Infantry: Science Fiction Gets Left Behind

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May 19, 2006: About a decade ahead of schedule, the U.S. Army has equipped a combat battalion with computer equipped infantry. This is the "Land Warrior" concept, first envisioned two decades ago. Put simply, Land Warrior is an infantryman equipped with gear that, until recently, seemed the stuff of science fiction. But reality has been closing in quickly, and the Land Warrior ensemble the troops are getting is 17 pounds of computers, displays (an eyepiece), radio, GPS, vidcam and battlefield wi-fi.

It was the use of the new Stryker wheeled armored vehicle in Iraq that accelerated the development of the Land Warrior equipment. The Strykers were using a partial set of the "Mounted Warrior" equipment, a version of Land Warrior for the crews of armored vehicles. While the current Land Warrior gear includes 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 this 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 since September 11, 2001. That, plus the unexpectedly rapid appearance of new computer and communications technology, caused them to reduce the number of items included in the initial Land Warrior release. At the same time, this all made it possible for the first version of Land Warrior to appear in this year for field testing and, if that's successful, next year in combat

In effect, the first beta of Mounted Warrior was installed in the Stryker vehicles headed for Iraq last year. 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 have revealed some key information on what an infantryman needs to be more effective. They need to know where they are, quickly. Armored vehicle crews are even more easily disoriented, with most of them inside the vehicle. 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.

So Land Warrior gives the 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. Tests so far have shown that this works. More extensive tests are taking place now.

Even in Iraq, infantry officers and NCOs, equipped with PDAs, have found the map/GPS combo a tremendous aid to getting around, and getting the job done. Land Warrior will also 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 can also use a vidcam on their rifle to transmit images to headquarters, their immediate commander, or simply to the other guys in their squad. Perhaps most importantly, the Land Warrior gear will provide the same capability as the 2003 "Blue Force Tracker", and show each grunt, via his eyepiece, where all the other guys in his unit are. When fighting inside a building, this can be a life saver.

The first unit to get Land Warrior will be a reconnaissance battalion. That's important, because the infantry in these units don't get off their vehicles for long periods of time. They will be carrying an extra 17 pounds of weight (on top of the 70 pounds grunts already carry), which can slow you down over an extended period of time. Another problem with Land Warrior 1.0 is batteries. Each soldier only carries enough on him to power his gear for 24 hours. But the recon battalion vehicles have rechargers, which only works if the infantry can access them regularly.

Ultimately, in the next five years, the army expects to be using lighter, more powerful fuel cell batteries. At that time, the Land Warrior equipment is expected to get lighter. Thus Land Warrior 2.0 will weigh half as much, use batteries that go for days and have body armor that is lighter as well. Thus version 2.0 won't weigh any more than the current load, without Land Warrior.

There are several other issues that need to be worked out. The battlefield wi-fi system takes about ten seconds to update everyones position. That will eventually get down to a third of that, but real-time updates may be a decade away. The troops can work around that. For the moment, just knowing where everyone is before you move out (or into a building) is useful. The troops are providing lots of feedback, and the changes to the equipment are being made quickly. 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 everyones rifle will, in a few months, have the ability to send still pictures to anywhere.

If Land Warrior 1.0 proves durable and reliable enough to work in combat, it will change the way troops fight. Everyone will be 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 Land Warrior, 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.

 


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