June 25, 2012:
The German Army has ordered the first production versions of its Gladius system for its infantry. Initially, 900 Gladius systems are being bought. It was six years ago that Germany began developing a high-tech ensemble of weapons and equipment for their infantry. This rapidly evolved into Infanterist der Zukunft (“Infantryman Of The Future”), or IdZ for short. The name was subsequently changed to Gladius.
Germany had noted the decades of American effort to develop the "Land Warrior" infantry equipment. In development since the 1980s, "Land Warrior" then consisted of 7.8 kg (17 pounds) of computers, displays (an eyepiece), radio, GPS, vidcam, and battlefield wi-fi. The helmet mounted display is a vidcam that provides the soldier with 6 and 12 X magnification, plus the ability to transmit images or video back to headquarters. The net increase in weight for infantry was only about 5 kg (11 pounds) because the "Land Warrior" stuff replaced some gear already carried, like the GPS and personal radio.
France, Spain, and Italy quickly joined the United States and most NATO nations in equipping its infantry with a more effective set of weapons and equipment, including a lot of electronic items (personal radio, GPS, gun sights, sensors, computer, and so on), new body armor, and accessories in general. India and China are also working on similar projects.
These systems often run into problems when the troops get to try them out. Five years ago the German army took its ensemble of high-tech Infantry gear and put it to the test. When the troops finally got a chance to try the stuff out, the equipment developers were dismayed to discover that the soldiers found IdZ more of a hindrance than a help. That's surprising, since the German program, like many similar ones in other NATO countries, were based on the two decade old American Land Warrior program, which was known to have some serious problems, things that had to be fixed before these "infantry systems" would work.
In the 1990s, the American Land Warrior concept was more than ambitious, it was revolutionary, so to speak. But that version had a science fiction air about it and something useful was not expected to appear for two decades or more. But then two things happened. First, the troops began buying consumer grade gear to perform some Land Warrior functions. Second, September 11, 2001, happened. All that, plus the unexpectedly rapid appearance of new computer and communications technologies, caused rapid reductions in 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 continued to be developed. Eventually the troops will have wearable computers, wi-fi capability, and all manner of neat stuff. Eventually came sooner than expected.
Six years ago a battalion of U.S. infantry tested the then-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. But once the gear got to Iraq, for testing by a few hundred troops, it was a different story. When people are trying to kill you, all help is appreciated and evaluated differently.
And then there was the competition. German soldiers commented that they could do a lot better with some commercial gear. This made it clear that the German army brass were out of touch with what was really going on in the world. German soldiers knew more about what the Americans were doing in this department, than the army bureaucrats in charge of the IdZ program. Many of the young troops, as well as NCOs and officers, understood English and were able to get into the message boards and email lists U.S. troops were using to discuss their experiences with Land Warrior. This led to a lot of tweaks to IdZ before it evolved into the production version called Gladius.
The other NATO nation programs were set up to learn from the experiences of similar projects. But that may not be enough because there is always a temptation for developers to include new gadgets which seem neat but do not pass muster in combat. Germany had troops in combat in Afghanistan providing feedback that molded IdZ into something that works. All these ensembles tend to end up with a personal radio, the latest and lightest protective armor, GPS, better weapons (rifles, pistols, grenade launchers and knives), night vision devices (especially those incorporated into gun sights), and accessories like remotely operated, lightweight ground and aerial vehicles.
One of the main goals of these ensembles, battlefield Internet, has proved to be more difficult to implement. Obviously, the ability to quickly transmit maps, videos, and photos is valuable. But getting the gear light and reliable enough, as well as easy-to-use, has proved easier said than done. Progress has been made but it's been slow. Some battlefield wi-fi systems are being sent to the combat zone.
The usefulness of the ensembles has been impressive enough for nations like Russia to buy the French version for their own troops. While Russia does not like to buy military equipment from other nations, they also picked up on the fact that these futuristic infantry ensembles are difficult to develop. So to get the troops something workable quickly, the Russians are buying from abroad.