High-tech trackers: extra eyes for US forces in Iraq

Blue Force Tracker lets troops quickly update the location of friendly and hostile forces.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Staff Sgt. Patrick Ciferri brought his Humvee to a halt in a dead-end alley in the city's Ghazaliya neighborhood on a hot summer night in July. Peering at the map on his computer screen, he barked at the driver to back out. The Humvee reversed fast, sending up a cloud of dust.

"We came up a little more east of the checkpoint than I thought," said Sergeant Ciferri, of the US Army's Delta Company, 2-12 Cavalry.

"I wanted to make sure that we didn't pop up next to a known IED hole," he said, referring to improvised explosive devises, which have been responsible for most of the US military deaths in Iraq.

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Moments before, Ciferri's eyes darted around the Blue Force Tracker (BFT) screen in his Humvee. He was plotting a course through the warren of streets in this once upscale neighborhood that, in July, swirled with insurgent activity.

Today, the area is noticeably quieter. "As of today, IED attacks are down to the lowest levels in years," says Col. Steven Boylan, spokesperson for Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq. "The found and cleared rates are at 50 percent. That means for every IED that explodes, one is found and cleared."

After scanning an area a square-mile wide, Ciferri, who hails from Fort Bliss, Texas, drilled down to a few main streets and side roads. The technology is no guarantee his unit won't run into hostile fire or hit a bomb. But the war would be much deadlier for US forces were it not for ongoing medical and technological advancements, Colonel Boylan says. At least 3,839 US military personnel had lost their lives as of Tuesday, according to the website icasualties.org.

The US has essentially built a fully networked battle space that it constantly upgrades to accommodate simultaneous communications with troops on the ground from command stations within the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad.

Blue Force Tracker allows the military to track, through a global positioning system (GPS), location and movement of US vehicles as well as other "friendly" forces. The system also highlights "sigacts" (significant activities) like IED strikes, mortar attacks, and troop movements.

First fielded in 2000 during the Bosnian conflict, BFT is now pervasive. The military doesn't have hard data, but developments such as miniaturizations and soft- and hardware upgrades have made BFT a "significant combat multiplier that adds to situational awareness," says Col. James Adams, deputy commander, 2nd Brigade 3rd Infantry Division.

The system works through satellite communications, an invaluable feature when troops are out of radio range. Especially "if someone gets in trouble, then troops can send text messages for assistance," he says.

That capability is crucial on patrols such as Ciferri's. Just after midnight that night, his unit zigzagged toward an Iraqi Army safe house. Red icons on his BFT dotted the screen, signaling IEDs or enemy positions keyed in – from ground and aerial reconnaissance data – at Camp Victory, near Baghdad International Airport. Ciferri enters the data into the computer from radio communication with the unit's headquarters.

Each BFT workstation has what the military calls a "ruggedized" laptop, satellite antenna, and GPS. The system can show every friendly presence (blue icon) or known hostile (red icon).

Constantly working the BFT, Ciferri guides the lead vehicle by radio. Any car bomb, small-arms attack, or IED will be radioed to Joint Security Station (JSS) Thrasher, the unit's base. Those events will instantly appear on screen.

Cifferi's colleagues at Thrasher monitor the patrol. Their view is sent by a Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

The primary means of battlefield communication is FM radio. But BFT is the "system in the command post that gives us the ability to see where our forces are on the battlefield. There is a point where FM radio won't reach," says Colonel Adams.

Another critical element for the Army on the brigade level is the Shadow UAV.

Each brigade has a UAV platoon with launch and control capability. Battalions, brigades, JSSs, each level of command, have remote viewing terminals for UAV transmissions.

On the drive back to the station, Ciferri plotted a new course. "I normally remember most of the routes and try to switch it up," he said.

"I've been in the Army 14 years," he added, "and I know something about a map. But BFT tells you exactly where you are and exactly where you're moving at all times."

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