Seasoned troops need better gear 

Fighting two armed conflicts in one decade may have worn out the Army’s equipment, but it has also honed our soldiers into the most seasoned fighting force since World War II.

Yet, at the very moment that our Army is at its most experienced level in decades and America faces unexpected challenges that arise overnight, Washington is on the brink of rolling back progress and preparedness by gutting critical military programs.

To their credit, Pentagon leaders have wisely focused on trimming waste and streamlining bureaucracy to save money while actually increasing investment in critical equipment. Yet, in a race to the bottom, both Congress and President Barack Obama are now talking about doubling defense cuts by eliminating essential programs.

Haphazardly cutting the essential equipment our soldiers need is not only penny-wise and pound foolish, but risks their lives and endangers our national security. We can do better by ending waste and protecting the taxpayer while still preserving three essential defense priorities:

First, our soldiers need a mobile, secure wireless network that combines all the technologies we take for granted at home, connecting the entire force through text, images, maps and video.

It may seem surprising, but today our U.S. soldiers lack communications capabilities that American teenagers take for granted in their smartphones. If implemented, the Army’s Brigade Combat Team Modernization program would connect soldiers on the ground with constantly evolving intelligence from surveillance robots through a mobile, combat-ready wireless network.

Combat veterans that have tested the BCTM network say our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq could use it today to help defeat the insurgents and return home safely.

If a teenager can use technology to find his friends in a mall or directions to a concert, shouldn’t we equip our soldiers in Afghanistan with the same means to avoid roadside bombs that were identified by earlier patrols, alert nearby platoons to insurgent sniper positions and use streaming video to get immediate advice from doctors back at headquarters on how to treat a soldier wounded by gunfire?

The BCTM program, like most new systems, could improve both in speed and price. But cutting it won’t improve it, and won’t bring us any closer to giving our soldiers the capabilities they need today.

Second, our soldiers need a new ground combat vehicle that is capable of handling a humanitarian mission on one block and a firefight on the next.

As the GCV has been sidelined by Washington’s shifting priorities, the Army has spent the last decade repurposing old vehicles. But armored trucks and refurbished tanks unfortunately can’t meet all the demands of a daily patrol.

As anyone who watches television or reads a newspaper knows, roadside bomb attacks are all too frequent, and our soldiers deserve better than military hand-me-downs.

Third, we need to expand education for our infantry soldiers to prepare them to navigate the ethically and culturally charged situations that characterize 21st-century conflicts.

The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have demanded that rank-and-file soldiers make pivotal decisions every day in the heat of battle. In this new era of decentralized command, fully understanding all of the circumstances of battle by obtaining education in languages and cultural history is nearly as important as learning to fire a rifle.

As deficit-cutting one-upmanship grips Washington, Obama and Congress should be careful not to shortchange American soldiers still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

By funding just a few key priorities, we can ensure that an Army hardened by a decade at war will have the tools to protect us in the next.

Anthony T. Hawkins is national coordinator of the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust in Washington, D.C.

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