Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Military roundup: Thirteen years on

The Army has changed hugely since I left it. Some of it's organizational, but much of it is tactics and equipment refined by over a decade of combating insurgencies. Some of the new gear is positively science fiction. Or at least it would have been seen as science fiction prior to 9/11.

Courtesy of wikicommons

Body Armor: Didn't have it until Kosovo, when us scouts and other combat arms soldiers preparing to head there were issued the Ranger Body Armor system. Now, just about everyone has armor capable of stopping a 7.62 Kalashnikov round. That definitely beats the old flak vests, which would arrest shrapnel, but just slow down and add more flesh-cutting ballistic tumble to a bullet.

Open aimpoint sights: Most of my time in the Army I fired using the same kind of iron sights I'd grown up plinking plastic army men with in Nevada. Then, a year prior to leaving the Army, I got to fire with an open aimpoint scope on an M4 carbine. A big fat tube with a red aimpoint dot at the center, the new scopes do not provide magnification. Rather they allow a shooter to keep both eyes open, instead of closing one, or keeping both open but focusing on the front sight post, or any of the other classic techniques - good and bad - that limited peripheral vision and generally took up concentration that should have have gone to targets and the environment. Just look, see, and be aware of that red dot superimposed in your field of vision so long as as you maintain a good cheek-to-stock weld with the weapon.

Public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
 AN-PEQ laser system: Night fire used to much, much tougher than daylight engagements. Then came the rail-mounted infrared laser systems for the M4s and squad weapons systems like SAWs and M240s. Invisible to the naked eye, but distinct through helmet-worn night vision devices, the AN-PEQs pretty much took the work out of marksmanship after dark. Sweep the beam across the battlefield, touch it to the target, and that was just about that. I hit 40 for 40 the fist time I shot using the system on a range. No wonder insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq quickly conceded the night to US forces.

Public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The XM-25: It fires explosive rounds that airbrust over enemies hiding behind walls or inside foxholes. Laze a windowsill and fire through the window; the round will detonate a meter or two inside the room, midair, rather than expending most of its energy on the far wall.

It pretty much negates cover for anyone in range. So more than likely sometime in the next decade or so infantry combat will transition to emphasising concealment and staying hidden during firefights, as fixed defensive positions and built up structures lose much of their protective value. If that's not science fiction-ish, I don't know what is.

So why is this a future thing? Because the present day XM-25 is too big, too bulky, and carries too few rounds to be worth toting on the battlefield. But as the technology matures and lighter variants are incorporated into existing systems like rifle-mounted grenade launchers, vehicle-born grenade systems and chainguns, expect some significant shifts in battlefield dynamics.

Sensors: Prior to 9/11, the scout platoon I was assigned to in Germany had almost nothing in the way of long-ranged night vision systems. There were some broken thermal sights for TOW missile launchers that dated back to the end of the Cold War, which the theater arms depot had long stopped accepting for maintenance. The only 'functional' long range systems we had were some heavy and ungainly Vietnam-Era night vision rifle scopes. They let us see a good distance out on bright, star-filled nights. Anything less, and they were strictly close range, not much better than the night optic devices strapped to our helmets.

A lack of optics that could see far in reduced visibility conditions meant that at night, and even during good deal of daylight hours, it was necessary on foot or on a vehicle to get well within range of enemy weapon systems in order to conduct good reconnaissance. While there's a lot to be said for the arts of stalking, and dismounted and mounted infiltration, it's not necessarily the most timely way to go about gathering information in the age of fast-moving mechanized warfare - even if you can see things from the ground that are invisible or difficult to spot from the air. 

But now...
Public Domain, courtesy of the DOD
The Long Range Scout Surveillance System is a package of optical systems - night and day - bundled together with a laser range finder, and a GPS for pinpointing targets. And it's got Long Range in its name for a damned good reason.

I still drool every time I see one. Jeez, the toys the kids have these days... 

Other sensors include a proliferation of thermal and forward-looking infrared systems on a variety of platforms.

Public domain, courtesy of US Army
Drones: So you may have heard rumors that people have been sticking sensors and weapons on unmanned aircraft (technically remotely piloted vehicles rather than drones), and flying them over battlefields during the past ten years. OK, you've probably heard a lot more than rumors. The Army has gotten its own remotely controlled ground systems, used for everything from exploring caves in Afghanistan to disarming roadside bombs in Iraq. 

Networks: The Army has fielded a plethora of battlefield networks over the past few years. Everything from the Blue Force Tracker location system; the voice, email, and visual information sharing networks of the Army's Stryker brigades; to the very lean and mean networks created by special operations soldiers using modified Android phones.While there have been some stumbles, for the most part the new networks have drawn rave reviews from soldiers, and allowed for enhanced unit agility, operations tempos, and intelligence sharing. An example of this is the ability of Stryker force commanders to gather intelligence during raids, then plan and quickly execute improvised followup missions using networks to distribute new mission-specific map graphics and other visual aids, without the need to pull in subordinate unit commanders to conduct a time-consuming face-to-face meetings. This has been a component of the fusion of operations and intelligence functions that I've written about previously, which may ultimately prove to be as much of a military transformation as the adoption of mechanized warfare. 

Public Domain, courtesy US Army
Automated defense systems: A combination of automated weapons, sensors, and a network,  the Army's Kraken (a.k.a the Combat Outpost  Surveillance and Force Protection System), generated several cheesy journalistic headlines when deployed to Afghanistan to help defend one of the last US forward operating bases during the ongoing drawdown. The advantages and disadvantage of such a system are fairly straight forward. Machine vigilance and unflagging attention vs. reliability issues, false alarms, and the idea of giving a computer system the ability to make shoot, no-shoot decisions. Nothing sticky or tricky there. Still, this is one technology package that I foresee a lot more of in the near future.

In Hindsight

Most of the new gear has added to or extended the capabilities of units and individual soldiers. Still, not all of the new equipment was well received or even beneficial. In some cases it was lethal to the wrong people. The adoption of the digital camouflage ACU uniforms cost American lives. Light in color, the one-pattern-fits-all 'universal' camouflage stood out badly in many environments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Marines refused to adopt them, and units belonging to the Army's special operations community shunned them outside of garrison for the sake of their soldiers' lives. Eventually new MultiCam uniforms, close to the Marines digital print uniforms, were adopted for units headed down range.

Additionally, methods and tactics sometimes lagged behind in critical areas, especially in Iraq, where the Army found itself in the middle of an intense urban insurgency throughout much of the country. One of the more tragic of these was a failure to develop and promulgate an effective set of checkpoint procedures early in the war. The combination of suicide bombers, vehicle-born explosives, dense populations, and the inability to spot bombs until just seconds before an attack, led to numerous checkpoint shootings by American soldiers. While some units developed methods and equipment packages individually, widespread adoption of an effective system wasn't put into action until the implementation of General Petraeus' counter insurgency strategy. Prior to then, dozens if not hundreds of civilians were killed, adding to the anger and fear directed against American soldiers by the civilian population, and hindering the effort to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq, as well as sunni and shia militias.

As Iraq fades in the Army's corporate memory, and Afghanistan quickly winds down, it will be interesting to see which sets of tactics and methods linger, and which are forgotten. The Army has been notorious in the past as an institution that actively forgets anti-insurgency doctrines in order to focus on the kinetic force-on-force battles that define the organization in the eyes of many of its officers and NCOS. Whether the lessons of the two recent wars will remain incorporated in doctrine and training or be otherwise preserved remains to be seen. The new technologies and gear, however, almost certainly embody the start of a shift that will transform the military as much as industrial technology did during the 19th and 20th centuries.

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