Murphy's Law: If It's Good Enough For Jack Bauer...

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August 28, 2007: While six years of war have provided lots of reality-checks for those who develop and manufacture equipment for the troops, the stuff still reaches the front with serious, and seemingly stupid, flaws. Take communications equipment. This decade has seen the acceptance of individual radios for each infantryman. Before the U.S. Army and Marines could come up with personal radios, the enemy was already demonstrating what worked. That was because of the availability of cheap, but very capable, walkie talkie type radios. American manufacturer Motorola makes a broad line of such radios, and sells them worldwide. For about $200 you get a multichannel radio with a range in the open of ten kilometers, and several hundred meters or so in built up areas.

American troops buy these radios with their own money, even when some commanders discourage it. That's because the enemy can listen in. That's why military versions of such radios, with somewhat less capability than the top-line civilian models, cost about a thousand dollars each. It's all about security. The military versions have security features that make it practically impossible for the enemy to listen in. But if it appears that the bad guys are equipped with Motorolas, electronic warfare troops are available to listen in, or jam the enemies civilian equipment. As a practical matter, you often don't run into Afghan or Iraqi gunmen using the hand held radios. The military radios have a shorter range because of the security features, and are not as reliable as, say, a Motorola model. So the troops usually get away with using the Motorloa stuff, instead of the less capable stuff they were issued.

Another problem is with long range radios, which often are unable to contact a headquarters a hundred or more kilometers away. In response, troops sometimes buy satellite phone service, either with their own money, or unit "emergency" funds. That's one U.S. Army innovation that the troops appreciate. Taking a hint from the success the Special Forces have with their "mad money" funds, each brigade and division has a budget for buying whatever the commander believes is really needed (not too many questions asked.) This has worked pretty well, but there's not enough cash there to fix all the equipment problems.

Troops are also irked at the battery situation with their radios and other electronic gear. The current batteries are too heavy, and don't hold enough juice. There are also complaints about some of the spiffy new electronics not being rugged, or lightweight, enough. Case in point are the night vision devices, which are attached to those thingies you see attached to the front of so many helmets. When you slip on the night vision gear, it's as awkward as it looks. This is especially the case if you are running around. The end result is that many, if not most, of the night vision devices are in for repairs at any one time. There are still enough functioning units so that each squad or platoon has enough people who can see in the dark. But the troops would like some more sturdy night vision gear, and with longer lasting batteries.

And then there's Rover. This is a laptop attached to commo gear, that enables the user to see real-time pictures of what a UAV overhead is seeing. Very useful, but heavy, and clumsy. All those damn cables. The troops see "government agents" in movies and on TV using a PDA that does what Rover does. How about some of those for the troops, who are facing an unscripted foe using real bullets. The PDA solution costs more, but in the grand scheme of things, the troops put a high priority on things that are light and handy.

 


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