Murphy's Law: Future On Hold For A Reality Check


June 16, 2022: The American Army planned to reveal details of its new MDO (Multi-Domain Operations) doctrine in June, which was developed to deal with near-peer forces that have troops, training and equipment similar to what the U.S. uses. The main near-peer adversaries were China and Russia and MDO was based on assumptions of how these adversaries would operate and how best to deal with that. Then reality intruded in February when Russia invaded Ukraine and three months later the Russians continue to perform well-below MDO expectations. The army has delayed the release of MDO for three months or more. China is also revising its war plans and Russians are still in shock, although much of what went wrong made sense based on what the West knew of the post-Soviet Union Russian military.

This sort of reality check is nothing new. It occurred during the World Wars and after the Vietnam War. Since 2001 the U.S. has been fighting irregulars and Islamic terrorists, which required some jarring changes in the way the army and marines operated. The army studied what happened after 2001 when the then current plans for future warfare had been quickly revised. That led to MDO, which lays out how the army will return to dealing with near-peer adversaries.

Since the 1990s the Army has been trying to learn how to adapt to the future (and succeeding), rather than planning for it (and failing). For example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 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 with 2020 often mentioned as a target date. Things didn't work out as planned, even though there was no detailed "plan." But all was not lost. In 2009 the army sent an infantry brigade, equipped with Land Warrior gear, to Afghanistan. This, in spite of the fact that, in 2007, after ten years of effort, and about $500 million, the Land Warrior program was canceled.

Well, sort of canceled. A lot of this futuristic gear for infantrymen was already out there and in use. However, the Land Warrior program included a lot of technology that still wasn't ready for combat. In effect, the Land Warrior program is dead, but the Land Warrior concept lives on with new gear the combat troops are using. This effort was renamed "Ground Soldier Ensemble." The troops continued to get new tech that works on the battlefield. There is still a plan for a radically new "ensemble." This time the target date was 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 canceled, 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 for two years (2007-9) and, even though that resulted in the cancellation of Land Warrior, many of the individual components continued 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 revealed 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, rendered 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. This was why the army then sent a brigade equipped with the same gear (2.7 kg/8 pounds worth) that the test 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. 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, the vehicle commander, who normally stands up with his head outside the turret for better visibility, ducks back inside to stay alive. Infantry are not 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 proved to be over 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, they 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 eventually returned in a more useful and reliable form.

Son of Land Warrior quickly changed the way troops fought. 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 this 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 gear in combat. And the infantry often does 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.

This was demonstrated when MDO was delayed because of the Ukraine reality check.




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