Infantry: The Sharp End Of High Tech


March 23, 2011: One of the most startling developments of the last decade was the remarkable change in the weapons, equipment and capabilities of the infantry, especially American. For example, compared to previous wars, U.S. infantry are now much harder to kill. An American infantryman in World War II or Vietnam were three times more likely to get killed in combat. Moreover, U.S. infantry are much more lethal. They are better trained and, while they are using basically the same weapons they had in Vietnam, they have much better gun sights (day and night) along with very helpful supporting equipment (UAVs, individual radios, robots, sensors that can see through walls and so on). And then there is the training. This became better, and more abundant, in the 1980s, as the all-volunteer army got its act together and made some amazing breakthroughs in training techniques and technology . Small unit leadership also improved substantially. Then there were vast improvements in air and artillery support. The big breakthrough here was the proliferation of smart bombs and projectiles. GPS guidance, first used in combat during late 2001, made small units of infantry incredibly lethal. Over the next decade, GPS guided artillery shells and rockets gave the infantry even more of these precise firepower options. GPS also helped commanders keep track of their troops more effectively. First seen in action (as Blue Force Tracker) during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, troops enthusiastically took to this tech, just as they did to the original GPS navigation devices in 1991.

The U.S. Army knew, even before the Cold War ended in 1991, that big changes were on the way. This led to the American effort to develop the "Land Warrior" infantry equipment. By 2005, "Land Warrior" consisted of 7.8 kg (17 pounds) of computers, displays (an eyepiece), radio, GPS, vidcam and battlefield wi-fi. The helmet mounted display is a vidcam that provides the soldier with 6 and 12 X magnification, plus the ability to transmit images or video back to headquarters. The net increase in weight for infantry was only about 5 kg (11 pounds), because the "Land Warrior" stuff replaced some gear already carried, like the GPS and personal radio. New body armor and many useful accessories in general, rounded out this ensemble.

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, or put into service. Eventually the troops will have wearable computers, wi-fi capability, and all manner of neat stuff. Eventually.

These systems often ran into problems when the troops got to try them out. The equipment developers were dismayed to discover that the soldiers found much of the new gear more of a hindrance than a help. For example, five 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 gear 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. And then there was the competition. Soldiers often commented that they could do a lot better with some commercial gear. This made it clear that the army brass were out of touch with what was really going on in the world.

One of the main goals of these ensembles, battlefield Internet, has proved to be most difficult. Obviously, the ability to quickly transmit maps, videos and photos is valuable. But getting the gear light and reliable enough, as well as easy-to-use, has proved easier said than done. Progress has been made, but it's been slow. The usefulness of the ensembles has been impressive enough for most major nations to develop their own "Land Warrior" ensembles, or buy them from someone else. As the army learned, after much pressure from the troops, studying commercial equipment developments was necessary, and quickly adopting them was essential.

All of this new stuff has been expensive, but after September 11, 2001, the U.S. Army (and to a lesser extent, the U.S. Marines), had a lot more money available because of the war, and because most of the fighting was being done by infantry troops. Despite all the money spent on the war, the air force and navy were cancelling projects and laying off people so that the ground combat troops could have more. A lot more. As a result, things the infantry didn't expect to have until 2030, or later, showed up in the last decade. This was a big revelation for everyone, because a lot of this new stuff actually worked, and proved that the infantry can benefit greatly from expensive tech.

Finally, there was the impact of the Internet. This put troops in touch with each other and, eventually the senior army leaders and the bureaucracies responsible for developing weapons and equipment. The speed of feedback from the troops, and the political and media pressure from journalists and elected officials also hearing from the troops, speeded everything up, and provided a new, and much more useful, model for how battlefield communications should work.

The big question now is, after it's been demonstrated how effective really well equipped infantry are, will the money keep coming. Or will the original money magnets (high-tech aircraft and ships) get the disproportionate share they have long been accustomed to. Or will the money go to the sharp end (where the infantry fight).


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