Air Force seeks to lighten the load

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

But something must be done to lighten troops' 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 which more than a dozen American troops were killed or injured in battle.

Speaking Sept. 16 at the Air Force Association's 2002 National Convention in Washington, D.C., Hotaling discussed his participation in direct action and strategic reconnaissance missions during Operation Enduring Freedom, when he served as 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 in 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 The packs carried into all of those locations were made heavier by outdated, inefficient technology, he said.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 [batteries] 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 loads troops must carry. 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.

Frank Hoke, a program manager in the Air Force Research Laboratory's Information Directorate in Rome, N.Y., said that the labs have co-developed technologies, such as a credit card-sized radio and a plastic battery, that could help lighten troops' loads, but once the labs prove something can be done, it's up to the service or vendors to finance and produce the tools.

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.

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