From Nintendo To The Real Thing

Anti-aparteid activist Nelson Mandela was freed on Feb. 11, 1990, after more than 27 years behind bars. AP

A computer system that tracks friendly and enemy forces and pinpoints hazards like minefields on video game-like touch screens got its first use in battle. Commanders are hoping it can cut down on friendly fire deaths.

The Army's 4th Infantry Division is guided by a sophisticated computer network that tracked the division's 1st Brigade during a skirmish Wednesday for the Taji air base north of Baghdad.

The computer network is known as Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below, and works as a battlefield Internet that keeps track of fast-moving combat vehicles.

The system's global positioning satellite navigation system also warns whenever a vehicle strays from its planned path.

Proponents say such systems could prevent tragedies like the March 23 ambush deaths of nine soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company after their convoy took a wrong turn in southern Iraq.

The network "provides a level of situational awareness that is second to none," said 1st Brigade commander Col. Don Campbell.

Campbell and his staff used the battlefield networking system Wednesday to direct his troops — represented by blue icons — toward the positions of "red" Iraqi paramilitaries identified by spotters in helicopters.

Soldiers of 1st Brigade took control of the Taji base, killing four combatants and taking at least two dozen prisoners. There were no American casualties.

Using the system to pinpoint exact vehicle positions also can prevent friendly fire deaths.

On the system's networked screens, blue icons denote friendly forces and are constantly updated. Red icons show the enemy, which are added as they're spotted. The 4th Infantry also has unmanned aircraft that can handle surveillance tasks.

Hazards like minefields, areas where poison gas has been reported or other pitfalls can be added so units can steer clear.

By touching a screen icon, anyone from a commander in the rear to a tank crewman can get specific data about a vehicle — what it is, how fast it is moving and in which direction. If a vehicle is captured, the system has a self-destruct mechanism that can be triggered remotely.

Another touch allows soldiers to send text messages between vehicles or back to the command post, cutting down on radio chatter.

Maj. Mike Silverman, operations officer for the 1st Brigade, said that saves time to use voice communications for more detailed reports.

For Chief Warrant Officer II John Hanks, a maintenance technician for the 4th Battalion, 42nd Field Artillery, the text messaging means troops can send quick assessments of problems without miscommunication through radio garble.

"The faster the vehicles can get to me saying, `We need a part,' the faster I can come up with it and get them back into the fight," Hanks said.

Developed by Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, the computers were first fielded in 1995, said Mike Iacobacci, a Northrop technician traveling with the 1st Brigade.

The FBCB2 system transmits by bouncing data from vehicle to vehicle until it hits the brigade or division command centers. This "mesh network" lets the 4th Infantry update its positions faster than the rest of the Army, which must cope with the five-minute delay inherent in its satellite communications systems.

Younger soldiers, many of them raised on video games, quickly learn how to use the system, Iacobacci said.

"Some of these kids grew up on Nintendo and Play Stations, so once they get on it's easy," he said.

The 4th is considered the Army's most lethal heavy division, boasting the latest tanks, troop carriers and Apache attack helicopters. But it missed out on nearly all the fighting in Iraq after Turkey refused to let the United States use that country as a staging ground.

Wednesday's skirmish was the first combat the division has seen since the Vietnam War.

By David Rising
  • Lloyd Vries

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