Marines fielding smartphones for deadlier, more accurate fire support

By ALEX HORTON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 16, 2016

SAN ANTONIO--The Marine Corps is fielding smart phone-type devices to make fire support deadlier and more accurate, the service said Friday.

Marine forward observers and air combat controllers on the ground will use the Target Handoff System Version 2 to quickly establish enemy positions and send up detailed GPS coordinates to interconnected networks of air, artillery and naval fire support, a news release stated, with operational use as early as March.

The system automatically generates target coordinates identified by a Marine on the ground using a laser range-finder and video uplink. The data automatically plots the information on a pre-installed map. The information is linked to a nearby Fire Support Coordination Center, which evaluates the data and determines which mode of fire support is suitable.

That automation eliminates the need for manual targeting input, the release stated, which would allow a Marine under fire to concentrate on security and to observe changes in the enemy position and adjust fire, if necessary.

“Instead of doing geometries with a protractor, we can do it much quicker on a tablet. And we can see it real time,” said Capt. Jesse Hume, an artillery officer and the THS V.2 project officer for Marine Corps Systems Command.He said automation and digital uplinks will speed up the kill-chain -- the term used by the military for identifying a target, relaying necessary information to commanders and ordering a target destroyed.

The system distributes carbon copies of fire missions to approval agencies and ground commanders, Hume said, which allows close and immediate coordination instead of working up and down several layers of command.

The system also mitigates a worry of friendly causalities, Hume said. Its map will also plot friendly units and a warning message will pop up if they get close to a position marked for a possible strike, he said.

Similar warnings will come up if previously confirmed no-strike sites, such as hospitals or schools, are called up as targets, which could help reduce civilian casualties from fire missions, Hume said.

The devices, which he said are modified and encrypted Samsung Galaxy S2 smartphones, will be fielded by forward observers, air controllers and joint terminal attack controllers.

Forward observers are typically assigned to combat units as eyes on the ground to call up enemy positions for artillery strikes.

Joint terminal attack controllers are vital battlefield troops responsible for the close coordination of airstrikes while managing aircraft traffic, from fighter jets to gunships and unmanned drones. They are among the few U.S. troops in combat in Iraq and Syria due to their specialized skills in coordinating air and artillery strikes.

The THS V.2 is a slimmed down update over an existing model, weighing 10 pounds — half as much as the first iteration, and aided by commercially available smartphones to make a smaller unit.

A previous model’s size and weight made it impractical on the battlefield, and it was not previously utilized, Hume said. But he expects the THS V.2 to be fielded in March.

While Hume could not say what specific battlefield the system will see first, he said it would be available to all combat forces, which would include U.S. troops stationed at Kara Soar Base in northern Iraq, which provides artillery support for Iraqi troops with four 155mm Howitzer cannons in the ongoing Mosul offensive against the Islamic State group. Other positions utilize guided High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems.

Marine artilleryman Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin was killed in March at the base, then named Fire Base Bell.

Hume, who is also certificated as a combat air controller, said he was excited at the prospect of using the system in operations himself.

“When I go back to being the user, I look forward to accessing the data in real time,” he said. “Time on station is very limited. Minutes and seconds have an effect.”

Twitter: @AlexHortonTX

In a 2014 file photo, U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Brent Olsson, with 2nd Air Naval Gun Fire Liaison Company stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., uses an encrypted radio to send ground target information to coalition aircraft during the live fire portion of Bold Quest 14.2.


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