War hero shares IT lessons learned

Special operations troops deployed in Afghanistan have had to wage war in some of the most challenging environments imaginable, and for the most part, their information technology tools have performed admirably.

But something must be done to lighten soldiers' battlefield loads, which can exceed 140 pounds, with more than 73 percent of that weight coming from equipment, according to Air Force officials who have had to carry those packs.

"It's absolutely unacceptable that we have to walk with that much weight with the technology we have today," said Air Force Reserve Tech. Sgt. James Hotaling, a combat controller in the 720th Special Tactics Group in the Air Force's Special Operations Command. Hotaling carried a 143.3-pound pack during Operation Anaconda in March, and he knew many of the more than one dozen troops who were killed or injured in that battle.

Speaking Sept. 16 at the Air Force Association's 2002 National Convention in Washington, D.C., Hotaling briefed the audience on his participation in direct action and strategic reconnaissance missions during Operation Enduring Freedom, serving as the communications specialist for U.S. and coalition forces.

Some missions required scaling ridges thousands of feet high, others were conducted in the desert, and still others were conducted in the snow. The packs carried into all of those locations were made heavier by outdated, inefficient technology, he said.

"The batteries we use [for the portable radios] are lithium and weigh 2 pounds each," Hotaling said. "It takes two to power the radio we're using and that only lasts a day. For a 12-day mission, that's 24 batteries [weighing 48 pounds] and that's crazy."

Col. Craig Rith, commander of the 720th Special Tactics Group, said the Air Force is partnering with industry to lighten the load. He also said the Air Force research laboratories have played a key role in integrating off-the-shelf technologies in the first of a three-part effort aimed at shortening the time needed to strike an enemy target.

The second step will be producing and using "better, lighter versions" of the tools, and the third stage calls for going even lighter and providing "click, click technology," in which the images and intelligence captured by combat controllers on the ground are automatically sent to the closest aircraft and the weapons systems they are carrying, Rith said.

That final step is crucial because different aircraft currently require different information, or at least data presented in different ways, the Air Force officials said.

Still, IT has helped coalition forces immensely in Afghanistan, including the Air Force's Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle that uses radar, a TV camera and an infrared camera for surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting, Hotaling said.

Personnel at various air operations centers viewed the video feeds from Predators and relayed pertinent data to Hotaling to help him navigate through foreign locales and serve as the "point man" on some missions, he said.

U.S. allies also contributed useful IT, particularly for mission planning. Before various coalition teams would begin a mission, the allied forces' computers, imagery and mapping tools would provide 3-D maps of areas, which enabled the teams to do virtual walk-throughs, Hotaling said.

Hotaling, who was activated in September 2001 and will return to his job as a Washington state trooper when he completes his tour this month, also said that IT interoperability was never really a problem in Afghanistan because Special Forces teams are trained to work jointly, "and that's all we know."

"There's always going to be glitches, but it's mostly things like they got the frequency wrong, but the radio is OK," he said.

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