A surprisingly bounteous desert stretches across the horizon, bound by craggy peaks. Bright yellow flowers dot the landscape, highlighted by the green scrub growing around them. Huge, parti-colored grasshoppers lumber along, mating in the ground cover.
Three M-ATVs rumble down a track toward the building on whose roof we're standing. The sharp crack of AK-47 rounds ring out from the barrel of a Taliban marksman at the edge of the roof. One of the M-ATVs 50's opens up with that distinctive thump, thump. American soldiers roll out, hit the side of the building and move in, according to the best TTPs.
And then their commander politely asks four members of the press to step inside a room adjoining where the Taliban will be captured and killed, so that it can all be done with some authenticity. That was the scene last Friday at the White Sands Missile Range during the Army's full-scale test of the -- get ready for the official name so the Boeing and Army folks don't scream at me -- Early Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Increment 1 Limited User Test.
This is the latest in a long series of tests of the technologies that are becoming so familiar to Army watchers: the flying beer keg (also known as the Class 1 UAV); the family of "unattended" tactical sensors; the small remote-controlled ground vehicle for which no one can come up with a better name than SUG-V; and the software programmable radios known as NIK that are the heart of the exercise and provide the rolling secure Wi-Fi that is supposed to give US troops improved situational awareness.
More than 800 soldiers are taking part in the test, including testers, faux Taliban, real US forces, faux ANA and faux ordinary Afghan villagers. Two weeks remain in the test. One thing that forcibly struck me was how much more vigorous this test was, compared to the early summer event. And the command atmosphere was much more vibrant and demanding.
The technology that looks like the biggest winner of the bunch, according to the lieutenants and sergeants I spoke with, is the flying beer keg. It forced the faux Taliban forces to be craftier, seek new routes and sometimes travel at night, they told us.
But, in a fabulous example of enterprise and cunning, the leader of the Taliban main force (the OpFor) hatched the idea of flying kites to discombobulate the beer keg. Capt. Andrew Hitchings said the kites tangled the UAV up and rendered it temporarily useless. He said he was not allowed to destroy the flying beer keg but he clearly took great satisfaction in having made its life miserable.
The ground sensors were another winner, although our sergeant said they didn't operate at the distances they were supposed to. They got "positive hits" at distances of up to 3,000 meters but they were "supposed to" work up to 9,000 meters, he said. The sensors depend on a transmission antenna and I heard from several of the soldiers serving as the US side they worried the antenna could be spotted, even the camouflaged one that rolls up. However, folks with the main Taliban force told me they had not spotted the antenna and had found the sensors a source --at least -- of uncertainty.
One of the sergeants expert in the ground sensors capabilities and reliability told me they worked pretty well against helicopters, if they fly low enough or land, and had proved pretty good at detecting heavy vehicles. I didn't ask him about Toyota pickups. The camera sensor, hidden in brush, had done a fine job providing data for force protection but, the sergeant said, didn't provide detailed enough imagery to get license plates or other critical data. If it sent video instead of still pictures that might help, he said.
The NIK -- centerpiece of the test -- appeared to be functioning much better than it did early this summer. No test results were available yet since the test runs. It was projected to function 89 hours between serious failures during the LUT, according to an Army document. Before the tests began the Army made 86 design changes to the technologies since last year, out of 160 corrective actions to improve equipment performance and the NIK received several substantial software rewrites.
Initial results indicate that the NIK was maintaining an average quality link of one on a scale of zero to three, Lt. Col. Luke Peterson, product manager for network systems for PEO Integration told us. Two is optimal. The NIKs are transmitting files of an average size of 500 kilobytes. That allows commanders to send and receive operational orders, meaning they don't have to waste time travelling 20 kilometers or more each way, he said.
The Army mounted 15 NIKs on three different types of MRAPs, four Humvees, one Bradley and one was placed in the TOC. The biggest difference this time, aside from increased reliability, was that the network is operating across a considerably larger area than it did last time. And it is reaching into places it couldn't before.
We got a very staged example of this when the S-UGV was dropped into a concrete tunnel about 20 feet deep. It maintained its link to its operator and, presumably, the image it got of four reporters, a cameraman and at least one Army spokesman was fed back to units via the network. And that, one of the soldiers said, was what it was all about. He wouldn't have to crawl through a tunnel with his 9mm pistol in hand, hoping there weren't any booby traps or insurgents waiting for him as he had to do in Iraq.
Biggest loser, according to our sergeant, was a group of sensors that bear a striking resemblance to the home security monitors you buy at Radio Shack. While they can provide detailed images from up close and are handy for such uses as a sniper team using them to protect their back, or for force protection at a house that a platoon might occupy for a few days, he said, they "don't work very well. Yesterday it worked well -- no rain, no clouds, no wind. Normally we can't even get it to work at 100 meters. “Usual working range was about 15 meters. And to get a good image the subject needs to be about four feet away from the sensor, he said. One of their biggest drawbacks is that if they are planted in an unfriendly's house they stick out like a sore thumb.
Best quote of the trip came from the brigade commander, Col. Dan Pinell: "I guarantee when I'm done that southern New Mexico will be safe from counterinsurgencies."
[Full disclosure: Boeing paid for our flights to and from Fort Bliss.]