Infantry: We Want Our Smart Phones And We Want Them Now

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September 8, 2011: After years of trying to avoid it, the U.S. Army has agreed to quit trying to create a device that does what a smart phone does, but does it on the battlefield. The troops want a combat smart phone, and they have been increasingly critical of army procurement officials. Not just snide remarks in unofficial military message boards (where posters are anonymous, but obviously in the army) but also in the official ones (where you are identified.) Combat veterans can get away with this, and what they are saying is that a combat smart phone is a matter of life or death. So the army has issued a request for combat smart phones. They don’t call them that. Even procurement bureaucrats have their pride. The request is for a NWEUD (Nett Warrior End-User Device). The description of NWEUD is for something that sounds like a smart phone. Oh, and it must use the Android operating system.

Meanwhile, the army has managed to prove that the combat smart phone concept works. Last year, they sent an infantry battalion, equipped with Nett Warrior gear, to Afghanistan. The heart of this system was a 2.3 kg (5 pound) wearable (and networked) computer with an eyepiece for the display and a handheld (or worn on the arm) input device (keyboard). The battery runs 24 hours, and takes four hours to recharge. The eyepiece display can show anything a computer screen can, but normally shows a map, displaying the constantly updated position of other friendly troops, and most recently reported location of the enemy. Nett Warrior integrates radio, GPS and 16 GB of storage for maps, pictures or whatever. While troops find this very useful in some situations, there is still the weight problem (troops tend to be loaded down with too much gear). Still, the test was largely a success. That should not be surprising. Nett Warrior is the result of over a decade of prototypes and troop feedback. An increasing portion of the feedback has been positive. But for all troops, the system is still too heavy, and for most, it's not worth the extra weight. Troops know that most smart phones can do the same job as Nett Warrior, and now they army agrees, and has told the smart phone manufacturers to creat NWEUD prototypes, and the army will buy a lot of them.

The problem with Nett Warrior was that it was the system of the future, and had been for over two decades. For example, three years ago, after more than a decade of effort, and about $500 million, the very similar (and original) Land Warrior program was cancelled. Well, sort of. A lot of this futuristic gear for infantrymen, meant to be part of Land Warrior, was already out there and in use. However, the Land Warrior program included a lot of technology that still wasn't ready for prime time. In effect, while the Land Warrior program is dead, the Land Warrior concept lives on with new stuff the combat troops are using. Thus the Land Warrior was first renamed "Ground Soldier Ensemble," but then became "Nett Warrior" (after Medal of Honor winner Robert Nett). The troops will continue to get new tech that works on the battlefield, but the wearable computer that is the centerpiece of Nett Warrior keeps falling just short of being something the troops must have. The smart phone version (NWEUD), the army hopes, will not.

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.

Land Warrior gave Team Leaders and Squad Leaders (and eventually, each infantryman) a wearable computer, using an eyepiece as a display (attached to the helmet, and flips down for use), and a small keypad to control the thing. GPS puts the soldier's location on the map shown in the eyepiece. Meanwhile in Iraq, infantry officers and NCOs, equipped with map equipped GPS units (at first, then smart phones), found the map/GPS combo a tremendous aid to getting around, and getting the job done. Land Warrior also provided a wireless networking capability, so troops not only saw where they were in their eyepiece, but could receive new maps and other information. Land Warrior troops were to use a vidcam to transmit images to headquarters, their immediate commander, or simply to the other guys in their squad. Perhaps most importantly, the Land Warrior gear provided the same capability as the 2003 "Blue Force Tracker", and showed Team Leaders and Squad Leaders, via his eyepiece, where all the other guys in his unit are. When fighting inside a building, this can be a life saver.

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 years away. The troops managed to work around that, up to a point. Between 2006 and 2008, the system was made faster and more reliable. At this point, the biggest problem is the weight.

The troops provided lots of useful feedback. For example, the troops wanted 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. This was delivered, but no one could make the extra poundage disappear.

But in the meantime, troops were seeing much of what they wanted show up on smart phones. American combat troops tend to be heavily into gadgets of all kinds, but particularly those that might help them survive in combat. They see commercial smart phone technology quickly solving the same problems the army is having with Nett Warrior.

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 Land Warrior equipped 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 Nett Warrior gear to do the same thing on foot, you demoralize the enemy.

For a long time, the biggest 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. Rechargeable batteries, with a longer life between charges, have largely solved that problem, but largely by not solving the weight problem.

Troops in combat have some unique problems keeping smart phones operational. For one thing, there’s the problem of getting the troops a reliable signal. But that’s long been a problem, and there are a lot of new solutions that will work with a smart phone. Then there’s the need for encryption. Again, that’s another problem that smart phones have already dealt with several times over. Thus the call for working prototypes of the NWEUD. If the smart phone manufacturers deliver, the troops will use it. They most certainly want it.

 


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