Anti-tank platoon hunts Iraqi insurgents
January 18, 2005
BAGHDAD — Soldiers of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment’s Anti-tank Platoon used to hunt armor, now they hunt armed insurgents.
And though the platoon has traded its missiles for machine guns, it has kept one component from their TOW launchers — the Improved Target Acquisition System.
The thermal imaging system allows the unit’s gunners to see differences in temperatures between men, machinery and the environment, giving them an added edge in their hunt.
“It’s designed to spot and engage tanks,” said Sgt. David Schnabl, a squad leader with the platoon. “It has excellent optics for both night and day — it’s pretty hard to miss (targets) with this thing.”
The platoon has four Humvees with the targeting system, which is mounted on top of the vehicle and operated by the gunner. All of the platoon’s 16 soldiers know how to use it.
Schnabl said they use it on nearly every patrol, usually when they set up in a dark area to watch road or pedestrian traffic.
When the patrol stopped to set up an observation post along the dark wall of a compound near a main highway Friday night, Spc. Mark Gonthier readied the system.
ITAS only works while the vehicle is stopped, so the soldiers will usually use the system for a relatively short part of their eight-hour main supply route security patrol.
Gonthier had the system working in seven minutes. Most of that time involved allowing the ITAS’s optics to cool to a subfreezing temperature.
He scanned the nearby field and verified that there were no people in it.
For a nighttime operation such as this observation post, Gonthier can use the system’s 48-times zoom; in its daylight mode it can zoom out to 24 times.
“I can see a couple of clicks (kilometers),” said Gonthier. “If it wasn’t so urban it would be a lot better. Our last (area of operation) was perfect … (it) had hills where we could set up and they couldn’t see us.”
Though the platoon hasn’t spotted any insurgents with the system yet, they have seen things that looked suspicious enough to warrant a closer look.
When two men were found digging in a roadside canal around 3 a.m. a few months back, the soldier watched and recorded everything they did. When the men loaded something they couldn’t identify in their trunk, the soldiers decided to intercept the men and search the car.
What they found was that the men had been digging up a broken water pump to take it for repairs.
If the men had been digging up something familiar, such as a weapon, the soldiers might have been able to identify the item.
“(It’s ideal) especially for guys on roofs,” said Gonthier. “You can tell if they’re holding a weapon and even if they’ve fired it.” If they’ve fired a weapon the barrel will be warmer than one that hasn’t, so it will show up brighter on the ITAS.
“When you’re looking through there you can look at a person and see all the features of this person and what they’re wearing,” said Gonthier. “With trees you can see the specific branches.”
The system’s night-vision capability gives everything a green glow, similar to the night-vision goggles that soldiers normally use. But the similar glow is all that the two have in common.
“All they’re doing is increasing existing light,” said Schnabl about the goggles. “This system sees heat signatures on everything. If someone lies in a field all covered up with camouflage liner, with NODS you can’t see him.
“With this system you can because the heat is trapped in there with him,” he said.