Thursday, February 23, 2006

Trying to wrap my mind around FCS

This week, I've been assigned a story on a "rock drill" that was conducted this afternoon by the command and staff of Fort Knox's Future Combat Systems Brigade Combat Team, Experimental Element. I've never understood in any tangible sense what it is they do -- only that it involves an incredible number of officers and computers and has something to do with the 3D graphics of robots and satellites from Boeing and other companies I've seen on the Army network.

The "rock drill" -- something I've always heard referred to as a "sand table exercise" -- was a scale mock-up of a BLUEFOR vs. REDFOR engagement. It was held in the Close Combat Tactical Trainer. If that term makes no sense to you, think of it as networked "Halo" for tanks.

Behind the rows of tank simulators, a few unlucky staffers had taken several days to lay out the terrain model. It was marked off in black yarn grid squares, with wood chip piles marking hills, blue tape for rivers, tiny black blocks as buildings, and burlap canvas covering boxes to make mountains. Inside the huge model were cardboard stand-ups decorated with unit symbols, many of which I'd never seen.

A smiling female captain walked up to me. She'd been designated by The Boss as the ad hoc Public Affairs Officer for the exercise, and while she was new to the unit, she'd cheerfully found an entire gauntlet of senior officers for me to talk to about the experimental unit and the "rock drill" they were conducting.

I met the commander first -- a lieutenant colonel with orders for promotion to full bird. He'd typed up a sheet of "talking points" on the exercise and distributed it to his staff. I got a copy and scanned it. I realized quickly I'd have to sit down with it later to decipher the many acronyms involved.

Going into a story like this, I normally have a few specific questions I want to ask. I avoid making lists of questions, since most stories will take twists and turns the average reporter won't necessarily anticipate while sitting in the newsroom, but I do like to get at least a vague idea of what answers I'm going to need to make the story make sense. Since all I'd heard about this one was the cryptic phrase "Omni Fusion," my approach was simple.

"Sir, I have no idea what Omni Fusion is, so..."

He gladly obliged. Per military courtesy, enlisted soldiers are normally expected to stand at attention when listening to a senior officer. This is problematic for reporters, since they're also expected to be taking note of everything said. I usually solve this problem by taking out my Nikon before getting close -- it establishes our relationship quickly. He's a source, I'm a reporter, and I will be taking notes on what he says instead of smartly snapping my heels together.

Things were going fine until the exercise started. The deputy commanding general was unable to attend for some reason or the other, which left a vacant seat next to the colonel at the command table. He figured it would be a good place for me to sit. Not exactly my preference, but I certainly couldn't complain about the view.

Brigade staff officers took turns presenting each piece of the first move into the engagement area. The sustainment officer took her place in the center of the map and discussed the amount of fuel that would be available in the staging areas. The signal officer talked about deploying flying drones in places where enemy activity would be likely, and the commanders of the two combat battalions quickly described their moves into the area. Acronyms were thrown around like they were going out of style, but I think I got the gist of what was going on. I wrote down as many as I could to look up later.

Looking at the map and listening to each officer give his or her update on the action, I was reminded of George C. Scott as Patton watching a column of tanks in Sicily. "Look at that," he says to General Bradley. "Compared to war, all other human endeavor shrinks to insignificance."

Even minor engagements and movements, it seems, encompass more elements than the human mind can accomodate at any single instant. This should make for an interesting -- if hairy -- story.


UPDATE: Open post at Argghhh!