For as long as military histories have been written, commanders have relied upon scouts as their eyes in the battlefield. But field commanders have never before had the kind of night-vision and targeting technology that scouts in the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division recently received in northern Kuwait. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz has seen the army's newest high-tech thermal surveillance system at work near the border with Iraq. He reports on its capabilities.
Near the Iraqi border, Northern Kuwait; 17 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Even when it is dark or dusty along Kuwait's border with Iraq, U.S. Army scout Scott Brannon can see a man blink his eyes from 2 kilometers away. That's because Brannon, a captain, is armed with the army's latest thermal-targeting technology -- the LRAS-3.
In case of a war against Iraq, Brannon won't wait until he's within 2 kilometers to target Iraqi troops. The new equipment will allow him to identify a vehicle from 24 kilometers away and instantly send its location -- accurate to within 1 meter -- to U.S. tanks, artillery and war planes.
"The LRAS is the Long Range Scout Surveillance System -- the LRAS-3. From the old sight [we were using up until the end of last year], the biggest difference is clarity and distance. [Our ability to target the enemy] went from 3 kilometers [with the previous system] to 24 kilometers [when we got the new LRAS-3 system in January,]" Brannon said.
Dozens of the systems have been distributed in northern Kuwait to American scout platoons since the start of the year. The commander of the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division, Major General Buford Blount III, says he expects the technology to have a major impact on the way war is waged.
From the outside, the system looks like nothing more than a square box mounted on the roof of a four-wheel Humvee desert patrol vehicle. But there is also a vision scope mounted on the rear of the box. RFE/RL's correspondent recently joined a U.S. observation post near the border with Iraq and sat on the roof of a scout Humvee with Specialist Matthew Thompson for a demonstration.
"This sight has the capability of a laser range finder. It looks basically like you're looking right through a television that's in green color. I push this button and the bottom middle of the screen is going to give you a 10-digit grid to where that vehicle is. And then right above it, it's going to say 'range.' It really [cuts] down on confusion, on guessing [about the range of a target], when you get a 10-digit grid because a 10-digit grid will bring you within 1 meter. You're looking at [digital] square matrix [technology] versus [old-fashioned] television quality. It's just awesome," Thompson said.
The LRAS-3 was designed by the U.S. defense firm Raytheon. It works by reading the heat that radiates from a vehicle, soldiers, or terrain and transferring that information into a digital visual image. On a calm and cloudless night, Thompson was able to focus on a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter flying more than 4 kilometers away. What had been an imperceptible, distant dot in the darkness became a close-up view of a helicopter that filled the entire screen of the targeting system. And our correspondent was able to read the words "U.S. Army" on the side of the aircraft.
"OK, right now I'm going into wide field of view and I'm going to search for something that's going to be far away. And once I see something, [I'm going to zoom in on it] -- like [right now] we've got a helicopter up in the sky. It appears to be a Blackhawk. Let me get on him. I've got to lead him a little bit. Four thousand, one hundred meters. Blackhawk," Thompson said.
Special thermal "markers" are used on U.S. equipment and the uniforms of U.S. soldiers to allow scouts to safely distinguish between friendly and enemy troops. Once the location of a hostile troop or vehicle is confirmed, Thompson relays its coordinates to the patrol leader inside his Humvee.
For more distant targets, the patrol leader will send an e-mail to map its position on the computer screens of other troops in the task force or to call in air strikes. But if the target is within the 3-kilometer range of a U.S. Abrams tank, the scout leader can also call for an immediate attack using his battalion's radio system.
Captain Brannon explained that the new thermal-targeting technology has changed the way support vehicles and troops are deployed for U.S. Army scout patrols. "In the past, it's kind of been a lonesome job as a scout because you're out so far [in front of the rest of the troops]. But what they've done here recently is that they've arrayed either a Bradley [armored personnel carrier] section or a tank section that can support us within 3 to 4 kilometers. And once we find the enemy, it's kind of like a hunter-killer team. We're the hunters and the tanks and the Bradleys are the killer team. We're happier now with that situation, where we're working together and they're supporting us," Brannon said.
Sitting inside the Humvee, with blackout curtain drawn over all the windows to prevent the light from his computer screen from giving away his own position, Brannon is examining a recent satellite photo of Baghdad. By pushing a button on his keyboard, a map of the Iraqi capital can be laid over the top of the satellite photo -- helping the scouts to navigate and find any open route for U.S. troops to enter the city.
Similar satellite images and maps are also available at the touch of a finger to help scouts guide U.S. troops across the Iraqi countryside.
Brannon can push another button to see the overall battle plan of his infantry task force -- and to see the latest intelligence information on exactly where both U.S. and Iraqi vehicles are deployed.
Any battle raging around Brannon also will appear on his computer in real time -- with battalion leadership, in a separate command-and-control vehicle, ordering the movements of U.S. troops. "It's exciting and adventurous [to be an army scout] -- and you're kind of an important asset to the battalion. We're going to be out front. So we're going to see the enemy contact first. It's a good feeling to know that the more accurate and better our reports are to the battalion commander, the more likely we are to win. You know, we're a big part of the battle scheme for the battalion and for the brigade," Brannon said.
Brannon said there is one element of being a scout that hasn't changed since the days of the ancient Greek and Roman armies. The job is still to remain unseen, report information on enemy positions as quickly as possible, and then leave the area without getting caught up in battle.