Signal Corps to make quantum leap, says Hicks
CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Imagine a war in which commanders will be able to track and instantly communicate with every piece of equipment on a battlefield.
That technology will shape the future U.S. Army and the future, Brig. Gen. Jan Hicks said, adding that it is already becoming a reality.
Hicks, commander of Fort Gordon, Ga., and the U.S. Army Signal Center there, stopped at Camp Zama recently as part of her first Pacific tour since taking command of the Army Signal Center, where signal corps personnel receive initial training.
About 50,000 active-duty and reserve members are in the signal corps. Its primary job is to use the latest communications technology to support the Defense Department, from the Pentagon to the front lines.
Camp Zama hosts one of two signal battalions in Japan: the 78th Signal Battalion provides communications for U.S. Army Japan headquarters and its outlying installations .
In addition to providing communications for the Army on Okinawa, the 58th Signal Battalion on that island provides a satellite link to U.S. military forces moving throughout the Pacific, from a Marine expeditionary unit to a Navy ship.
“Our message to the regiment is that they are doing wonderful things to enable their commanders,” Hicks told Stars and Stripes.
“Everywhere we go, commanders tell us the signal soldiers are doing a wonderful job.”
Change, however, is on the horizon — the war in Iraq provided a preview, Hicks said.
“The future we saw on the television … It’s going to be fast. It’s going to be furious and battle command on the move is the wave of the future for the signal corps,” she said.
Signal corps soldiers in Iraq installed communications networks enabling commanders “to move very rapidly through the battlefield and still be able to command their forces,” said U.S. Army Signal Corps Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Terry, who accompanied Hicks.
For the first time in battle, antennas mounted atop vehicles were used to communicate on the move with satellites, Hicks said.
“Before, we used to stop, plant our rods in the ground,” she said.
Also during the war in Iraq, “the Army finally came of age with blue-force tracking,” Hicks said.
Among other things, blue-force tracking enables a commander to send “real-time” computer messages to any blue force featured as an icon on his radar screen, the blue representing friendly forces.
“The Navy and Air Force have been doing blue-force tracking a lot longer than the Army has, but the Army has to put a bleep on every soldier, you might say. That is an enormous task,” Hicks said.
“We got blue-force tracking up and running with all our major combat units in Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was a huge, huge step forward — done quickly, and done in response to what the war-fighters said they actually had to have.”
Not every soldier was tagged in Iraq, but platoon leaders and some units were given position-location guidance radios, according to an article posted on the Office of the Army Chief Information Officer’s Web site: http://www.army.mil/ciog6/.
Paired with computer software, the radios continuously transmitted platoon coordinates to a joint command and control system via satellites and radio frequencies.
The ability to track friendly forces “greatly reduces the risk of fratricide,” Terry said.
“At some point in the future, everything that moves in the battlefield will be part of blue-force tracking — every maintenance truck, every fuel truck, even wreckers,” Hicks said.
The Army envisions a future combat system in which every infantry soldier in a division, for example, is connected through a “land warrior” radio on a backpack or Humvee, Hicks said. The radios would be linked through line-of-sight and satellite communications.
“If you’re too far way to talk to somebody else from the division,” a radio automatically would relay the message, Hicks said. “That technology is coming. We’re confident we’re going to have it.”
Technological advances are part of the Army’s plan to transform itself into a more mobile, lighter force.
“We have to have a smaller footprint, which means the size of the force we put in the theater,” Hicks said.
The signal corps will still play an important role in this new Army, she said.
Signal corps soldiers embedded in war-fighting units will create and maintain such communications systems.
But instead of having one soldier to oversee satellites, one to operate telephone switchboards and another to staff the radios, “We’ll have one who can do it all,” Hicks said.
“It’s feasible that the signal corps could get smaller,” Terry said. “Right now, I don’t think we have any plans for downsizing the signal corps.”
“What we need to do first is make sure we have the right skills in the right place.”