Friday, July 05, 2002

Future weapons developed

Fort Knox has vision, mission

By Nancy Zuckerbrod
The Associated Press

        FORT KNOX, Ky. — The battle tank is beloved here at this Army post where soldiers learn how to drive it, fix it and shoot from it. However, a revolution of sorts is taking place here and it's one that Army planners say will likely render the tank extinct.

        The Army this spring named Fort Knox as the hub for its efforts to transform the mechanized force into something leaders envision looking more like a futuristic movie set than current-day reality.

        “It's not a product improvement over the current force. It's a leap ahead,” said Brig. Gen. Robert Mixon, the Fort Knox deputy commanding general and the person leading the transformation efforts here.

        The idea is to replace the unwieldy tank and other armored vehicles with something more nimble and versatile while ensuring they are still lethal — and survivable. They might be armed with high-tech guns and be linked by a voice and data system that gives soldiers critical information about the battlefield.

        The Army calls the project the “future combat system” and says it should be deployable within a decade.

        But much of the technology has not been developed, and that means Gen. Mixon and his team are spending long hours with sketch pads and computer simulators in the Fort Knox battle lab waiting for those “ah-ha” moments.

        “It's a daunting challenge,” Gen. Mixon said. “You kind of look over the edge and go, "Wow, that's a big jump here.'”

        In addition to naming Fort Knox as the base where the combat system would be developed, the Army announced in March that Boeing Co. and Science Applications International Corp. would get $154 million to help identify the most promising technologies. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funds cutting-edge weapons development, is assisting.

        Among the most vocal proponents of change is Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. He has said he wants to be able to deploy heavy forces anywhere within four days. In the past, it has taken weeks to move them into combat. Each tank weighs 70 tons.

        In Gen. Shinseki's view, the need to make the Army more responsive was crystalized a decade ago. When Iraq's army invaded Kuwait in 1990 and it appeared nearby Saudi Arabian oil fields were in danger of being overrun, paratroopers of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division dug into the sands of northeastern Saudi Arabia. The Iraqis stopped short, but U.S. military leaders knew the 82nd Airborne was too small and lightly armed to hold off Iraq's armored forces if they had kept coming.

        “It's those "what ifs' and dozens of more like it that have convinced us that the journey we're on is the right one for the nation,” said Lt. Gen. John Riggs, who directs the Army's Objective Force Task Force, a group that is reviewing what the Army should look like in two decades. The future combat system is the basic component of that effort.

        At his Arlington, Va., office, Gen. Riggs said he envisioned replacing the tank with a vehicle that weighs about 20 tons.

        “Technologies provide us with ways to lessen the thickness and weight of basic armor protection in ways we never dreamed a decade ago,” he said.

        Skeptics aren't so sure, and Gen. Mixon says they are constantly challenging him.

        “What we're talking about is a whole bunch of protection now that's not going to be there when you can touch it or feel it, so the skeptics of course will say, how can you keep soldiers alive in something that's thin, that's light, that's fast?” Gen. Mixon said.

        One of the solutions is to provide soldiers with more information.

        “The basic idea behind the future combat system is everybody in the fighting force sees the war zone the same way. They know where their enemy is. They know where their friends are,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

        Mr. Thompson said a networked system, partially relying on satellites, could allow a soldier in a foxhole to see the entire battlefield from a screen on his visor or hand-held device. The same system would link aviators and central command.

        Similarly, the future combat system might include sensors placed on vehicles and soldiers' uniforms to help bombers identify friend and foe. The new system also is expected to rely heavily on robotics and unmanned vehicles that can conduct reconnaissance missions.

        Such capabilities would help soldiers determine where the enemy is before he knows where U.S. forces are, allowing Americans to launch surprise attacks more easily.

        “If we don't have to get to the gunfight at the OK Corral until we are only dealing with the survivors of a dazed and confused force, then the odds are a lot different,” Gen. Mixon said.

        Gen. Riggs says another reason for transformation is that the cur rent mechanized force is based on the Cold War model in which the enemy was the former Soviet Union.

        The enemy of the future is different, he said.

        During recent battles in Afghanistan, Somalia and the Balkans, enemy forces took to cities and towns. It's not easy to rely on tanks in those situations, and it is important to have a communications system that can identify allies, enemies and noncombatants, Army leaders say.

        The Sept. 11 attacks and additional threats have made transformation all the more relevant, Gen. Riggs said. “It's been a long time since our homeland was actually threatened, so I'd be less than candid with you if I didn't say that it added great urgency to what we're doing, because it has.”

        The Bush administration has signaled its support, saying much of the $475 million it initially sought for the Crusader artillery system should go to accelerate the future combat system. The Senate recently approved a measure generally backing that plan. The Crusader is a self-propelled cannon that the administration says is too big to fit in with the new lighter force.

        Development and production of the new combat system will cost billions. A member of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., says Congress is prepared to pay.

        “Right now, there is already broad bipartisan support for this military transformation,” he said. “It is something that is inevitable, and it is something that the Armed Services Committee is ready to fund at the levels needed.”

        The first deadline the team at Fort Knox has to meet is April 2003, when it must outline what the future combat system will look like and estimate its cost.

        Gen. Riggs thinks the answer will be clear. “If you ask me can we afford not to do it, I'd say the answer is no.”


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