Infantry: January 3, 2005


For over a decade, the U.S. Army has been trying to develop a revolutionary new combat uniform for the infantry. The program, called Land Warrior, sought to give the troops better protection, communications and lethality, while at the same time reducing the load (often over a hundred pounds) the infantry have to carry. Initially, the Land Warrior equipment focused on technologies that were not available yet. The early prototypes of the land warrior gear looked like something out of science fiction. Sort of Star Wars Stormtroopers in camouflage colors, and with more accurate weapons. 

Two things happened to change this program into something quite different  First, new technologies began to appear, without waiting for an army research contract, and the troops wanted this new gear. Personal radios, hydration systems, better flak jackets and better camouflage patterns, were among the items that soldiers were suddenly talking about in  chat rooms, newsgroups and email lists. The Internet, as it became a major form of communications in the 1990s,  brought together all this new gear, and the troops that needed it, in ways the army brass had not anticipated. Unit commanders picked up on this, often by lurking, or participating, in the online discussions (usually without revealing they were an officer.) 

This movement merged with another one, the desire for regular infantry troops to get the same access to whatever they needed that Special Forces units had long had. The regular infantry units, in light of their exceptional effectiveness in the 1991 Gulf War, felt that they were well trained enough to justify the special equipment budgets, and purchasing authority, that the Special Forces had long had, and used to good effect. When the war on terror came along, senior commanders let the regular combat units have the extra money, and authority, to get whatever new gear was out there, and the troops thought they could use. A particularly compelling reason for this collective decision (by many generals) was the realization that the troops were connected via the Internet, and often buying this new stuff with their own money. Army generals have many skills, and one of them is the ability to see a public relations disaster headed for them. By providing the new money and buying authority, they avoided ugly Troops Buy Equipment the Army Wont type headlines. 

This new get new stuff asap attitude soon led to a rethinking of Land Warrior. Why plod along with a futuristic new combat uniform, when one is being put together by the troops themselves. So the word came from the top, to develop Land Warrior on the fly. As new equipment and weapons became available, get it out there. If it worked, keep it, if it didnt, dump it. Technology was developing much faster than it had at any time in human history. New product development and introduction was now measured in months, not years. The iPod, for example, went from idea to something you could buy in a store, in less than a year. And that is not exceptional, it is now the norm. Manufacturers of hunting equipment, for example,  were developing, and getting onto the market, new gun sights, and other accessories, with unheard of speed compared to a decade or so ago. 

So Land Warrior is appearing in increments, rather than as a new ensemble some time in the next decade. And the evolutionary Land Warrior stuff works. A major problem with the original Land Warrior was batteries, and what they weigh. Thats still a problem. But as new battery technology appears (like the lighter lithium-ion pouch battery), the army gets them into the field and sees how they work. Some of the advances have less to do with what the troops are wearing. For example, the new Stryker brigades have a lot more networking and communications equipment in their Stryker vehicles. This allows troops to plug into a vehicle network and receive visual briefings on the individual computer and display equipment being developed. Platoon and company commanders already have PDAs which display battle maps and plans, making it possible to distribute plans much more quickly. This speeds up operations, as it allows changes to be made and distributed much more quickly. The next generation of gear, which will reach the troops within a year or two, will allow the electronic briefings to be done to the individual soldiers, further speeding up operations, and putting the enemy at more of a disadvantage.

You also have a new generation of troops who appreciate a good case of gadget lust, know their way around computers, and are willing to take risks with new stuff, if theres a chance it will give them a battlefield edge. It does, and they are. 




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