Special Operations: Special Forces Use Zombie Tech In Combat


November 15, 2009: The U.S. Army Special Forces is equipping 18 A Teams (officially known as ODAs, or Operational Detachment Alpha) with Land Warrior electronic equipment. But the Special Forces gear will have one special addition; satellite communications. Normally, Land Warrior comms use line-of-sight (FM) radio. But in the hilly Afghan terrain, and with the dispersed tactics used by Special Forces, satellite communications makes more sense.

This is yet another field test for the cancelled Land Warrior project. Last Summer, the army sent an infantry brigade, equipped with Land Warrior gear, to Afghanistan.

All this is happening, 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. 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 wasn't ready for prime time. 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.

The fact that Special Forces is trying out Land Warrior, in a combat zone, is a big deal. Special Forces has their own budget for buying whatever they think they need, from anyone who has something they think works. The ODAs will only use the Land Warrior gear on certain missions, but the Ground Soldier Ensemble development team will be eager to get opinions from Special Forces operators about this equipment. Ground Soldier Ensemble is supposed to be ready for use in three years, using ideas, experience and technology from Land Warrior. The Special Forces experience will carry a lot of weight.

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, 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 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 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 (the 4/9th) 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.

Meanwhile, the army tried to salvage as much as it could from the Land Warrior wreckage. While some of the gear was useful, the overall ensemble was not, which is what killed Land Warrior. Meanwhile, some components of Land Warrior (Blue Force Tracker and the wired Stryker) have already proved worthwhile, despite commo and reliability problems common with this kind of equipment. 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. 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 soldiers location on the map shown in the eyepiece. Meanwhile in Iraq, infantry officers and NCOs, equipped with PDAs or smart phones, found the map/GPS combo a tremendous aid to getting around, and getting the job done. Land Warrior was also to provide a wireless networking capability, so troops not only see where they are in their eyepiece, but can 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 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.

The troops headed for Afghanistan know about the success of the "Land Warrior Lite" gear in Iraq. But many believe that this gear won't be as useful in Afghanistan, where most of the action is out in the countryside. Iraq was largely an urban war. But that's why the army is sending the gear to Afghanistan. If the troops find it useful, they will keep using it, and probably find ways to improve it, or use it in ways no one has thought of yet.

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