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Associated Press January 27, 2006

New communications gear replaces wall maps, grease pencils

By Estes Thompson

FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Just over a decade ago, Joe Wyszynski was a platoon leader with the 82nd Airborne Division, preparing to invade Haiti with briefings delivered on giant wall maps marked up with grease pencils.

Since then, telecommunications technology has transformed business and the world. But until just recently the military continued with its dated ways of gathering and spreading intelligence and orders.

"As recently as Desert Storm, they thought advanced communications was a fax machine," said military analyst John Pike of globalsecurity.org.

Now, Wyszynski, a major and chief of plans for the storied 82nd Airborne, runs a digital operations center that opened last week after a $1.5 million update.

In a vault deep inside division headquarters, he and his staff have an array of communications tools that many civilians take for granted - Internet, instant messaging, field laptops and satellite links. The equipment allows division commanders to track individual vehicles and units with transmitters and link into video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles before soldiers move into an area, division commander Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell said.

The new communications gear "gives us tremendous situational awareness," he said. "We'll have instant visibility on all our logistics, on water and fuel and everything else."

Platoons will be equipped with laptop computers on which they can receive orders and intelligence updates on enemy positions or movements, Wyszynski said. Field reports will be sent instantly, instead of having to dispatch messengers to field headquarters with proper communications gear.

In addition, staff at the headquarters can monitor televisions feed from a satellite or high-flying airplane and use a secure chat room to direct units or the aircraft. On a console in front of a wall of 10 large television screens, a small unit similar to a telephone brings all radio calls within the division into one place, where they are monitored by a single person instead of 10 soldiers listening in on crackling speakers.

Division staffers can also easily talk to the Marines, Navy and Air Force, something important in the day of joint operations.

A recent nighttime practice exercise at Fort Bragg gave a glimpse into practical ways the technology will be useful. During the training, scouts sent a digital photo of what appeared to be an enemy rocket launcher near a drop zone. Headquarters staff analyzed it, confirmed it was a threat and, as part of the training exercise, made a mock call to Air Force jets to destroy it as paratroopers flew safely toward their scheduled parachute drop.

As recently as Hurricane Katrina, when units of the 82nd were sent to New Orleans to help with relief, commanders had to go into the field to see what was happening. Now, officials said, relief work can also be controlled from a central point.

The military still is working out how to pass information to individual soldiers. In the practice exercise, a map transmitted to a laptop was marked with enemy positions and then passed around on a clipboard to the paratroopers. The military may also try to mount video monitors inside transport planes as a way of helping gather and share information.

"Before the unit goes in, they can see what's on the ground," Wyszynski said.


Copyright 2006, Associated Press