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Improved weaponry, communications give U.S. troops battlefield edge

CAMP NEW YORK, Kuwait—If Capt. Stefan McFarland had fought as a scout platoon leader in the 1991 Gulf War, he and the 30 men under his command might not have survived a serious tangle with Iraqi troops.

Traveling in lightly armed Humvees six to seven miles in front of U.S. tanks and other armored vehicles, they would have had little choice but to fire a few rounds and run if they encountered a superior force. Just keeping track of the lumbering juggernaut behind them would have required a lot of time on the radio and a fair amount of guesswork with map and compass. Their chances of getting hit by "friendly fire" from U.S. aircraft and their own troops in battle were one in four.

But as McFarland and his men prepare for a possible second war with Iraq, newer weapons, better communications, and improved tracking systems give them a battlefield edge.

"Basically, our platoon has a lot of the new toys because we're going far ahead of everybody else," said McFarland, 26, of Dallas, who serves in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

While a lot of attention has focused on the sophisticated precision bombs that U.S. jets dropped to much fanfare in Afghanistan, an equally important revolution has been under way for U.S. ground troops.

Vehicles with new global positioning systems, better night-vision and thermal imaging devices, improved targeting systems, a satellite-based computer network that tracks friendly vehicles, and a new tank-killing missile make the U.S. Army a more lethal and efficient force than it was 12 years ago.

If President Bush orders military action against Iraq, much of this new weaponry and technology—and the men and women who use them—will be tested in battle for the first time.

During the 1991 Gulf War, 24 percent of the 146 Americans killed in battle and 15 percent of those wounded were hit by friendly fire. U.S. forces hope to lower those percentages in the upcoming war with a system called the FBCB2.

"Basically, it's a GPS-based tactical Internet system that can track friendly forces on the battlefield," said Capt. Scott Thomson, 33, of Atlanta, a maintenance officer with Task Force 4-64 Armor. "A division or corps commander can pinpoint exactly where all of his units are."

Not every vehicle has the system, but commanders can use it to download digital maps and pinpoint their location using GPS coordinates. And by determining the location of nearby tracked vehicles, they can determine the disposition of nearby units in relation to their own forces.

Commanders can also use the system to communicate with each other by secure text link, essentially a secure e-mail, instead of by radio networks, which often tend to be cluttered with other electronic traffic. Unit leaders can send situation reports to their commanders instantly. Because of the FBCB2's inherent GPS qualities, requests for artillery and close-air support can be made much more quickly and with greater accuracy than ever before.

"It's an awesome system once you learn it," said McFarland, the scout platoon leader. "Your situational awareness is 1,000 times better. It really lets me focus on what my guys are doing instead of spending all my time on the radio."

The new Javelin missile enables infantrymen, scouts and combat engineers to destroy an enemy tank or a fortified bunker from 2,000 yards away. The soldiers call the 45-pound missile a "fire and forget" weapon because unlike earlier missiles, they don't have to keep aiming it until it hits its target.

"Once you lock on and push the trigger, that's it," said Staff Sgt. Craig Hobbs, a 30-year-old senior scout from Newfane, N.Y. "It doesn't matter what this goes up against, it will kill it. It will take out any armor that's out there now or that's projected into the foreseeable future."

Earlier long-range missiles such as the TOW and Dragon used optical wire-guidance systems that required a shooter to remain stationary—and exposed to enemy fire—until the warhead struck its target. Even the slightest movement could throw off a shooter's aim. The Javelin, by contrast, has a 96 percent kill rate.

New, lighter body armor gives individual soldiers greater mobility. Infrared scopes and laser "aim points" on weapons allow for more effective shooting during both day and night. Field radios are a fraction of the size of the Vietnam-era PRC-77s the Army still used a decade ago and have three times the range. Laser range finders that employ thermal imaging give troops the ability to identify vehicles more than seven miles away.

New heavy weapons in the U.S. arsenal include the advanced M1A2 Abrams tank and AH-64D Apache Longbow, which fires 16 "fire and forget" tank-killing Hellfire missiles at a much faster rate than its predecessors did during Desert Storm.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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