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With the help of his back-top computer, the modern soldier sees all

Army working on 'Land Warrior' computer that would give soldier a sixth sense

Sunday, April 02, 2000

By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Bureau

The low-tech foot soldier of the recent past went to battle with not much more than a helmet, boots, a gun and a prayer.

The high-tech foot soldier of the near future will more closely resemble the Terminator.

That is the promise of the "Land Warrior," a 9-pound "back-top" computer that manages a global positioning receiver, miniature camera, laser rangefinder, video and thermal weapons sights and a radio.

Cables run from the battery-powered backpack to a soldier's helmet or sunglasses, where a tiny "heads-up" display monitor is mounted, and to his weapon, which holds his video sight (for daytime), thermal sight (for nighttime) and laser rangefinder.

Whether the promise of the Land Warrior -- which is now expected to cost $2.1 billion by the time the first 34,000 units are acquired in 2003 -- will be realized soon, or at all, may be determined by field tests in June at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In mock battles, soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division will see how well Land Warrior handles the rigors of combat, and if it can survive a parachute jump or immersion in water.

Land Warrior may be the answer to many an infantryman's prayer:

*Thanks to the global positioning receiver, never again would a soldier have to huddle under a poncho at night, peering at a map by the dim glow of a red-lensed flashlight, trying to figure out where he was by orienting the map to what little terrain he could observe. The Land Warrior can produce a digitized map in the little heads-up monitor, showing him precisely where he and all his squadmates are located.

*In an instant, the laser rangefinder can calculate the exact distance to a target, and display that spot on the map. A click of the ergonomically correct mouse near the magazine of his weapon transmits this information to other members of his squad or to higher-ups. He can shoot, coordinate an attack with his squad, or call in fire from artillery, aircraft or, soon, remotely operated flying drones.

*With the thermal sight at night or video sight during the day, he can shoot with great accuracy while exposing only his hands. "You can shoot around a corner, or you can blast away from a foxhole without sticking your head above the ground," says Sgt. Jeff Catherell, a Ranger who has been testing Land Warrior prototypes.

*He can communicate instantly and quietly with squadmates. No more shouts that may not be heard in the din of battle. No more shouts or hand signals that might be heard or seen by the enemy.

Turtle shell troubles

The Land Warrior program got off to a rocky start in 1996. The original prototype was heavy, bulky and awkward. It was too fragile for paratroopers, and crashed when it got wet. It gave off electronic emissions that could be picked up by the enemy. And -- built entirely with components manufactured to Department of Defense specifications -- it was way too expensive.

In July 1998, the Army hired Col. Bruce Jette, an armor officer with a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to fix the program.

"Each component of the system had been developed separately, and kind of jury-rigged together," Jette said. "What was needed was a holistic approach, built around the needs of the soldier, without adding to the weight of the gear he already has to carry into combat."

With weapons, ammunition, food and protective clothing, the typical infantryman today lugs 92.6 pounds of stuff, up about 50 pounds from World War II. Jette thinks he can add the 9-pound Land Warrior and still cut the overall load by a half pound -- mainly by reducing the weight of body armor and the clothing designed to protect against chemical weapons.

The most significant change was to jettison those parts of the Land Warrior made to government specifications, replacing them with state-of-the-art electronics available off-the-shelf. This reduced the system's weight, bulk and price, while improving its durability.

Out went a 75-megaherz computer that, with backpack, weighed 40 pounds and cost $34,000. In came a computer made mostly by Pacific Consultants of Mountain View, Calif., that has twice the processing power, weighs only 25 ounces and costs $440.

"Essentially what we've done is taken a laptop and shrunk it to the size of a personal data assistant," said Chuck Byer, chief operating officer of Pacific Consultants. "We see a host of commercial applications for it."

The bulky connecting cables in the first prototype cost $600 apiece. The cables in the current test model run $70, but Jette plans to cut costs even further with cables made for use in race cars at $20 each.

Soldiers who tested the first prototype of the Land Warrior dubbed it the "turtle shell" because they couldn't roll over while wearing it. The computer now is mounted on the back of a newly designed lightweight vest.

All in all, it would have cost about $50,000 to equip soldiers with the "turtle shell" prototype. Jette thinks he can cut the cost to $15,000.

The Army hoped to field Land Warrior by September of this year, but problems in the program's early years will postpone deployment until at least May of 2003. The delay will boost the cost of acquiring the first units to $2.1 billion from $1.4 billion, according to a General Accounting Office report issued in December. This figure includes all research and development costs and the cost of production.

The accounting office's main criticism of Land Warrior in its present form is that its communication system will not be compatible with the digital command and control system the Army plans to develop for tactical units.

"To be effective, Land Warrior must be able to transmit data to, and receive data from higher command levels, thereby providing a soldier with a relevant common picture of the battlefield and ensuring an integrated communications link from soldier to higher command," the GAO report said.

The Army plans to connect soldiers in the field to a platoon radio operator who, in turn, would be linked to higher levels through the digital system. And that might make sense.

Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, one of the Army's leading intellectuals prior to his retirement in 1998, isn't sure each soldier ought to be able to communicate directly with battalion or brigade officers.

"There's a purpose to a chain of command," Peters said. "It's a necessary firewall. There are 3,000 to 6,000 soldiers in a brigade. If each could communicate directly with headquarters, the staff would be overwhelmed by messages."

Warrior and beyond

Land Warrior will be the first of many radical changes for the infantryman of the near future.

The system can be used with the M-4 carbine, a lighter, shorter version of the venerable M-16. But by 2007, the Army hopes to replace the M-4 with the Objective Individual Combat Weapon, a computerized rifle that will fire both 5.56 mm bullets and 20 mm rounds designed to burst like grenades over the heads of enemies.

Critics say the combat weapon is too heavy (18.2 pounds), too complicated (it has a dozen levers and buttons), and too expensive (at least $10,000 each). Not to mention the awful name, usually known by its initials, OICW.

"This system appears to violate every known and proven tenet of a successful infantry weapon," Maj. Kendall Gott wrote in a letter to Army Times. "Light, easy to use and maintain, rugged, reliable and cheap to make."

Supporters predict the OICW will become lighter and less complex as testing continues, and that its improved firepower and accuracy will justify its greater cost.

The new weapon currently weighs more than twice as much as an M-4. But in addition to the M-4, it is slated to replace the standard-issue grenade launcher and light machine gun. If a grenade launcher, thermal weapons sight and other attachments built into the OICW were added to the M-4, the M-4 would weigh more than the OICW.

Land Warrior is years away from the troops in the field, but its replacement is already on the drawing boards. The designers of Future Warrior 2025 think they can make individual infantrymen as deadly as tanks and much more comfortable than today's foot soldiers.

Thanks to anticipated developments in microelectromechanical systems and nanotechnology, the future warrior will wear a smart uniform and an even smarter helmet. His load will be cut by two-thirds, according to the design engineers at the Soldier Center in Natick, Mass.

Microelectromechanics combines computers with tiny mechanical devices imbedded in semiconductor chips. Nanotechnology will permit the manufacture of integrated circuits only one millionth of a meter across, smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Together they offer a breathtaking reduction in the size and weight of military equipment, and in the battery power required to run electronic systems.

The future warrior will wear a custom-tailored lightweight uniform with three specialized layers:

*A protective outer layer made of polymer nanofibers will be flame resistant and provide protection from chemical and biological agents. It will change color to provide camouflage, looking like sand in the desert, leaves in the forest.

*A middle layer of conductive textiles will provide power and data transfer for the entire system.

*A "life critical" layer next to the skin will contain sensors to monitor vital signs, and a personal heating and cooling system. If it's cold outside, a network of tiny tubes will circulate warm liquid around the torso; cool liquid if it's hot.

Electronics upgraded from Land Warrior will inhabit the helmet of Future Warrior 2025. The prototype weighs 2.7 pounds, compared to 3.3 pounds for the Kevlar helmet in use today. The heads-up display will enable a soldier to detect threats from anywhere through a fusion of visual, thermal, acoustic and radar sensors.

The weapon envisioned for Future Warrior 2025 will consist of a pod strapped to either forearm containing five tubes of 15 mm smart seeker munitions, and one tube of 4.6 mm kinetic energy projectiles for close quarter combat.

The whole system will be run by a built-in microturbine. Ten ounces of fuel will power the soldier for up to six days.

Correction/Clarification: An earlier version of this story included one or more photos by Allan Detrich. The photos have been removed. This action is explained in a note from the editor.

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