Technology links 101st on the battlefield
By Ryan Chilcote
In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and newsmakers around the world.
CAMP NEW JERSEY, Kuwait (CNN) -- If it comes to war in Iraq, Col. Mike Linnington will lead thousands of soldiers from the 101st Airborne's 3rd Brigade onto a crowded, fast-paced battlefield.
Their success – at least in part – will depend on his ability to keep track of his forces, as well as the enemy's, even while he is on the move.
"In the Gulf War, one of the biggest problems was situational awareness and the ability to battle track blue force, or friendly units. What Blue Force Tracker allows us to do is not only track where the friendly units are in and around our area but also it's a great navigational tool to help you get from point A to point B," Linnington said.
The Blue Force Tracker is a new digital tracking system, which shares information with hundreds of other commanders.
The system can keep track of both friendly forces and the enemy, and allows troops to communicate by e-mail -- a feature that could come in handy if units have radio failures or move out of transmission range.
"I can put combat messages in the report and send that in burst format to everyone in my unit and everyone in the adjacent units. I can do situation reports, I can request med-evac, I can do NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) reports to mark contaminated areas, even request fire missions, check fire missions, or send ... my higher commander a situation report," Linnington said.
The Blue Force Tracker uses satellite signals from friendly forces in the field to map their positions -- reducing the risk of so-called "friendly fire" incidents.
That's no small matter – friendly fire accounted for almost a quarter of the U.S. fatalities in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
"As we encounter enemy formations on the move, I can also identify those enemy formations, type in what size, activity and location of those formations and send those messages up," Linnington said, adding that it reduced the risk that other units would encounter the enemy inadvertently.
Since the tracker carries a wealth of information about U.S. troop movements, soldiers would have to destroy the tracker quickly if they face capture. The vehicles are linked by satellite, so commanders could destroy the software remotely, if necessary.
"Not only do I have the ability to quickly destroy my system, with a touch of a stylus and a hit the red box but I also have the ability to remotely destroy other systems on other vehicles," Linnington said
Linnington said that because the system is new, it remains to be seen whether it will be a major help in battle, but he said he was excited about the capabilities it gives him.
The system does has some down sides -- It only updates every five minutes, so troops would still have to contact their commanders before opening fire.
And it gives Col. Linnington's boss more of a chance to micromanage him.