Infantry: Son of Land Warrior Evolves in the Wild


April 22, 2007: The U.S. Army is still trying to figure out what to do with a lot of new technologies developed for its Land Warrior program. That was an effort to enhance infantry performance with a lot of technology that was never ready for prime time (like wearable computers). Although the Land Warrior program is dead, the general concept lives on with new stuff the combat troops are using. The problem with Land Warrior was that is tried to be revolutionary, while the troops really wanted evolutionary items. Although the army has halted work on Land Warrior, it is sending some of the equipment to Iraq, to see how well it performs in combat. The current Land Warrior gear includes a wearable computer/GPS/radio combination, plus improvements in body armor and uniform design. Troops who tested Land Warrior in the U.S. found it too much hassle, and not enough benefit.

The original, 1990s, Land Warrior concept was a lot more ambitious. 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 will continue to be developed. Eventually the troops will have wearable computers, wi-fi capability, and all manner of neat stuff. Eventually.

Late last year a battalion of infantry tested the 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. Meanwhile, the army has been getting new gear to Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as it passed muster with the troops, thereby building an alternative "Land Warrior ensemble" one piece at a time. But two major Land Warrior items, the wearable computer (with the eyepiece display) and GPS positioning, were not ready for the combat zone. Too slow and too fragile. The 2006 tests also discovered some communications problems. This was not unexpected, but the Land Warrior system depends on continuous communications to provide accurate position information for all the networked troops, and their commanders.

What the field tests tried to prove was whether the usual imperfect communications, which have long been common in combat, before and after radio was introduced, render Land Warrior not-worth-the-effort. This is where using combat veterans was so important. Troops who have not been in combat have to guess if certain test conditions would result in a battlefield disaster, or just an annoyance, especially in light of the potential advantages from using Land Warrior. While some of the gear was useful, the overall ensemble was not, which is what killed Land Warrior.

While Land Warrior is dead, it's cousin, Mounted Warrior, is not. The Stryker vehicles are using a partial set of the Mounted Warrior ensemble, a version of Land Warrior for the crews of armored vehicles. The troops liked all these new electronic gadgets a lot. just as commanders took to Blue Force Tracker in 2003. In effect, the first beta of Mounted Warrior was installed in the Stryker vehicles headed for Iraq in 2005. That gear worked well, and the troops were enthusiastic about using a vehicle that was booted, rather than simply started. The main idea with this new gear was to provide the troops with superior "situational awareness." That's a fancy term for having a good sense of where you are. The Stryker troops always knew where they were, by looking at a computer screen. There, a GPS placed the vehicle on a detailed map of the area.

Over half a century of studies has resulted in knowledge of what an infantryman needs to be more effective. They need to know where they are, quickly. Having a poor idea of where you are proved to be one of the main shortcomings of armored vehicles. While infantrymen can just look around, armored crews tend to be cut off from this while inside their vehicle. The crews are even more easily disoriented. When the shooting starts, even the commander, instead of standing up with his head outside the turret, ducks back inside to stay alive. Infantry aren't much better off. Although they can see their surroundings, they are often crouching behind something. When getting shot at, standing up to look around is not much of an option.

But the infantry are often not much in need of a computer to tell them where they are. In Iraq, much of the infantry are doing SWAT type operations. These are run fast, with most of the troops in close proximity to each other. The wearable computer and its GPS driven map proved useless, mainly because it took the system over a minute to update the map. Even the personal radio is counterproductive for most troops. On patrols the GPS and radios can come in handy. But there are already personal radios, and various models of GPS, available for that. Land Warrior tried to make the technology do what it was not yet capable of, to perform a function the troops didn't particularly need.

Meanwhile in Iraq, infantry officers and NCOs, equipped with PDAs, have found the map/GPS combo a tremendous aid to getting around, and getting the job done. The troops also buy commercial gear, a piece at a time, to take care of their Land Warrior type needs. Thus "son of Land Warrior" is already showing up in combat, piece by piece. And this is changing the way troops fight. Everyone is now able to move around more quickly, confidently and effectively. This model has already been demonstrated with the Stryker units. Captured enemy gunmen often complained of how the Strykers came out of nowhere, and skillfully maneuvered to surround and destroy them. "It wasn't fair," some of the enemy complained. This was often done at night, with no lights (using night vision gear.) When you have infantry using Land Warrior gear to do the same thing on foot, you demoralize the enemy. Hostile Iraqis already attribute all manner of science fiction type capabilities to American troops. But with Son of Land Warrior, the bar will have to be raised on what's science fiction, and what is just regular issue gear. This is typical of what happens in wartime, where the demand for better weapons and equipment, and a realistic place to test it, greatly accelerates the development and deployment of the new stuff.

What the army R&D brass have a hard time accepting is the fact that the troops know what they need. As you read this, thousands of American infantrymen are "evolving" new equipment in combat. It's usually something they hacked together from commercial gadgets. But the army still prefers to have people in a lab, or at least outside of a combat zone, come up with revolutionary new equipment, which the troops will somehow embrace. The lab rats never seem to notice that their revolutions all seem to encounter a lot of resistance from the troops, because the ideas were not well enough tested by the troops. You can't ignore reality, especially in wartime.




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