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Fort Drum debuts new communications technology

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FORT DRUM — The next generation of communication tools for the Army is becoming available, and soldiers from the post’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team are among the first to get their hands on the new technology.

The wide range of tools, referred to collectively as Capability Set 13, incorporates vehicles equipped with mobile satellite and radio connections, new tactical software and smartphone-like devices that can be linked with larger tactical operating centers to track soldier movements and better map combat areas, improving decision making.

Several leaders from the brigade, the 10th Mountain Division and the Army’s system integration group explained the new systems in a media event Thursday morning.

The division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, located at Fort Polk, La., also has received and will train with the technology. Both the 3rd and 4th Brigade Combat Teams are scheduled for deployment in 2013.

Prior to its issuance, the technology was tested by soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss, Texas.

The ability to move satellite and other radio technology was considered important for areas such as Afghanistan, which in many places has limited infrastructure to support such communications. Instead, much of the communication in remote areas was limited to the area surrounding a forward operating base.

Col. Walter E. Piatt, the 10th Mountain Division’s deputy commanding general for support, said the remote nature of some places led soldiers to revert to FM radios, technology connected to World War II, and hand signals.

“We really haven’t evolved much past that,” Col. Piatt said. “This capability puts the dismounted soldier into the map.”

Among the vehicles on display were two heavily connected Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, differentiated by whether they were equipped with the Army’s Warfighter Information Network-Tactical system. Vehicles equipped with the system will be used by leaders higher up in the brigade.

Another piece of technology on display was improved solar blankets, a series of solar panels that were both light and easily folded and could provide as much as 60 watts of power. The panels were displayed with a series of charging cables, representing the items used by soldiers in the field that could be recharged instead of using heavier batteries.

Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, director of the Army’s System of Systems Integration, Aberdeen, Md., said the change to smartphone-like devices makes sense as soldiers, already using high-tech phones and tablets, become more adept at handling advanced technology. He said the system can shift among various modes of communication, such as using satellites, to account for areas where the signal is weaker.

Gen. Hughes did not provide a specific price for the technology, but estimated it as “multimillion.” However, he said, the system was much cheaper than the Future Combat System program, a more expansive program that launched in 2003 but was phased out in 2009.

Col. Samuel E. Whitehurst, 3rd Brigade Combat Team commander, said the technology was a substantial upgrade to what he had in 2009 when he was a battalion commander in Iraq.

“The capability I had at my battalion’s operations center are now are being put down at the soldier level,” Col. Whitehurst said. “I think that’s extremely powerful.” He called the ability to communicate with soldiers a potential edge for future missions.

Soldiers could be seen during the media event in a classroom paired together on computers learning about using the software. In another classroom, soldiers were being lectured on network installation theory, as they flipped through a large book on the subject.

Training to use the equipment, which has been ongoing since August, will continue until February. It then will be ready for use in March.

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