FORT POLK, La. -- The U.S. Army is poised to send the first wave of soldiers to Afghanistan with a suite of new communications gear designed to boost mobile connectivity on the battlefield.
Some 1,600 soldiers with the 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, will be the first to use the set of smartphone-compatible radios, networking systems and software in the combat zone. The troops are receiving accelerated training with the technology at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in preparation of their upcoming deployment, said Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the service.
Military.com is traveling to the installation, located about 130 miles south of Shreveport, on March 24 to spend a day with the soldiers as they get acclimated to the new equipment, which includes products made by General Dynamics Corp. and Harris Corp.
"These guys are actually taking this stuff to go use it in Afghanistan," Mehney said in an interview. "This is their last stop prior to deployment."
The mission comes as the White House is pressing for a faster withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. President Barack Obama last month during his State of the Union address said the number of American troops in the country will be cut by half, to about 34,000, in a year. The war, he said, "will be over" by late 2014. The question of how many troops will remain there is still a matter of debate.
In response to the evolving mission and budget uncertainty, the Army has decreased the number of brigades set to receive the communications gear to four brigades and two division headquarters -- down from eight brigades, Mehney said. The soldiers will be tasked with advising and assisting Afghan security forces rather than fighting insurgents, he said.
Sending troops to Afghanistan with the latest radios and networking equipment still makes sense because units will be losing access to fixed communications infrastructure, Mehney said.
"You're not in a FOB anymore," he said, referring to the military term for forward operating base, a protected position used to back combat operations. "It's a completely different mission. It's a lot more mobile."
The military has struggled for more than a decade to provide mobile connectivity to troops in austere environments. One of its capstone programs to deliver such a service, called the Joint Tactical Radio System, known as JTRS and pronounced "jitters," has been plagued with cost overruns, delays and malfunctioning prototypes.
The Defense Department in 2011 canceled the part of the system developing radios for tanks and trucks, known as Ground Mobile Radio and headed by Boeing Co. Last year, it downsized a similar effort for ships and other systems, known as Airborne and Maritime/Fixed Station and led by Lockheed Martin Corp., the world's largest defense contractor.
However, the Pentagon last year also backed a piece of the system developing handheld and portable radios for troops, known as Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit and headed by General Dynamics. It authorized the Army to buy a total of more than 19,000 so-called Rifleman Radios from the company -- about 10 percent of the program's planned quantity -- while holding a competition for the next phase of production.
Harris and Exelis Inc. are among the companies that plan to compete for the next round of production.
A separate Army program, called Nett Warrior, connects smartphones and tablets running Google Inc.'s Android software to the Rifleman Radio to transmit secure text messages and data.