High-Tech Soldiers
By Jeff Goldman, Thu Nov 01 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Building on the high-tech boom of the last decade, the U.S. military is developing a wide range of advanced solutions to transform its operations.

In the fall of 1993, what was to have been a brief afternoon raid in Mogadishu, Somalia, disintegrated into a 15-hour firefight which killed 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis.

One of the causes of the chaos that day was a simple problem with communication.

Officers in spy planes above the city were relaying directions to the convoy of soldiers on the ground by way of commanders at the Joint Operations Center back at the army base. By the time an order to turn right had made it through the relay, the convoy had already passed the turning point. As a result, they found themselves driving in circles for hours, surrounded by gunfire on all sides.

Carl Bott of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab notes that the lessons learned in Mogadishu prompted a significant shift in the nature of communications in the field. The future, he suggests, lies with advanced wireless technology that will permit direct coordination between team members. "This way, talking directly back to the Marine that's on the ground, we're not going to have that confusion," he said.

A 21st century army

In October of 1999, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki laid out a long-term plan for transformation of the army into a lighter, more easily deployable military called the Objective Force. Noting that Moore's Law holds the promise of smaller and more lethal military hardware, Shinseki suggested that advanced technology will be key to future deployments. "We will seek technological solutions to our current dilemmas," he said.

Solutions being explored include wearable computers integrated into a soldier's uniform, wireless networks that can be deployed while on the move, and wireless sensors that can tell soldiers what's happening in areas they're about to enter. Marco Caceres, Senior Analyst for Teal Group, explains that the real focus for all of these developments is improved communication. "The key, ultimately, is to be able to communicate no matter where you are," he said.

What this also means is that an integrated solution for the soldier, the Land Warrior, is being built from the ground up. In the past, according to Major Brian Cummings of the Land Warrior program, soldiers were treated like Christmas trees: each time a new piece of equipment was created, it was added to the mix without any consideration given to how the various tools might work together. Now, as they put together a vision for the 21st century, they're looking at the whole picture.

Ultimately, Cummings suggests, the Land Warrior, along with its successor, the Objective Force Warrior, may well look like something out of Star Wars. "The vision of the Objective Force is to have a fully integrated soldier," he said. "There are various ways to look at what that soldier will have, from new technologies and weapons systems that give him increased lethality, to the ability to be totally encapsulated from the environment, for heating, for cooling, for future power sources."

Still, sci-fi aside, it's also about learning from the limitations of the past. "If you look at old war movies, you'll see that one out of fifty guys may have a radio, and they'll wait for the chain of command to tell them where to go," Cummings said. "Now you'll have soldiers out there that are totally interactive in the mission, knowing where they're at, where their buddies are, and they can communicate on the battlefield. Soldiers will be able to do things differently than they've ever done before."

Thank you, venture capital

A lot of the changes being made are inspired by commercially available technology rather than top-secret research: over the past ten years, the military has shifted much of its research and development to the private sector. Teal Group's Caceres suggests that the transition had a lot to do with the high-tech boom of the last decade, as well as the end of the Cold War. "The private sector is advancing so much in terms of technology and innovation that a lot of those technologies are now being applied by the military," Caceres said.

Major Cummings experienced that change directly in developing the Land Warrior. "We spent a long time with a major defense contractor trying to move forward with the Land Warrior program, and it was slow; it was tedious," he said. "Two years ago, we went to smaller companies with commercially available technologies, and we'll get technology in the Land Warrior system to soldiers faster than you've ever seen before."

Mike Buffa is the CEO of MILCOM Technologies, a venture capital firm which specializes in turning technology that's been developed for the military into solutions for the private sector. He says the two worlds work together perfectly. "What the military is able to do is leverage the venture capital dollars that go into the commercial company, and the commercial company is able to leverage the military R&D, and both groups make out like bandits," he said.

One of the companies supported by MILCOM is MeshNetworks, which offers a peer-to-peer ad hoc routing solution that makes it extremely simple to set up a wireless network. The technology was originally developed to help the military deploy wireless networks while on the move. "Each soldier, in essence, becomes like a base station in the network," Buffa said.

This kind of arrangement, in which the wireless network becomes part of the soldier's basic equipment and facilitates communication in the field, is key to the Objective Force concept. Still, the advances being developed for the Objective Force aren't only focused on improved communication.

More robots, fewer soldiers

Another central aim of General Shinseki's high-tech vision for the army is a decreased need for personnel. According to Jenny Holbert, spokesperson for the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, the reasons are simple. "If you have fewer people, you don't have to feed them: your logistics footprint is smaller," she said. "And you want to have as small a footprint ashore as possible."

Everything from wireless networks to wearable computers can reduce the number of support personnel required for a given mission, but Holbert explains that the ultimate aim in some cases will be to eliminate the need for human involvement altogether. "When you're talking communications and wireless technology, it may not be connected to a human being," she said. "It might be connected to robotics, or to sensors."

The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab's Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Target Acquisition (RSTA) program is working to develop a sensor network that will feed data directly to soldiers in the field. With Unmanned Aerial Vehicles providing a bird's eye view, robotic Mobile Ground Sensors moving into hostile territory to assess dangers, and stationary Unattended Ground Sensors watching for enemy movement, the aim is to set up a network that provides a soldier in the field with a comprehensive view of the territory around him.

The Lab's Major Gregory Heines explains that this kind of wireless sensor network could provide the perfect solution to the challenges soldiers faced eight years ago in Mogadishu. "The information will be fed to them via this network, so they can see where the actual threat is," he said. "So if you had a Marine looking at this screen, he would have a picture of the threat on an electronic map, and that would give him more situational awareness as he's moving into an urban area."

However, Major Dennis Ingram of the Warfighting Lab notes that a significant issue remains with conventional wireless technology when it comes to urban warfare. "The biggest problem that we have with wireless technology now is that you have blockages," he said. "If you're in an urban environment with large buildings and narrow streets, the radio waves just don't work well with large obstacles." In those situations, a complementary solution is needed.

Facing urban challenges

For military location technology, another key component of the Land Warrior, ultra-wideband (UWB) technology may have the solution. Vincent Coli is Vice President of Marketing for Aether Wire & Location, one of the leading companies in the field. Coli notes that UWB works perfectly in conditions where GPS has trouble: inside buildings, in cloud cover, under foliage, or in any other situation where GPS wouldn't have line of sight to the satellite. And with accuracy down to a centimeter or two, UWB is also more precise than GPS.

The future of military location technology, he says, may lie in a combination of the two technologies. "There's no way that what we do can replace GPS, because it works so well in wide open areas," Coli said. "Where we're very good is in areas where GPS won't work. Also, with GPS, somebody could put up a pseudo beacon to throw out your receivers. That's what they like about our stuff: it's a backup to GPS, it's very good indoors, and it's survivable."

From indoor location technology to fully integrated equipment for the soldier, Major Cummings suggests that all of these changes will fundamentally transform the military. With vast new resources of information and intelligence, soldiers will be empowered in ways they've never been before. "What we've seen over the last year or so of doing experiments is that we have a unit that's unique," Cummings said. "They fight differently, they act differently, and they move on the battlefield like something we've never seen before."

Still, all the technology in the world won't change the nature of war itself. Cummings points out that no matter how many high-tech tools a soldier uses, he'll still have to engage the enemy the same way he always has. "While technology enhances him in being able to do his mission, the way he does business today is still the way he's going to do it with technology," he said. "He'll just do it better."

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for Internet.com's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.