U.S. Army failed to issue systems that may have aided captured soldiers

The U.S. Army today acknowledged that it failed to issue to the three U.S. soldiers who were captured this week by the Yugoslavian army a specially designed radio that could have provided their rescuers with accurate information on their location.

A spokesman for the Army today confirmed that the three soldiers patrolling in Macedonia near the Yugoslav border did not have a "Soldier 911" system designed specifically to keep soldiers from straying across borders. "The [patrol] did not have these radios," the spokesman said.

When asked by Federal Computer Week why the soldiers did not have the radios, the spokesman replied, "We don't know why."

In addition, the spokesman said the entire complement of U.S. forces taking part in Operation Able Sentry, the code name for the Macedonian peacekeeping operation, may not have the radios, adding that the Army does not know if the systems are in Macedonia at all.

The spokesman also said that at this stage the Army cannot determine if the captured patrol was equipped with the Army-standard Precision Lightweight Global Positioning System receiver, which can be used either as a handheld unit or as a vehicle-mounted unit. The Army has procured more than 100,000 of these systems.

The Army rushed the Soldier 911 radio into production in 1995 at the urgent request of Army Gen. David Maddox, the European theater commander at the time, who headed up the initial Macedonia peacekeeping mission. The radio, which was designed by Motorola Inc., is based on the standard military AN/PRC-112 UHF radio. It includes a commercial GPS receiver chip, an embedded computer, a modem and a small display screen.

The vague circumstances surrounding the U.S. soldiers' capture underscore the importance of the Soldier 911 system, primarily because the initial Soldier 911 units were equipped with special one-touch emergency buttons that would have enabled the soldiers to send immediate messages detailing their location and situation to their counterparts on the patrol as well as to senior commanders in rear-area command posts. The Soldier 911 systems would have shown NATO commanders if the soldiers had strayed into Yugoslavia and would have provided commanders with accurate information on the soldiers' location. However, at the time of the incident and for several days afterward, the Defense Department could not confirm whether the patrol had crossed the border into Yugoslavia or if it had been surrounded while inside Macedonia.

The Soldier 911 system, however, would have enabled the soldiers to enter up to 1,000 way points to ensure that they did not inadvertently cross the border into Yugoslavia. In fact, a set of pre-determined programmable values would have been able to ensure that the patrol did not come any closer than, for example, 100 meters from the border.

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