Infantry: The Weight Of Knowledge On The Battlefield


May 16, 2011: Last year, the U.S. Army sent an infantry battalion, equipped with Nett Warrior gear, to Afghanistan. The heart of this system is  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.

The problem is that Nett Warrior is the system of the future, and has 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 a decorated World War II hero). 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.

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 in the  two years before the cancellation. After that, many of the individual components continued to be developed. It was always believed that, eventually all the troops will have wearable computers, and battlefield 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 unofficially 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. But it was still heavy, and during the daytime, in the heat of an Iraqi Summer, something that could be left behind.

After 2007, 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 was 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 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.

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 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 know about the success Nett Warrior, 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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