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[infowar.de] 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
By SETH SCHIESEL
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
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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