FORT BLISS, Texas, May 9, 2008 – Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Flowers has served combat deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and understands firsthand what warfighters need to succeed. Last week, Flowers and his fellow soldiers from the Army Evaluation Task Force got a chance to show U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates some of the revolutionary concepts and systems they’re testing to give future soldiers the upper hand on the battlefield.

The task force, from 5th Brigade, 1st Armored Division, stood up here in late 2006 as an operational test bed for the Army’s Future Combat Systems program.

Gates got a firsthand look during his May 1 visit here at progress in developing an advanced data and communications network that will give troops detailed, real-time battlefield information.

The first of four planned “spinouts” in the program includes testing of the Intelligent Munitions System; the Tactical Unmanned Ground Sensor, which detects and reports on ground movement; the Urban Unmanned Ground Sensor, which detects motion inside a building; and the Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System, nicknamed “rockets in a box.”

The Non-Light-of-Sight cannon is being tested now at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., and Army Test and Evaluation Command will conduct an operational test on other Spinout 1 technology this summer. If all goes as hoped, its systems could be fielded within two years of the test, said Army Col. Patrick “Lee” Fetterman, Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Future Combat Systems capability manager.

Gates watched preparations for those tests as the task force demonstrated how the systems can be used to track down and search a notional insurgent safe house at the Future Force Integration Directorate compound.

Sensors placed in the building – not unlike home security devices that monitor for break-ins – relayed details about inside activity to Bradley fighting vehicles. The Bradleys, picking up movement through advances communications equipment, barreled toward the building. They stopped abruptly as their crews dismounted, breaching a chain-link fence as they ran toward their objective, smoke and dust in their wake.

When the soldiers reached the suspected safe house, they dispatched the first of 25 small unmanned ground vehicles, or SUGVs, to be tested here as their “point man.” The 30-pound tactical robot entered the building, relaying real-time images of its findings.

Ultimately, it honed in on the “insurgent” — actually an Evaluation BCT soldier — hiding in the dark beneath a stairwell. The soldiers stormed the building, capturing the suspect.

Flowers, who served with a reconnaissance platoon in Iraq, said he sees the clear value of systems that track enemy movement without risking or expending precious manpower.

“This would have been a great help in Iraq,” he said. “You can use less manpower and keep your eyes on the objective at all times.”

Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Mazzarese, who joined the task force in January 2007, said likes the idea of leaving a piece of equipment, rather than one of his soldiers, behind to watch for enemy movement. “Being able to keep all my soldiers together means a lot to me,” he said.

The demonstration showed progress in the Future Combat Systems program, which has been called the Army’s most ambitious and far-reaching modernization since World War II. The program aims to tap into the most advanced technologies possible to enable FCS-equipped brigade combat teams to see the enemy first and understand his intentions, officials explained. Once they understand what the enemy is up to, they can act first and on their own terms.

“We think this is a significant increase in capability for the soldier, dismounted and mounted, in combat,” said Fetterman. “I believe there is value added in all the aspects of FCS.”

While each new component will offer more capability, the true value of FCS will be far greater than the sum of its individual parts, Army Col. Michael Williamson, program manager for the FCS network, said.

“It is really the integration of all these pieces,” he explained, “that will provide the commander and the soldiers so much more information and so much more capability than when you talk about individual pieces.

“So even though we are talking about the schedule of when various pieces are ready, at the end of the day, where the real impact comes, is when you start to combine all these capabilities into a package,” he said.

Soldiers from the evaluation task force, most with combat experience under their belts, will combine live training, experimentation and simulation to test systems ranging from sensors to automated systems to manned vehicles.

“[The task force] ensures it all works together, and that it all provides value added to the soldier before we send it to over the theater and the soldier tries to apply it in a combat situation,” Fetterman said. “Before we field it to a combat unit, these guys will tell us what’s wrong with it, and we’ll fix it.”

Mazzarese is quick to say he’d rather be in the fight, but that his first choice of stateside assignments would be with the experimental task force.

“I’ve been in the Army for 11 years, and I’ve seen Army equipment suddenly appear,” he said. “Being here, I’m able to be at the front end of that process and articulate my impressions about equipment before it gets to the field. That’s making a difference to the soldiers.”

FCS testing will be conducted both here and at neighboring White Sands Missile Range, N.M., through four spinouts that will enable the Army to build the new technology over time.

The second spinout will test a series of unmanned aerial vehicles. Spinout 3 will test varieties of unmanned ground vehicles. The final spinout will evaluate manned ground vehicles that operate from a common platform, as well as the network.

The network is evolving incrementally, with additional sensors added to it with each spinout. The goal is to have “everything together and working” by 2017, with individual components fielded during the interim, Fetterman said.

But the Army doesn’t intend to wait until then to get some of the best new technologies being developed to warfighters in the field.

Some, including unmanned aerial vehicles that can be carried in a backpack and small unmanned ground vehicles that can carry sensors into buildings, caves and other dangerous spots, are already in limited use in the combat theater.

“We’re a lot farther down the road on this than people know,” said Army Col. John Maddux, director for Army Evaluation Task Force integration. “This is not about the future. It’s about giving a capability to soldiers now.”

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