The Army's pie-in-the-sky Future Combat Systems will make brigades more easily deployable by replacing vehicles like 70-ton M-1 Abrams tanks with much lighter alternatives. To match the survivability of the older systems, FCS will rely on superior communications, new surveillance equipment and forthcoming electromagnetic shields.That's the fantasy. The reality might turn out quite differently. For while many of the communications and surveillance tools of the future force are already finding their way into service in Iraq, the Army isn't getting any lighter. In fact, it's only getting heavier.The North Dakota National Guard's 164th Engineer Regiment has got to be one of the best-equipped Guard units in Iraq right now. They ride in factory-fresh M-1114 up-armored Humvees and a whole circus of new vehicles originally designed to clear mines: the Buffalo, the Meerkat, the Husky and the RG-31. Every day, they roll out to sweep Improvised Explosive Devices from the highways around Logistics Support Area Anaconda.The Buffaloes are heavily-armored six-wheeled Mack trucks with an articulated arm used to pick up and shake suspicious objects. The Meerkat and its larger cousin the Husky are spindly four-wheelers with X-rays for spotting metal bombs. The RG-31 is a tall mine-proof vehicle that more or less duplicates the Humvee's gun-truck role and carries the 164th's Warlock IED jammers. All the vehicles are equipped with the Forward Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) battlefield internet, one of the lynchpin systems of the lighter future force.But does the FBCB2 make the 164th any more survivable on Iraq's IED-infested roads? If the answer is yes, why all the expensive new armored trucks? The 164th is heavier than ever, and has all this armor to thank for its safety. They've been blown up many times; one Buffalo is scorched from nose to waist from a massive IED blast. But no one has died."Our vehicles take good care of us," says 164th Staff Sgt. Colin Thompson in his North Dakota accent. Note that he doesn't single out the FBCB2 for doing the same. For while information is a great enabler, it won't magically root out every homemade IED tucked inside the carcass of a cow -- and it won't save your sorry ass when that IED blows up under your vehicle.--David Axe
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