DOD debates GPS receivers

The details surrounding this spring's capture of three U.S. soldiers who were patrolling the border between Macedonia and Yugoslavia have sparked a debate among Defense Department officials about the usefulness of an information system that some say could have prevented the incident.

After Serb forces captured the soldiers in March, DOD worked to uncover the facts surrounding the incident, particularly whether the soldiers—who were released in early May—had crossed the border into Yugoslavia. However, the lack of information about the soldiers' position when they were captured raised serious questions about the Army's policy for using tactical information technologies, and it also raised questions about why the patrol was not equipped with the Soldier 911 radio, a system designed specifically to keep commanders informed of the patrol's precise location.

Lt. Gen. William Campbell, the Army's director for command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I), recently denied that any of the Army's currently fielded tactical information systems, including Soldier 911, could have prevented the capture of the soldiers.

In addition, a spokesman for the Army maintained that the Soldier 911 system experienced problems when operated from a vehicle. In fact, the problems with Soldier 911 were serious enough that units in Macedonia simply stopped using the system, the spokesman said.

Campbell said Applique, a system planned for fielding later this summer, would help soldiers avoid similar situations in the future. Campbell said Applique, manufactured by TRW Inc., continuously transmits a soldier's location and does not require the operator of the unit to key in commands, as the Soldier 911 radio does.

"Soldier 911 would not have done the job and could not have been a solution," Campbell said this month at the GovTechNet International Conference and Exposition in Washington, D.C. "Applique provides an order of magnitude more value than the Soldier 911 system, which was never an operational system."

If the soldiers were equipped with Applique "they would not have been captured, [or] if they had been, they would have been found," Campbell said.

Applique is the centerpiece of the Army's Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below initiative, which will use advanced military radios to form a tactical intranet over which Army units will send and receive information during battle. The system also uses Global Positioning System technology to provide location data on enemy and friendly units. The Army plans to test Applique later this year to study the progress made in "digitizing" the Army.

Anthony Valletta, vice president of SRA Federal Systems and former acting assistant secretary of Defense for C3I, said the results of the Army's planned test of its digitized division concept will be key to the future of the service's digitization effort. "If they have any hiccups during the test, people will begin to question everything," Valletta said.

Likewise, if the Army does not begin to field capable radios and systems soon and keep them in the field, "commanders are going to start going out to Radio Shack to get the equipment they need," Valletta said. "And that creates massive interoperability problems."

The Army rushed the Soldier 911 radio into production in 1995 at the request of Gen. David Maddox, the European theater commander who headed up the initial Macedonia peacekeeping mission. The system, which was designed by Motorola Inc. in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is based on the standard military AN/PRC-112 UHF radio. Like Applique, it includes a commercial GPS receiver chip and an embedded computer but also has 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 [FCW, April 5]. According to current and former officials from DARPA and the Army, the system worked as advertised.

Larry Lynn, former director of DARPA, testified in 1996 before a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee in praise of his agency's "quick reaction" effort to field Soldier 911. "DARPA invented and quickly fielded Soldier 911, an integrated tactical radio and Global Positioning System which tells the soldier where he is with respect to the border," Lynn told the subcommittee. "[Soldier 911] automatically reports his position to the battalion command post and provides the soldier with a button [that, if pressed,] tells the commander where [the soldier] is and that he needs immediate help."

According to a spokeswoman for DARPA, the Soldier 911 demonstration program was "extremely successful," with commanders in Macedonia "very pleased" with the system's capability.

However, in 1997 DARPA transitioned responsibility for the Soldier 911 system to U.S. Army Europe while continuing to provide limited follow-on support. This year, V Corps and the Army's Communications-Electronics Command-Europe assumed all maintenance and training for the system, the spokeswoman said.

In an e-mail response to FCW's April story on Soldier 911, Brett Scyrkels, a former Army staff sergeant assigned to the Electronic Proving Ground, Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and part of the team that tested and fielded the Soldier 911 system in Macedonia, said that although the system worked very well, Army units rarely followed the standard operating procedures regarding the use of Soldier 911.

During repeated trips to observation posts to inspect, conduct training or trouble-shoot the Soldier 911 system, soldiers often "didn't know what I was talking about," Scyrkels said. "But [when] the soldiers were somewhat familiar with Soldier 911, it was used properly," he said. "There were some dead spots due to [terrain obstructions], but as a whole the system was effective."

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