Captive soldiers lacked critical GPS radios

The Army last week acknowledged that the three U.S. soldiers captured by the Yugoslav army were not outfitted with a specially designed radio that could have provided their rescuers with accurate information on their location.

A spokesman for the Army 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 Army-standard Precision Lightweight Global Positioning System receivers, 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.

Where Was Soldier 911?

The Army rushed the Soldier 911 radio into production in 1995 at the urgent request of Gen. David Maddox, the European theater commander at the time, who headed up the initial Macedonia peacekeeping mission. The system, 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 patrol as well as to senior commanders in rear-area posts. The Soldier 911 systems would have let NATO commanders know whether the soldiers had strayed into Yugoslavia and would have shown the soldiers' exact location.

However, late last week the Defense Department could not confirm whether the patrol had crossed the border into Yugoslavia or if it had been surrounded 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 predetermined, programmable values would have been able to ensure that the patrol did not come any closer than, for example, 100 meters from the border.

At a press conference last week, DOD spokesman Ken Bacon said the Army still did not know the location of the soldiers when they came under attack.

Ted Cormaney, a defense analyst and president of Cormaney and Associates, a defense consulting firm in Washington, D.C., said the episode sounds to him like an example of a mission that nobody has paid much attention to since it started in 1995.

Cormaney said it was likely that the soldiers, accustomed to going out on patrol many times, fell into a state of complacency and did not keep track of equipment such as the radios. "It's like Bosnia; nothing is nailed down," he said.

The U.S. units first were deployed to Macedonia in 1995 as part of a United Nations mission to patrol the border areas between Yugoslavia and Macedonia to prevent hostilities in Bosnia and Kosovo from spreading. The mission was transferred to NATO when the U.N. mission expired in February.

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