Infantry: Combatiente del Futuro


May 31, 2010: Spain is completing testing of its COMFUT (Combatiente del Futuro) ensemble of new equipment for its infantry, and is preparing to equip troops with it next year. Spain thus joins the United States and most NATO nations in equipping its infantry with a more effective set of weapons and equipment, including a lot of electronic items (personal radio, GPS, gun sights, sensors, computer, and so on), new body armor and accessories in general. India and China are also working on similar projects.

These systems often run into problems when the troops get to try it out. Three years ago, the German army had developed a set of high-tech gear for its infantry. When the troops finally got a chance to try the stuff out, the equipment developers were dismayed to discover that the soldiers found the new "Infantryman of the Future" gear more of a hindrance than a help. That's surprising, since the German program, like many similar ones in other NATO countries, are based after a nearly twenty year old American Land Warrior program. But, then, Land Warrior was not without its problems.

In the 1990s, the American Land Warrior concept was more than ambitious, it was revolutionary, so to speak. But that version had a science fiction air about it, and was not expected to appear for two decades or more. The brass eventually got more realistic, especially after September 11, 2001. That, plus the unexpectedly rapid appearance of new computer and communications technologies, caused them to reduce the weight and complexity of the original Land Warrior design. At the same time, this made it possible for the first version of Land Warrior to undergo field testing much sooner and, even though that resulted in the cancellation of Land Warrior, many of the individual components continue to be developed. Eventually the troops will have wearable computers, wi-fi capability, and all manner of neat stuff. Eventually.

Four years ago, a battalion of U.S. infantry tested the then-current Land Warrior gear. Many of the troops involved were combat veterans, and their opinions indicated that some of the stuff was worth carrying around the battlefield, and some wasn't. But once the stuff got to Iraq, for testing by a few hundred troops, it was a different story. When people are trying to kill you, all help is appreciated, and evaluated differently.

German soldiers commented that they could do a lot better with some commercial gear. This made it clear that the German army brass were out of touch with what was really going on in the world. German soldiers knew more about what the Americans were doing in this department, than the army bureaucrats in charge of the "Infantryman of the Future" program. Many of the young troops, as well as NCOs and officers, understand English, and were able to get into the message boards and email lists U.S. troops were using to discuss their experiences with Land Warrior.

The Spanish program was set up to learn from the experiences of similar projects. But that may not be enough, because there is always a temptation for developers to include gadgets which seem neat, but do not pass muster in combat. Spain does not have any troops in combat at the moment, so all their testing is in simulated battlefield conditions. As the U.S. learned, that does not produce the same results as when troops under fire use it.






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