Budget cuts could come at troops’ expense

As Washington engages in a heated political debate about the federal deficit, both parties agree that spending should be cut and no program seems entirely safe from the budget-slashing ax. But history tells us that Congress often makes mistakes during periods of indiscriminate budget-cutting. And this time, the consequences could be tragic for our soldiers still in harm’s way.

As other disasters and conflicts take center stage, rarely anymore does cable news feature our troops fighting in Afghanistan and still in danger in Iraq. But their peril is no less real. Insurgents and terrorists continue to carry out ambushes, plant improvised explosive devices and engage in firefights against Americans. Too many of our brave men and women are still coming home in flag-draped coffins. Our troops need and deserve our continued support.

Sadly, they haven’t always received it in recent years. Who can forget the scandalous way that the Bush Administration and Congress both failed to provide our troops with the body armor and armor-clad vehicles they needed in Iraq? Yet we seem to have forgotten when it comes to a pressing, unmet need in Afghanistan and Iraq today: modern communications.

As our troops police remote provinces of Afghanistan or assist Iraqi troops in Baghdad’s urban jungle, they lack the basic wireless communication tools that their younger brothers and sisters can purchase for less than $100 back home. That’s due in part to the dearth of telecom infrastructure: mobile phones require cell towers and signal boosters, preferably connected to modern copper or fiber-optic networks. Those modern-day telecom networks simply don’t exist in most of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most of our troops in the field are equipped with radios — decades-old technology with significant limitations.

In anti-insurgency warfare, when deadly threats like snipers and roadside bombs come from stealthy, far-flung enemies rather than infantry and tank brigades massed on a battlefield, our soldiers need the ability to communicate quickly and clearly, with lightweight equipment and without requiring lines of sight. In other words, they need modern mobile telecommunications.

Fortunately, a solution exists in the form of the Army’s Brigade Combat Team Modernization (BCTM) program. BCTM’s goal is to create a fully networked Army unit, with voice and data capability linked to intelligence databases, so that every soldier is not only linked to the others but has access to real-time information about the operational milieu and potential threats. BCTM also would include surveillance robots able to safely investigate suspicious buildings, roadside debris and send signals back to soldiers a safe distance away. BCTM would operate thanks to mobile, secure wireless equipment that can be vehicle-mounted and travel alongside soldiers.

Troops who have used similar systems in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Taskforce ODIN, turned in glowing reports about their usefulness in the field — both in fighting insurgents and in reducing the risk of casualties. That’s why it’s troubling that Congress has cut BCTM’s funding.

The BCTM program is both critically important and politically vulnerable — a dangerous location during budget-slashing times. Congress needs to remember that Americans continue to risk their lives every day in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have a moral obligation to provide them the tools they need to do their dangerous jobs as effectively and safely as possible. Full funding of BCTM should not fall victim to budget concerns.