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Fort Monmouth communications operations coming to Harford base

Cell PhonesDefenseArmed ConflictsArmed Forces

Inside locked laboratories here, engineers are arming commanders in the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq with technology such as cell phone service, instant messaging and Microsoft Power Point.

The fort's specialty is battlefield communications, and the vision is to have the Internet, cell phones and video-conferencing revolutionize warfare in many of the same ways that these technologies have transformed Americans' lives. The aim is to put accurate, up-to-the-minute information on devices that fit into the palms of soldiers' hands."It's like building a Kinko's on the battlefield," said Kevin Wymbs, 36, chief of Monmouth's Quick Reaction Capability Prototype Branch.

This high-tech mission is why economic development officials in Maryland are so eager to see Fort Monmouth's two major electronic communications operations move to Harford County's Aberdeen Proving Ground during the next five years. The relocation, part of a national base consolidation, will transform the Maryland facility, replacing military uniforms with civilian attire and upgrading the average pay in the process.

Overall, APG is slated to gain thousands of scientific and engineering jobs, while losing a smaller number of other jobs related to the base's Ordnance School and other facilities, which are moving out.

And because communications are crucial to warfare -- passing orders, pinpointing targets, avoiding friendly fire -- the importance of Fort Monmouth's work probably will continue to grow after it moves to Maryland and attract private contractors as well to help reinvent warfare in the digital age.

"In the future, I expect that a flat, digital map with dots telling soldiers where their friends and enemies are won't be immersive enough," said Gary Martin, 44, who oversees more than 2,200 federal workers, many of them engineers, and an $850 million annual budget at Monmouth. "Instead, soldiers won't have to take their eyes off what's going on around them. They'll have 3-D audio so they'll know that sounds heard on the right side of their helmet are coming from over there, and they'll be able to see the maps in their optical viewfinder."

Martin says that his recruiters are trying to persuade recent college graduates from Maryland to move to the fort, about an hour south of New York City, until their jobs are transferred home in a few years.

"We've recruited several out of the University of Delaware, and we went after two guys at Johns Hopkins last year, but we got outbid by the National Security Agency," Martin said.

Monmouth has come a long way from the first battlefield communications system pioneered there: homing pigeons. Beginning in 1918, Signal Corps soldiers stationed at the fort trained the birds to deliver coded messages to and from the front lines.

The work soon transformed into radio and satellite communications. In 1946, Monmouth engineers bounced a signal off the moon for the first time, proving that messages could be sent and received from space. At that time, military research drove the development of conveniences that eventually made their way into American homes. But as the computer age accelerated in the 1980s, private industry began to out-innovate government.

The focus for military researchers turned to re-engineering commercial technologies -- say, putting a cell phone network into a box that can fit in the rear of a small Humvee and survive everything from a desert sandstorm to tropical humidity. The future, however, is beyond most people's imaginations.

"The future is coming out of the video-gaming world, not the Department of Defense world," Martin said.

'Battery Lab'

Engineers at Monmouth not only must design communications systems but also figure out how to power them in regions lacking electricity. This is done inside Monmouth's "Battery Lab" -- three rooms that look like larger versions of a high school chemistry classroom. One of the rooms is a battery library, which Steven M. Slane, the lab's chief, believes is the largest inventory of commercial batteries in the world.

Although scientists have designed lighter batteries over the years, the military has increased the number of gadgets soldiers carry that require them. A poster near the lab's entrance depicts a soldier in fatigues carrying a gun and seemingly enough gear to climb Mount Everest with the slogan, "Make me lighter."

In Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the problem is more serious than weight. Missions to replace batteries on battlefield devices, such as sensors used to scan for enemy activity, were turning deadly. The solution: solar power.

Using existing solar technology, Slane's staff built portable panels and had them stitched into a fabric shaped like a blood pressure cuff. The panels can be rolled up for easy storage. To prevent enemies from targeting the highly reflective and shiny panels, the Army camouflaged them.

Slane said researchers are working on ways to install solar panels in soldiers' uniforms.

"We needed flexible, nonglossy, inlaid camouflage," Slane said. "If it were shiny, it would be like saying, `Here I am. Shoot me,'"

Most of Monmouth's work involves invisible signals that make BlackBerries, walkie-talkies, cell phones, radar and even remotely detonated bombs work. All of the technology that sends, receives and decodes these signals once filled row after row of metal racks in many of Monmouth's labs.

Now, government and private-sector engineers have reduced a cell phone network to an Army green box that fits under a desk.

Workers at Monmouth's personal communications lab deployed two of these boxes to Louisiana in the days after Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans' cell phone network was obliterated.

The team distributed 500 cell phones to emergency personnel and placed one box -- essentially the guts of a cell phone tower -- at Louis Armstrong International Airport and another at the New Orleans Naval Air Station. Those 500 people, however, could talk only to each other until engineers at Monmouth's space and terrestrial command linked them to satellites at the post and then to Verizon's local network in New Jersey.

"Under cell phone towers are miles of fiber-optic cables," Martin said. "The cell user doesn't see that, and that doesn't exist in the Third World."

Electrical engineers here also are working to eliminate traditional, cumbersome radio antennas and replacing them with cell phone-size antennas that are embedded in helmets.

The most secretive part of Fort Monmouth's work involves technology that jams detonators on car bombs, one of the most common threats to U.S. forces in Iraq.

Mechanical engineers in the base's production shop -- a small factory with huge machinery that bends metal and punches holes -- are building video-conferencing equipment capable of functioning inside a box in the back of a commander's Humvee, part of a project called Mounted Battle Command on the Move.

Workers also are trying to secure them against hackers and spies and make all of this technology easy for a soldier with basic computer knowledge to use.

Many of Monmouth's labs have white tile floors. The walls are lined with rack after rack of computer hard drives, some with red, green and yellow lights that blink or rise like a sound board at a rock concert.

Wires spill out of computers. The ceiling of the software engineering lab is nothing but exposed ventilation shafts and metal beams holding hundreds of seemingly endless multicolored wires.

Many labs house old and new Army green transport trucks, in which all of this mobile equipment must fit. The new technology must be able to talk with the old technology, as well as systems developed for other branches of the military.

The military of the far future, however, is being designed in two very different types of labs. One is called a "virtual prototyping facility" -- a small square room painted black except for a movie screen.

Inside the black room, engineers project an image of a Humvee they are designing on the screen and then slide on 3-D glasses. The image suddenly pops out. Wearing black gloves with wires attached to the fingertips, a designer can reach into the 3-D Humvee, pick up a radio stored in the back of it and set it down on the front seat.

'The Cave'

Monmouth's second 3-D lab is called "The Cave." Ron Kane, the project's leader, clicks a button on what looks to be a television remote control. Floor-to-ceiling movie screens rotate into the shape of the top half of a hexagon, forming a stage.

Wearing 3-D glasses, Kane and members of his team watch 3-D G.I.s run across the screen. The video-game style background is of Fort Dix, N.J., and it is so detailed that the brand of the trash bins behind one of Dix's buildings is visible. The virtual soldiers are participating in a battle exercise.

In the near future, engineers hope to use The Cave for mission rehearsals and after-action reviews. In the far future, the Army hopes to be able to watch 3-D versions of battles as they happen.

"We would be able to see beyond the hill, while the soldiers couldn't," Kane said.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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