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Eyes on Balad

Logistics Support Area Anaconda, 50 miles north of Baghdad, is the major supply hub for all military operations in Iraq. All day every day, Army CH-47 Chinooks and Air Force C-17 Globemasters crisscross the sky. Every night, Army transportation companies sortie mile-long convoys to every corner of the country. The passenger terminal is the second busiest in the entire U.S. military. The bottom line: Anaconda is really, really busy and really, really important -- and just a few well-placed mortar rounds could put a lot of kinks in a lot of plans here.Balad_1_2.jpgThe tedious, dangerous job of policing the surrounding countryside and the nearby Shiite town of Balad has fallen to the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, now on its second rotation in Iraq. A task force built around 3rd Battalion of the brigade's 29th Field Artillery Regiment is responsible for the countryside while the 1st of the 8th Infantry's task force keeps an eye on Balad proper. That's a combined 1,500 soldiers overseeing an entire city and hundreds of square miles. "Spread thin" is an understatement.But these are a new breed of task forces. Between deployments, the 4th ID reorganized from three to four brigades, or so-called "Units of Action", adding dedicated reconnaissance battalions and picking up a lot of neat new toys, including Raven aerial drones, the Forward Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) battlefield internet, a bunch of new armored vehicles and new sensors. Plus, both task forces here benefit from the Air Force, Army and even Marine Corps surveillance assets -- RC-12s, F-16s, F/A-18s, Predator drones, etc. -- based at Anaconda and other nearby airbases.On a patrol with 3-29 on Feb. 2, Staff Sgt. John Lohnes navigated using the FBCB2's touch-screen digital map while AH-64 Apaches and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters swooped overhead and Ravens droned invisibly in the distance. "It basically makes it easier to track my own position," Lohnes says of FBCB2. But it does so much more. Every FBCB2-equipped patrol is visible as an icon on the map. Simply by touching the screen, Lohnes can pull up imagery of particular points of interest. And he can send and receive secure Instant Messages from the task force command center, where a bunch of officers sit in front of plasma screens displaying imagery from Predators and tower-mounted sensors called "J-Lenses".The Army of the future is on display here in muddy north-central Iraq. I'm embedded with 3-29 and 1-8 for the next couple of weeks. Stand by ...-- David Axe

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