Old Army tech shines in Iraq

Although new technology grabbed headlines during operations in Iraq, some older systems made a difference as well.

Coalition ground force commanders leading artillery squadrons could put "steel on target" within minutes of a scout radioing in an enemy position using a seven-year-old Army system that continues to meet soldiers' needs, according to service leaders.

The Army's Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS) is a joint and coalition forces fire support command and control system. It helps commanders plan, coordinate and control mortars, field artillery cannons, rockets, guided missiles, close air support, attack helicopter, naval gunfire and other artillery.

"Software is the key to this thing and that is the golden nugget," said Lt. Gen. Steve Boutelle, the Army's chief information officer and former AFATDS program manager. He added that the system uses all commercial hardware and performed admirably earlier this year in Iraq.

The system synchronizes and integrates all available fire support attack information on a laptop to ensure that the right weapon fires the right munition at the target with the highest tactical payoff. It provides the link among human, ground and airborne battlefield sensors and supporting weapon systems available to the combat force commander, said Steve Lutz, Raytheon Co. program manager for the system, during a July 16 briefing in Arlington, Va.

Army and Raytheon officials showed clips from Operation Iraqi Freedom where soldiers said the system helped them destroy targets within four-and-a-half minutes of the first observation, and while that is far faster than previous cycles, it is still too long, said Maj. Gen. Michael Maples, commanding general of the Army Field Artillery Training Center.

"Four-and-a-half minutes is an average and that's probably pretty good, but it's not where we want to be," and further refinements to AFATDS would help further decrease that time, Maples said. Still, the system "enabled us to achieve network centricity for fires," he said.

Col. Paco Alicea Jr., AFATDS system manager at Army Training and Doctrine Command, is leading the service's review of lessons learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom. He said that although the system's software proved to be stable and reliable and enhanced commanders' coordination and communication capabilities, some improvements could be made, including better hardware reliability in extreme conditions and increased use of high-frequency and tactical satellite communications.

Alicea said that tactical satellite feature would be included in a new version of the system due out in December 2004. Other future enhancements include 3-D battlespace visualization and joint precision targeting, as well as a handheld and wireless version of the system.

Friendly, or blue, force tracking is one area where the system needs no improvement. By using the system to control and clear fire areas, "there were no reported incidents of artillery friendly fire incidents" during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Maples said.

The Army has spent about $270 million on software development and field support during the past six years, Lutz said, adding that the hardware costs are "at least comparable." Army officials did not have exact budget numbers for the system, but did say it will be used for at least the next 20 years and will be the "fires engine" of Future Combat Systems (FCS).

FCS is the cornerstone of the Army's transformation efforts and is a networked family of 18 systems that uses advanced communications and technologies to link soldiers with manned and unmanned air and ground platforms and sensors.


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