Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Obama Administration are committed to getting our soldiers in combat the critical equipment and support they need to do their jobs. Secretary Gates has made enhancing survivability his particular cause. He forced the military to rapidly develop and deploy thousands of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles that substantially reduced the number of casualties from roadside bombs. He has instilled in the Army a sense of urgency regarding the effort to get MRAP-All Terrain Vehicles (M-ATV) into Afghanistan. Similarly, the Secretary virtually waged a personal war against the Air Force to force that service to provide sufficient unmanned aerial systems in Iraq and Afghanistan to protect our troops.
So, how is it possible that the Army can know about a technology that could substantially reduce the risks to its personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan but not move rapidly to acquire this capability? The specific technology I am referencing is not even all that complex. It is a radio. Now the Army has lots of radios, tens of thousands or more. The problem is not all of them are doing the job needed.
The specific system at issue is a radio that provides non-line-of-sight communications with tactical unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and ground robots. The Army has thousands of UASs and robots in Iraq and Afghanistan. The former are employed to give our forces visibility over the next hill or to watch for efforts by insurgents to plant bombs or set up ambushes. The robots are used in places that are highly dangerous for soldiers such as buildings, culverts and caves or to deal with lethal threats such as Improvised Explosive Devices or unexploded ordnance. The central idea is to use machines in the place of soldiers either when the situation is too dangerous or so as to allow our forces to remain hidden to the enemy while they are exposed to our view.
Many of our UASs, primarily those that operate at low altitudes and short ranges, and robots in the field are equipped with the wrong radio. When our soldiers fly the UAS to a position where it can look over the next hill or at the backside of a building they risk losing line-of-sight connection to the vehicle. That means they can’t control it or receive a video signal. As a result, our forces in the field are subject to unnecessary risks. Similarly, when a robot is sent down a culvert or into a cave it can loses connectivity, reducing it to an expensive lump of metal and plastic. So, we have to send soldiers into those potentially deadly situations.
With alternative radios available that do not suffer from the same problem, why do we have this situation? As crazy as this must sound, it is because the Army does not have a requirement for non-line-of-sight communications with its UASs and robots. After eight years of war in the complex environment of urban Baghdad, the caves of Tora Bora and the mountains around the Kyber pass, the Army has yet to formulate a requirement for non-line-of-sight communications. So, the companies that build the UASs and robots often don’t equip them with radios that would provide non-line-of-sight communications.
We don’t know how many soldiers have died as a result of UASs and robots that lack the vital connectivity needed in complex terrain. How many is too many when the solution is readily available and not prohibitively expensive? Perhaps Secretary Gates should take a little time away from his effort to ensure that our troops in Afghanistan get the protection afforded by the M-ATV and use it to ask the Army why it is unnecessarily placing those same troops at unnecessary risk due to the lack of appropriate radios.
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