Infantry: The Marines Find A Way


November 26,2008: The U.S. Marine Corps is experimenting with a new way to get more people in combat units who can call in smart bombs. They are doing this by training  several dozen troops in each battalion to use a pair of binoculars equipped with a laser rangefinder and GPS. These SFOs (Squad Fires Observers) and JFOs (Joint Fires Observers, at the platoon level) would identify targets and get in touch with a JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) who is trained to spot and authorize the delivery of smart bombs. The JTAC has a ROVER (Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver) terminal that allows them to view real-time video from a UAV or aircraft overhead that was taking real time video and had a satellite link. The marines believe that the electronic target information (laser range finder and GPS), and ROVER video, will be sufficient to enable the JTAC to confidently order the release of a smart bomb. There have never been enough JTACs to go around, the this often caused friendly casualties that could have been prevented with the timely arrival of smart bombs or artillery fire. So the marines have come up with the SFO/JFO system to solve the problem, taking advantage of cheaper electronics, and the growing use of ROVER..

The U.S. now has over 3,500 ROVER terminals in Iraq and Afghanistan. Aircraft with targeting pods (like Litening and Sniper) or surveillance gear (like AC-130 gunships) are much more effective when the JTAC, or commanders, on the ground have ROVER.  This kind of real-time, "common picture", capability makes air power much more effective, and reduces friendly fire incidents. U.S. Special Forces troops and infantry unit commanders use ROVER to obtain a larger view (than their low flying Raven UAVs can provide) of the surrounding area. A handheld (about the size of a PDA, or a 1990s era cell phone) version of ROVER, is also available.

The original ROVER system, as well as the current one, was developed and sent to the troops in record time. So don't let anyone tell you this sort of thing can't happen. However, except in wartime, such rapid technology development usually does not happen. Six years ago, a Special Forces soldier, just back from Afghanistan, walked into the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and asked the technical people why his guys could not have a device that would allow them to watch the video being generated by a Predator, AC-130 or other aircraft overhead. Since it was the Special Forces troops on the ground who were running, and fighting, the ground battle, it would help them a lot if they could see the real time video from above. At that time, the video was being viewed by people in the aircraft, or the UAV operators (who were back in the United States, running things via a satellite link.) The ground troops had to ask the air force what could be seen on the video, and there was usually a delay in getting that information. It would be much better for all concerned if the ground troops could see that video in real time.

The air force went to work, and in two weeks had a ROVER prototype that Special Forces personnel could take back to Afghanistan. ROVER I was not terribly portable, but the Special Forces could haul it around in a hummer, and see what any Predators overhead were seeing. This proved very useful. A few months later, ROVER II appeared, which allowed troops to view UAV vids on a laptop computer. By late 2004, Rover III, a 12 pound unit built to be carried in a backpack, was put into service.

Although ROVER IIIs cost $60,000 each, they addressed dozens of suggestions and complaints from the troops who used earlier ROVERs. Some 700 of these entered service within a year. They were used in Afghanistan and Iraq, and can grab video feeds from army, marine and air force UAVs and bomber targeting pods (which have great resolution, even when the aircraft are 20,000 feet up.)

The Rover IV appeared in 2005. It l allowed users to point and click on targets to be hit. With Rover III, the guys on the ground could see what they want bombed, or hit with a missile, but had to talk the bombers to it. This happens often, especially when the target is behind a hill or buildings, preventing the ground troops from using their laser range finders to get a GPS location. With ROVER IV, the bomber pilot, or UAV operator, is looking at the same video as the ground troops, and can confirm that the indicated target is what is to be hit. This is particularly important in urban warfare, where the building next door might be full of innocent civilians.

The ROVER gear was initially operated, mostly, by air force ground controllers. The larger number of Rover units out there now allows platoon leaders and company commanders access, as well as Special Forces teams and some army or marine ground patrols.

Without the wartime pressure, it would have taken a decade or more to get ROVER to where it got in only a few years. Special Forces frequently get special equipment made, as they have a "mad money" fund just for that sort of thing. But these new ideas do not always travel so quickly to the rest of the army. A decade ago, army planners did not see anything like ROVER being available until the 2020s.

The marines and the army are using the same wartime urgency to get SFO/JFO troops at the squad and platoon level equipped with electronic gear that enables them to communicate with the JTAC, and get the needed firepower delivered faster and to more effect.


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