Infantry: March 13, 2000

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Super Soldier: The US army is very anxious to upgrade the infantryman's basic equipment. It's more than just gadget lust, although there's an element of that. The basic problem is that the infantryman of today goes into battle with the same basic equipment he had eighty years ago. Amazing? Shocking? Yeah, all of that, but it's basically true. In 1918, the last year of World War I, elite German assault troops were equipped with automatic weapons, wore metal helmets (that looked almost identical to what American grunts wear today) and used rifle grenades, hand grenades, flame throwers, machine-guns and mortars to beef up their fire power. The only additional equipment infantry has today is the flak jacket and more radio gear. The flak jacket, which protects against most shell fragments and some bullets, is heavy and often not worn when mobility is important. The radios help, but in close encounters hand signals are preferred. Infantry have been using the hand signals for centuries.

For over a decade, the US Army has been working to change all this. It's been slow going. The troops keep reminding the wonks and engineers that if the new stuff isn't light, rugged and easy to use, the end result will be more expensive debris on the battlefield Historically, soldiers discard any of those new gadgets that just get in their way. But the army has persisted. The basic idea was to use the latest electronics and other technologies to provide the infantryman with an edge over the opposition. Remember, the other guys are equipped much like the grunts of eighty years ago, especially in those out of the way places where our troops are doing so much peacekeeping these days. So, aside from more training (which appears to be sacrificed to pursue this high tech exercise), the army wants technology to give American infantry an edge. It's the American way.

The latest outfit weighs some 90 pounds (although efforts are being made to get it down to 80). Included is new body armor, protection against chemical biological weapons, a personal computer and associated sensors and communications gear and a new weapon (the OICW) that weighs nearly twenty pounds and fires computer controlled 20mm shells. Most experienced infantrymen will tell you that they will not carry more than 50-60 pounds into harms way. Any excess gets dumped. Since the ground pounder is in a life or death situation, no amount of rules, regulations and very expensive gear will change his mind. Being able to move around the battlefield freely is a matter of survival. The fact that each soldier will be outfitted with $62,000 worth of new gear means less than getting out of the battle alive.

Giving each solider a personal computer (viewed through an eyepiece) is not so silly, if you could make it do something really useful for the infantryman. Field tests have so far been inconclusive. This is not to say that personal computers will not someday be a useful tool for the individual foot soldier. The problem is, that wondrous time has not yet arrived, but the gear has. Along with the bulk, weight, need for battery resupply, lack of ruggedness and unproven worth of the computer comes the potentially disastrous problem of the soldier being distracted by his new gadgets, and getting killed as a result. It will take a lot of field use to work out all the bugs, figure out how to make the combat PC useful and develop training methods to new recruits up to speed quickly. This won't be easy, never before has such a unique piece of equipment been added to an infantryman's arsenal. There's no historical guidance for how to go about making something like this work. The risks are great, the prospects are daunting.

Some of the current gear is useful. New body armor and uniform materials are appreciated by the troops. The new weapon, the OICW, is actually less of a risk. Mainly because there is a lot of pressure from the infantry to simply equip only ten or twenty percent of the troops with the OICW, much the same way the machine-gun was introduced, or the later 40mm grenade launcher (a shotgun like weapon.) The cost of the OICW, $12,000 each, plus $35 for each 20mm shell, makes it likely that the army will back off from equipping every infantryman with this new, clumsy, complex and untried weapon. There will also be many problems once a lot of troops get their hands on the OICW and beat up on it in normal field use. Right now, the army is planning to issue 40,000 OICWs by 2007, By next year, over 30,000 new super soldier (or "Land Warrior") outfits are to be distributed.

With billions of dollars invested, many careers are at stake. In peace time, you can arrange to have a flawed new idea succeed on paper. On the battlefield, it' a different matter. Which means that the Super Soldier concept risks putting American troops in more danger than usual. 

 


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