Armor: A Matter of Life and Death

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May 14, 2007: The U.S. Army has been pouring billions of dollars into its FCS (Future Combat Systems) project. While maligned by the media, many politicians, and even people in the army, as an expensive boondoggle, FCS is providing the money to create some revolutionary, and effective, combat equipment. While many of the FCS projects will not work out, many will. And the FCS gadgets that are making the biggest impact on current combat operations are robots and what can best be described as a battlefield Internet.

The robots are already out there. Thousands of UGV (unmanned ground vehicles) and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are already in Iraq and Afghanistan. The battlefield Internet equipment has been entering service, bit by bit, since 2003.

Two actual FCS projects are about to enter service. Both are UGVs. The MULE (Multifunction Utility/Logistics and Equipment) is a one ton, six wheeled vehicle that is 15 feet long, six feet wide, and carries half a ton of equipment or weapons. The operator (any infantryman with an hour or so of training) uses a handheld controller to tell the MULE to go from Point A to Point B. The MULE has enough computing power to get over obstacles it can handle, and go around those it can't. The MULE will be used to do a lot of dangerous jobs normally handled by the troops. Like bringing supplies (ammo, water, weapons or medical supplies) that last few hundred meters, to where the fighting is going on. Currently, that means troops hauling this stuff themselves, and exposing themselves to enemy fire. The MULE can also take casualties far enough away so a medevac helicopter can take over. MULE can also be equipped with mine clearing equipment, to perform another dangerous job. MULE will also be equipped with heavy weapons (.50 caliber machine-gun, small cannon or missiles), that will be fired under human control. The troops are really eager to have something like the MULE around, if only because it makes their life in the combat zone so much easier and safer. The MULE is designed to take a lot of damage and keep going, but only actually using it in combat will reveal what its weaknesses are, and what modifications have to be made.

Another eagerly awaited UGV is SUGV, which is a 30 pound robot, with seven different "mission packages." These include various types of sensors and double jointed arms (for grabbing things.) SUGV is waterproof and shock resistant. It fits into the standard army backpack, and is meant to operate in a harsh environment. The battery powered SUGV is operated wirelessly, or via a fiber optic cable, using a controller that looks like a video game controller with a video screen built in. Like the current PackBot, SUGV can climb stairs, maneuver over rubble and other nasty terrain.

The SUGV design is based largely on feedback from combat troops. For example, it is rugged enough to be quickly thrown into a room, or cave, activated and begin sending video, as well as audio, of what is in there? This feature makes it very popular with the troops. No one likes being the first one going into dark, potentially dangerous, places. Throwing a grenade in first doesn't always work, because sometimes frightened civilians are in there.

SUGV can also perform outpost and listening post work. These are two dangerous jobs the infantry are glad to hand off to a robot. Outposts are, as the name implies, one or two troops dug in a hundred meters or so from the main position, to give early warning of an enemy attack. A listening post is similar, but the friendly troops are often much farther away. The SUGV battery enables it to just sit in one place, listening and watching, for eight hour or more. You send out another SUGV with a fresh battery, and have the other one come back for a recharge. No risk of troops getting shot at while doing the same things, and the troops really appreciate that. Other dangerous jobs for the SUGV are placing explosives by a door (to blow it open for the troops), or placing a smoke grenade where it will prevent the enemy from seeing the troops move.

SUGV is the second generation of small combat droids. In the last three years, users of current PackBot UGVs have filled military message boards with interesting uses they have found for these robots, and new features they could make use of. SUGV is the product of all that chatter, and the troops want it ASAP.

A new micro-UAV, to replace the current Raven is also in the works. What is really needed for the next generation infantry (as opposed to air force, like the much larger Predator) UAV are more powerful sensors. At under ten pounds, the Raven can be carried by the troops, and thrown into the air for an immediate look at what's behind the hill, or building, out there. Raven can carry a night vision camera, but what the troops really need is a small UAV with a thermal camera (that detects differences in heat). This would show enemy troops under vegetation or similar coverings (like awnings). There are small thermal sensors for troops to use on their rifles, but there are a little too heavy for micro-UAVs. But that's where UAVs are going.

The battlefield Internet is coming in bits and pieces. It's already possible to get video from air force warplanes in the area, but it requires special radio gear. The next step is a commo system that can easily, and quickly, pass these pictures around. It's really important to the ground combat troops. When you're getting shot at, you can't have too much information about what going on in your immediate neighborhood. And standing up to get a better view is rarely an option you can live with.

While all this new gear is great to criticize, the combat troops want it. They already use the first generations of this stuff, and follow the progress of the next generation with great interest. For them, it's not another procurement scandal in the making, but a matter of life and death.

 


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