Intent on success, the military has assigned a 1,000-member brigade, the Army Evaluation Task Force, to test prototypes, provide feedback, and develop new strategies for network-enabled combat. Stationed at Ft. Bliss, more than 90 percent of the task-force members previously served in Afghanistan, Iraq or both. After the SUGV mock assault, I went down to the street and approached the robot's driver, Tony Salinero. "In Iraq, how often do you get a house with no door that you could drive a robot right through?" I asked. Salinero laughed, and then there was an awkward pause. "Occasionally," he finally said. Inside the building I met the soldiers who had been cast as insurgents in the SUGV drill. They seemed to lack the moxie that one would expect from dangerous rebels. One said, "We're two guys, and they had like six of them coming in. What you gonna do? Die in place."
To achieve the kind of interconnectedness on which FCS relies, the Army needs a portable computer that allows soldiers to wirelessly share intelligence through voice, text, pictures or video; initiate commands in remote computers; access informational servers; and use satellites to determine their location and the locations of others. A cynical take on FCS is that the Army is spending $200 billion and waiting until 2015 to invent a cellphone no more sophisticated than that carried by the average American teenager today.
"Every other day, somebody jabs me about cellular -- you know: 'It's so prevalent and available,' " says Col. Michael Williamson, the project manager for FCS network integration. But the infrastructure that allows you to wirelessly call and Web-surf while sipping a Frappuccino at Starbucks has been built up over the course of decades at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, he says. In war zones, modern communications are often limited or nonexistent. Even when robust commercial Internet and cellular technologies are in place, for security reasons the military can't rely on them. Communicating over widely known standards would enable an enemy to easily intercept information, like the coordinates for an upcoming missile strike. Worse yet, even encrypted transmissions could allow foes to pinpoint soldiers' locations and to launch counterattacks. When the Army shows up to fight, it must therefore build a network from scratch, says Paul Geery, the director of network development at Boeing, the lead systems integrator for FCS. "Our constraint is to be able to take a fighting force, roll off a C-17 [cargo plane] or boat with nothing in place, and within a short period of time start operating in a network fashion."
The military has made considerable progress in the past decade at linking commanders at the battalion level and above. Leaders at war-zone bases have hardwired or satellite-enabled connections to a protected version of the Web. They can share intelligence data, reconnaissance imagery, logistics reports and battle plans. Rank-and-file warriors, however, are mostly cut off. The soldiers' networks that do exist are isolated, small and slow, with data-transmission rates measured in kilobits, not megabits, per second.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.