Troops in Iraq buy own radios

Faced with a shortage of military radios, American troops in Iraq have resorted to buying their own inexpensive, insecure commercial radios to fill the gap.

Add commercial two-way radios to the list of gear that troops in Iraq have purchased on their own because of equipment shortages.

Despite Defense Department budgets totaling more than $400 billion a year for each of the past two years, Army officials have acknowledged a radio shortage and said they are rushing shipments of more than 40,000 radios, most of them for delivery in the first quarter of next year.

Army officials also said they have banned the use of commercial radios in Iraq because they are insecure and pose a grave risk to troops. The radios' communications can be easily intercepted.

Capt. Eric Hedlund, a transportation platoon commander with the 720th Transportation Company of the New Mexico National Guard in Las Vegas, N.M., said about 20 soldiers in his outfit bought commercial radios because of a shortage of military radios. The unit returned from a 15-month deployment in Iraq in August.

Hedlund said the group racked up 3.5 million miles running convoys in Iraq and that communications among vehicles in those convoys was essential. The convoys often comprised 60 to 80 vehicles, but the 720th had only seven military single-channel ground/air radio systems. Hedlund said commercial Family Radio Service (FRS) gear that troops bought themselves helped fill the gap.

FRS radios are simple push-to-talk radios. With a half-watt of power and 2-mile range, they allow users to select any of 10 channels in frequency bands between 462 MHz and 467 MHz. The radios are designed for casual or recreational use and are often given to children as high-tech Christmas presents. Hedlund said his troops paid about $40 a pair for their FRS radios.

The 720th is far from being the only unit to use commercial radios in Iraq. Ted Gartner, a spokesman for Garmin International in Olathe, Kan., said the company has sold thousands of its Rino 110 radios to deployed military personnel.

The Rino 110 operates under both the FRS and the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) standards. GMRS uses the same frequencies and channel scheme as FRS but has a power output of 2 to 5 watts and a range of up to 5 miles.

The Rino 110, which has an integrated Global Positioning System receiver, automatically transmits position information from one Rino 110 to another. Rino 110s sell for $130 to $170 on various Web e-commerce sites, Gartner said. Garmin also sells the radio in military base stores.

The company's Web site features testimonials e-mailed by soldiers in Iraq, including one from a soldier who said his Rino 110 worked after built-in radios in his Bradley Fighting Vehicle failed. Soldiers in Iraq also have used Amazon.com to post favorable reviews of FRS radios made by Garmin, Motorola and Cobra Electronics.

For example, in his review of Cobra's FRS radios, a soldier in Iraq wrote, "This is a great set of radios for the price to include the charging station. Great range and clarity."

Col. Al Woodhouse, director of current operations in the Army's Office of the Chief Information Officer, said service officials are well aware of the radio shortage in Iraq and the fact that troops are purchasing their own radios. He said Army officials plan to ship 21,000 portable IC-F43G radios manufactured by Icom America to Iraq by April 2005 under a fast-track, sole-source procurement valued at $32 million.

Woodhouse said Central Command officials have banned the use of commercial radios in the theater because they are unsecure. Lt. Gen. Steve Boutelle, the Army's CIO, said he views their use as a significant risk to troops.

Army officials are rushing the Icom radios to Iraq to ensure that no soldiers have to purchase their own radios, Woodhouse said.

Icom will equip every Army brigade in Iraq with about 1,000 IC-F43G radios, Woodhouse said. An Army brigade has 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers. The cost of each radio kit is about $1,200 and includes a radio, spare battery and headset.

Ron Leet, a command-and-control analyst on the Army's CIO staff, said the Army's version of the IC-F43G radio operates in the 380 MHz to 430 MHz frequency bands and provides secure communications. The radio supports the Triple Data Encryption Standard, which encrypts a signal three times using a key length of 192 bits.

Army officials do not intend to standardize on the IC-F43G, Leet said, adding that they view it as a stopgap to fill an urgent requirement between now and when DOD officials start fielding radios developed under the multibillion-dollar Joint Tactical Radio System program.

Margaret McBride, an Army spokeswoman, said that in addition to buying the IC-F43G radios, Army officials have initiated an emergency procurement of 20,000 military single-channel ground/air radio systems, which operate in the 30 MHz to 80 MHz frequency bands. The radios were to be delivered to Iraq at a rate of 300 a month, beginning in November and continuing through February 2005, when monthly deliveries will increase to thousands of units.

McBride said she could not provide the dollar value of the procurement. But Woodhouse said the ground/air radio systems cost between $6,000 and $14,000 each, depending on the configuration. The purchase could total $60 million to $140 million.

Woodhouse said that both Army and Central Command officials view the use of commercial radios in Iraq as too dangerous because an enemy could easily eavesdrop on their insecure communications. He said the new radio buys should eliminate that risk by providing U.S. forces with secure military systems.

Hedlund said he was aware of the risks when his troops used commercial radios, but he said any radio was better than no radio.

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