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[] NYT, 17.4.03: On the Ground in Iraq, the Best Compass Is in the Sky,
April 17, 2003
On the Ground in Iraq, the Best Compass Is in the Sky

On an afternoon early this month, in the desert near Najaf, Iraq, elements 
of an elite United States Army unit received word of a column of almost 60 
vehicles, including about two dozen tanks, moving along a nearby road.

Some of the soldiers thought it could be Saddam Hussein's Republican 

Then a general in his Humvee leaned over to a computer console that is 
part of a satellite-based navigation system called FBCB2. He tapped in the 
military grid coordinates where the mystery force was located. Then on the 
screen, up popped the little blue symbols that represent friendly units, 
rather than the red icons that the United States military uses to 
designate enemy forces.

It was not the Republican Guard. It was a separate United States division.

During the cold war and even the 1991 Persian Gulf war, satellite 
technology was not an everyday part of the lives of foot soldiers or even 
generals. But in the Iraqi desert, satellite technology - specifically the 
Global Positioning System, or G.P.S. - has become a fundamental and 
pervasive navigation tool for ground forces. 

G.P.S. gadgetry has become almost as much a part of army life as shovels 
and cigarettes - whether integrated into vehicles in advanced systems like 
FBCB2 (often referred to as "blue-force tracker"), used in the hand-held 
receiver known to soldiers as the Plugger, or even bought off the shelf. 

"Primarily the way that G.P.S. technologies have changed the way the army 
can perform its mission is it has given us a more accurate way to navigate 
the battle space," said Lt. Col. William S. Harborth, the Army's product 
manager for Global Positioning System technology. 

That means the devices simply help soldiers figure out where they are. 
Perhaps even more important, the ability to define location precisely can 
help soldiers figure out where other units are.

"Increased accuracy is more important because if you know better where you 
are, you can ensure that you reduce fratricide," Colonel Harborth said. 
"In the old days, there was some human error in determining your location 
on the ground."

Satellite navigation continues to be crucial for long-range weapons like 
cruise missiles, and G.P.S. is essential in the sort of unmanned aircraft 
that saw their first broad deployment in Afghanistan. In contrast, the 
main such tool among ground troops, the Plugger, is in some ways less 
sophisticated than gear found at Wal-Mart or in rental cars - its utility 
in traversing the open desert diminished as forces entered urban areas, 
for example, since roads and landmarks are not programmed into it. 

Still, the increasing use of satellite-based systems for navigation - and 
for "situational awareness," in military parlance - is one of the biggest 
changes in United States ground operations since the 1991 gulf war.

During that war, the Global Positioning Satellite network was in its 
infancy, and among front-line units, a single G.P.S. receiver might be 
allotted to an army company, perhaps numbering 180 soldiers in the 
infantry. Now the Army says that it has more than 100,000 Pluggers (the 
name is derived from the initials for their full name, PLGR for Precision 
Lightweight G.P.S. Receiver). In Iraq, the leader of each combat squad, 
which might include nine soldiers, often has a Plugger at hand; in some 
Army units, Pluggers are even more numerous.

The Marines have adopted the technology more cautiously. Matthew Brandt, 
the Marines' project manager for G.P.S., said the corps had purchased only 
about 5,400 of the units and generally deployed them at the platoon level. 
(A platoon might include three to five squads.)

That may be one reason that at least some marines are carrying their own 
civilian-grade G.P.S. devices from home. The civilian devices, made by 
companies including Garmin International, are typically smaller than 
Pluggers and, though not quite as precise as Pluggers, are apparently 
sufficient for everyday purposes. 

Those purposes can be as trivial as finding the chow line. Before the 
shooting started in Iraq, some soldiers in front-line units were using 
their Pluggers to navigate through the dark and sand to the mess tent.

As with most technologies, however, satellite navigation is only as useful 
as the human intelligence guiding its use. For instance, in late March an 
American military detachment was sent to pick up some prisoners near 
Najaf. The soldiers were told the coordinates of the captives.

Their Plugger unit worked fine and the soldiers reached the coordinates. 
But they did not find the prisoners there. Instead, they came close to a 
mortar attack. The human intelligence had failed, not the device. 

And even with the growing use of satellite navigation devices, there are 
gaps. A prominent setback for the Army in the early days of the war was 
the ambush of members of the 507th Maintenance Company near Nasiriya, 
Iraq, in which eight soldiers were killed. A private captured in the 
confrontation, Jessica D. Lynch, was later rescued, and five others taken 
prisoner were found alive north of Baghdad on Sunday.

The Nasiriya episode, which occurred while the soldiers were traveling in 
a convoy of trucks and other vehicles, was initially attributed to their 
having taken a wrong turn off a major highway. The Army has refused to 
comment publicly on precise details of the incident, and more recent 
accounts indicate that the convoy was ambushed after having stopped to 
repair vehicles. 

But a technology expert with the American forces in the region and a 
civilian expert on military G.P.S. both said it was unlikely in any case 
that the captured unit had a G.P.S. device on board. 

While Plugger units are almost ubiquitous among front-line combat units, 
they remain less common among units like maintenance companies, which are 
not generally meant to engage the enemy. 

Even soldiers who have Pluggers are relying on devices that are in some 
ways primitive compared with their civilian counterparts. It is a curious 
position for the Pentagon, the driving force behind the creation of the 
constellation of 24 G.P.S. satellites in the 1980's and 90's.

The Plugger devices remain largely unchanged since their initial 
deployment in 1994 (although their cost has fallen from about $2,000 each 
to less than $1,000), and for many purposes, the relatively scant 
information they provide is sufficient. Soldiers can specify their 
destination, and the unit will tell them what direction to go. Using 
encrypted satellite signals reserved for government use, they are accurate 
to within roughly 10 yards, compared with 20 to 25 yards for civilian 

Built for resilience in combat, they are big (roughly the size of a small 
shoebox), heavy (about 2.75 pounds) and have a small text-based display 
incapable of showing maps or other information. In general, the units, 
which are made by Rockwell Collins, display only location, velocity (if 
the unit is moving) and time. 

Civilian G.P.S. devices like the NeverLost system in Hertz rental cars, in 
contrast, are often able to display maps and other information. 

The advanced graphical FBCB2 system used in Army combat vehicles, in 
contrast, allows commanders to electronically "see" broad swaths of a 
battlefield. In the version of FBCB2 known as "blue-force tracker," 
far-flung United States units not only receive their location information 
from G.P.S. but also communicate with one another using other classified 
satellite systems. Other versions of FBCB2 units receive their location 
from G.P.S. but communicate with one another using land-based radio. 

(In either case, the system is connected by cable to a Plugger, which 
serves as the actual location-detection device. In fact, more than half of 
the Pluggers in the Army are not used in a hand-held mode. Rather they are 
used as "slave'' location-detection devices for other systems, which 
include air-defense batteries in addition to FBCB2.)

FBCB2, which has been in development since 1997, has been deployed in 
practically every tank and Bradley fighting vehicle in the Fourth Infantry 
Division, said Michael Lebrun, deputy director in the Army's command, 
control, communication and computers office. Elements of the Fourth 
Infantry, which in some ways is the most technically advanced of the 
army's infantry divisions, are on the way to Iraq. 

The FBCB2 system displays the location of similarly equipped units in the 
area as blue icons. When any of the units spot enemy forces, they enter 
their location into the system. They are then displayed as red icons, and 
that information is relayed to other FBCB2 trackers.

Mr. Lebrun said that over the last seven or eight months, FBCB2 was 
deployed to other army divisions, though generally company by company. A 
tank company might include three platoons, each with four tanks. 

For foot soldiers without access to the FBCB2, however, satellite 
navigation usually means getting their location from the Plugger and then 
using a paper map to plot their location manually.

That is why the Pentagon is ordering a new generation of hand-held G.P.S. 
devices, to be known as DAGR, pronounced "Dagger," for Defense Advanced 
G.P.S. Receiver. Rockwell Collins is competing with Raytheon for the right 
to produce the new system, which is scheduled to reach everyday soldiers 
next year. The Pentagon is to pick the winning company in September.

"Plugger is about 12 years old, and if you can make an analogy to the 
commercial electronics marketplace, just think about your cordless phone 
you had at home 10 years ago versus now," said Mark Youhanaie, Raytheon's 
strategy director for G.P.S. products. "Now, we can make these receivers 
more accurate. We can acquire the satellite signal more quickly. It has 
higher jam immunity, and we can give you that all in a package that is a 
quarter of the size of the old Plugger system."

For now, it appears that the Rockwell Collins contender is a bit smaller 
than Raytheon's, while Raytheon's boasts a bigger screen. Whichever 
company wins, however, the Dagger will weigh only about a pound and will 
be much smaller than the Plugger. Perhaps most important, the new devices 
will allow soldiers to see not just lines of coordinate numbers, but also 
a map that shows their location in relation to objects like minefields, 
rivers and enemy positions. The units will also incorporate graphical user 

Drawing a comparison to generations of computer operating systems, Steve 
Jones, the Rockwell Collins marketing manager for land navigation 
products, said that "Plugger is DOS, and Dagger is Windows."

By plugging the Dagger system into a military radio, soldiers may be able 
to display their location on the screens of nearby Dagger units or more 
advanced FBCB2 systems, Mr. Jones said.

The Dagger devices, which are meant to initially cost about $2,000 each, 
will be more advanced than the Plugger in other ways as well. While the 
Plugger receives its encrypted signals at 1,575 megahertz, the band also 
used for civilian G.P.S. devices, the Dagger will also be able to pick up 
signals at the government-only 1,227-megahertz band, allowing for 
additional accuracy. The 1,227 band is now used largely for military 
aircraft, cruise missiles and other airborne systems, military officials 

The new system will also track all 12 G.P.S. satellites in each hemisphere 
at once. The old units can only track five satellites at once, and signals 
from four satellites are required to establish a three-dimensional 
position. In addition, current G.P.S. receivers are somewhat vulnerable to 
enemy equipment that beams false G.P.S. signals to indicate the wrong 
location, a technique known as spoofing.

The Dagger is meant to include classified technology that will help the 
device verify that the signal it is receiving is actually coming from a 
United States G.P.S. satellite.

It is still unclear just how many of the new devices will reach United 
States soldiers. "The plan was to replace all of the Pluggers in one 
year,'' said Mr. Brandt of the Marines, "and of course that depends on how 
much money Congress decides to give us, which is never certain."

But no matter how many are ultimately deployed, the new devices are meant 
to give the soldiers perhaps the most precious commodity on the modern 
battlefield besides life itself: information.

"The key is greater situational awareness for our soldiers so we bring 
them home alive," Colonel Harborth said. "That's it."

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