushed into development.

A mix of political decisions, Defense Department budgetary constraints and long procurement cycles have removed or delayed the use of high-tech equipment for pilots to decrease their chances of being shot down or captured if shot down in the mountainous regions of Kosovo, according to former DOD officials and former and current Navy and Air Force pilots.

Aircrews need the technology now more than ever before. Senior DOD officials concede that the mission in Kosovo presents a far greater challenge to U.S. and NATO pilots than the threat that pilots faced in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. The Serbs are reported to have more than 2,000 air defense missile systems and anti-aircraft guns that are capable of being moved and hidden in Kosovo's rough terrain.

Retired top-ranking military officials and analysts said the technology gaps reflect the problems of a broken acquisition system, which, despite all the rhetoric about governmental acquisition reform, still cannot field desperately needed equipment on time and within cost estimates. They added that the problems also reflect the Pentagon's skewed budgeting process that still does not allocate enough of DOD's budget to warfighting personnel, units and systems.

"It's not the way to send people into harm's way," said retired Lt. Gen. Carl O'Berry, former Air Force deputy chief of staff for command, control, computers, communications and intelligence (C4I).

The problems have affected the deployment and use of three kinds of equipment: advanced survival radios, Global Positioning System navigational aids and radar jammers used to knock out sophisticated radar-tracking ground equipment.

Survival Radios

The new Combat Survivor Evader Locator radio, designed to permit pilots shot down behind enemy lines to contact rescue teams, was hailed by DOD as a procurement "success story." But the Air Force's inability to field CSEL radios to combat aircrews is "a good example" of DOD's flawed development and deployment process for C4I systems, O'Berry said.

First proposed in 1992, interest in the CSEL radio increased after rescue teams took six days to find F-16 pilot Capt. Scott O'Grady, who had been shot down over Bosnia in 1995. The delay in finding O'Grady was blamed on his Vietnam War-era radio, which could not transmit messages to rescue teams unless the team was in sight and which could not hook up with a GPS receiver, which could have located O'Grady with pinpoint accuracy, according to a report on the CSEL program released last month by the DOD Office of Test and Evaluation (OT&E).

The CSEL radio was supposed to provide these capabilities and more. In 1996, the Air Force awarded a contract to Rockwell Autonetics, now Boeing Co.'s Electronics/Information Systems division, to build 52,202 radios. At the time, the Air Force dubbed the contract an "acquisition reform success story" because it had cut the projected cost from an estimated $365 million to "a mere $45 million," according to an Air Force document.

But the cost of the program has jumped to $220 million, while tests of engineering and demonstration models last year showed they were "not effective and not suitable" for the mission. Although the electronics industry uses friendlier graphics interfaces for commercial GPS receivers, CSEL relies on a more confusing menu-driven interface, which field users "consistently identified...as too complex to accommodate in a stressful combat environment," the OT&E report concluded.

The GPS Joint Program Office at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles said it expects to have 11 out of 14 major problems with the system corrected by fall. The office also said it had corrected poor voice transmissions. Additionally, the office said it is "working to reduce the complexity of the radio's menu structure," adding that Boeing will add a tactile keypad to provide positive feedback when a key is depressed. The GPS JPO statement said the final CSEL version will include a GPS module that is being developed separately.

Lack of funding and technical challenges have delayed the fielding of the CSEL radio until 2002, the office said. A spokeswoman for Boeing said the company's contract with the Air Force precludes it from making any comments.

Jury-rigged GPS

Faced with the delay, A-10 pilots flying over Iraq have started to develop their own CSEL radio systems, buying off-the-shelf GPS receivers for pilots to use in conjunction with their older survival radios, said Lt. Col. Dave Tanaka, commander of the 104th Fighter Squadron of the Maryland Air National Guard.

Tanaka, interviewed at a forward air base in Kuwait last month, said his squadron used its own funds to purchase handheld Garmin Corp. GPS receivers for survival gear, and the squadron installed another receiver as a navigation aid in each aircraft by attaching the receiver to the side of the cockpit with Velcro.

The Air Force could not provide FCW with definitive information on what type of GPS receivers, if any, are installed in the A-10s operating over Kosovo.

But a series of e-mail messages from active-duty Air Force and Navy pilots to FCW portray widespread use of commercial handheld receivers in front-line military aircraft.

An Air Force crewman wrote, "Aircrews in my last squadron personally paid hundreds of dollars out of pocket for handheld GPS, just so they would feel confident flying missions over southern Iraq." He added, "Many squadrons have been forced to [buy handheld GPS receivers] in order to have the means of executing missions which have become more complex and demanding of precision navigation.... Our military procurement system has lagged woefully behind."

A senior DOD official, speaking on background, said the fact that there are pilots flying into harm's way with handheld GPS systems purchased locally with their own money "does not shock me, but it bothers the hell out of me." Nobody in DOD pretends that there are no wrinkles left in DOD's acquisition or logistics and supply processes, the official said.

But use of the commercial GPS receivers could have serious or deadly consequences, DOD officials warn. Mike Shaw, assistant for GPS positioning and navigation in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence, cautioned against the use of commercial GPS equipment by pilots because the systems may not be reliable and are susceptible to jamming.

Richard Langley, a professor of geodesy at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, and a renowned GPS technical expert, also said commercial GPS receivers "have no protection against spoofing, which means a sophisticated enemy could fool your receiver into thinking it was where it is not."

Air Force Col. Neil McCasland, chief engineer for the GPS JPO, speaking at a GPS forum, said the lack of GPS user equipment reflects an overall DOD "funding problem."

Too Few Jammers

Pilots went into battle over Kosovo without the aid of another key piece of equipment that aided U.S. forces in Operation Desert Storm: a fleet of sophisticated aircraft designed specifically to jam enemy air defense radars. In a top-level budgetary decision, the Pentagon directed the Air Force last summer to withdraw its EF-111 electronic warfare aircraft from active duty.

The Pentagon then turned over jamming responsibility to a fleet of 90 Navy/Marine Corps EA-6B jamming planes. The Navy and Marines now have a total of only 90 aircraft - with recently upgraded electronic suites - for missions in Kosovo, Iraq and any other hot spots that could develop worldwide.

"Turning this entire mission over to the EA-6Bs really worries me, particularly if the [number of flights] does not slack off in either Kosovo or Iraq," said a high-ranking former naval aviator. "We're going to end up with some very tired air crews."

Navy and Air Force aircraft carry their own jamming systems, but a political battle in the early 1990s doomed an opportunity to field the Airborne Self Protection Jammer to all four military services. The Senate killed the $1.5 billion ASPJ program in 1992 after Navy testers concluded that the jammer did not "demonstrate a significant improvement" over an earlier generation of jammer.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney - a pilot who flew nearly every aircraft in the Air Force during his active-duty career - said the Air Force never embraced the ASPJ after Congress tarred it. The Air Force has since opted to place pod-mounted jammers on aircraft.

However, Stanley Alterman, president of Alterman and Associates, Jupiter, Fla., and a member of the Senior Advisory Board of the Association of Old Crows, said the diversity of countermeasures is not a bad thing. "If everyone picks the same approach, it becomes too easy for the enemy to beat," Alterman said.

But Alterman also said the Air Force and the other military services could do more to ensure that pilots are equipped with the latest technology. "We know how to do a lot better than what these guys go [into battle] with," Alterman said.

McInerney, who served as Vice President Al Gore's Pentagon point man for the National Performance Review in his last active-duty tour, said the problems in fielding systems such as the ASPJ and the CSEL and the use of handheld GPS receivers in combat aircraft illustrate the key problem that the Pentagon faces in an era of tight budgets. "We take 70 percent of the [DOD budget] dollars and put it into overhead and infrastructure, and only 30 percent is going to the warfighter."

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