Infantry: The Future Arrived Early And Unexpectedly

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October 2, 2009: The U.S. Army is trying to learn how to adapt to the future (and succeeding), rather than planning for it (and failing). For example, twenty years ago, the army began its "Land Warrior" program to identify, develop and test new technologies for the infantry. The general idea (at least for the press and politicians), was to create a high-tech ensemble of futuristic weapons and equipment for American infantry in the early 21st century (2020 was often mentioned as a target date). Things did not work out as planned, even though there was no detailed "plan." But all was not lost. A few months ago, the army sent an infantry brigade, equipped with Land Warrior gear, to Afghanistan. This, in spite of the fact that, two years ago, after ten years of effort, and about $500 million, the Land Warrior program was cancelled.

Well, sort of cancelled. A lot of this futuristic gear for infantrymen is already out there and in use. However, the Land Warrior program included a lot of technology that still isn't ready for combat. In effect, the Land Warrior program is dead, but the Land Warrior concept lives on with new stuff the combat troops are using. And the effort has been renamed "Ground Soldier Ensemble." The troops will continue to get new tech that works on the battlefield. There is still a plan for a radically new "ensemble." This time the target date is around 2030, and the army is trying to explain to the media (and the politicians who provide the cash) that this effort is mainly an ongoing exploration of new technologies. The Land Warrior experience demonstrated that new tech arrives, usually unexpectedly, too frequently for detailed, long term, plans to work.

For example, when cancelled, the Land Warrior gear included a wearable computer/GPS/radio combination, plus improvements in body armor and uniform design. The original, 1990s, Land Warrior concept was a lot more ambitious. But that version had a science fiction air about it. 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 number of items included in the initial Land Warrior release. At the same time, this made it possible for the first version of Land Warrior to undergo field testing over the last two years and, even though that resulted in the cancellation of Land Warrior, many of the individual components will continue to be developed. Eventually all the troops will have wearable computers, and wi-fi capability.

In 2006, a battalion of infantry tested the then current Land Warrior gear in the United States. 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. The army has been getting new gear to Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as it passed muster with the troops, thereby building the Land Warrior ensemble a piece at a time. The 2006 tests 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.

The army fixed the reliability and GPS update times problems, and in 2008, sent an infantry battalion to Iraq equipped with the "remnants of Land Warrior" gear. The troops found it useful in combat. In particular, they liked how the digital map (they could see in their eyepiece, where it appeared as if they were looking at a laptop display) could be updated by commanders to show new objectives, and how to get there. Since each trooper had GPS and a digital radio, it was easy to send such updates to everyone. This was particularly important because so many operations were at night. Thus the decision to send a brigade (the 5/2nd) equipped with the same gear (eight pounds worth) that the 4/9th battalion found useful.

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. 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.

Testing showed that there were several serious problems. The battlefield wi-fi system took about ten seconds to update everyone's position. Manufacturers promised to eventually get down to a third of that, but real-time updates may be a decade away. The troops managed to work around that, up to a point. Between 2006 and 2008, the system was made faster and more reliable.

The troops provided lots of useful feedback For example, the troops want a keypad, at least similar to a cell phone, so they can more easily send text messages (like many of them do now with their cell phones.) The small vidcam mounted on the end of everyone's rifle was dropped, although it may eventually return.

Son of Land Warrior is already 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 their targets. 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/ Ground Soldier Ensemble, 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.

The most insurmountable problem was a rather mundane one, battery power. Expected advances in battery technology did not appear, so even if all the technology worked, there was no way to carry sufficient batteries, much less keep Land Warrior users supplied with them. This is proving to be a major problem for one of the more popular new ideas; an exoskeleton, or even an armored suit as in the "Ironman" comics. Stuff like can actually be built, but you can't go very far with it because batteries simply do not exist that can provide the needed power.

The army expects more success with new medicines and medical monitoring devices (which are already showing up in non-military applications). There is a constant flood of new, and often unexpected, consumer electronics. Same way with new gear for civilian hunters and outdoor activities in general. It's a chore just keeping up, but that's what a lot of the army developers spend a lot of their time doing.

But the army has found that the troops are willing to try new stuff in combat. And the infantry often do this without telling the brass, by buying new civilian technology with their own money. Sometimes this even extends to weapons, or weapons accessories. Fortunately, the army provides message boards for the troops to report their experiences, and recommendations. To the army, it's clear that Future Soldier (or whatever the name is changed to) will evolve, more than it will follow a plan.

 


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