More than three years of fighting in Iraq have yet to bring about a major shift in technology spending priorities at the Pentagon, a senior official says. The conflict, which in almost every measure has been a non-traditional “irregular” war, continues to expose equipment gaps that could take several more years to fill.
“We need more resources for irregular warfare,” says George W. Solhan, deputy chief of naval research and retired U.S. Marine.
Compared to how much money the United States spends on new fighter jets, submarines and other big-ticket weapons systems, it is severely “under-investing” in technologies for unconventional warfare, Solhan tells National Defense.
“One of these days, if China emerges as a peer competitor, it might be very important” to have those expensive conventional weapons, he adds. “But right now, and for the foreseeable future, we have this war going on, and we are not putting nearly enough money in this area.”
Following guidance from the Navy’s top command, the Office of Naval Research is redirecting funds to non-traditional combat areas, Solhan says. This year, ONR is spending almost $160 million on counterterrorism programs, from a total research budget of $1.6 billion. The allocation of funds could begin to change in fiscal 2008, after ONR completes a top-down review of its programs later this year.
Much of the Navy’s research work in unconventional warfare is closely aligned with the Marine Corps and the Army, Solhan says. The Navy’s littoral and riverine units will need much of the same technology that ground forces employ.
Areas of top concern include communications for dismounted troops, lighter and more effective protective gear, and improved tactical vehicles.
The Marine Corps envisions that, in future conflicts, troops will be widely dispersed, and therefore will require advanced communications devices that are lightweight and reliable. “Every individual Marine will be a node” in a larger network of forces, Solhan explains.
Based on this premise, ONR is pursuing research aimed at producing miniaturized antennae that could be inserted into the body armor ensemble but still be efficient enough to transmit and receive data.
Most ground troops today don’t have pocket-sized radios that are low-cost, secure and able to function in any environment. Solhan attributes this to a cultural bias in the military research establishment toward traditional programs aimed at fighting large-scale wars.
“In my opinion, the Army is doing a superb job and is focused on the future combat systems … But I don’t think that they are quite as committed to doing much at the soldier level,” Solhan says, even though the Army is taking steps in that direction.
Neither ONR nor Army researchers, however, have yet been able to crack the code on a colossal challenge confronting scientists: How to lighten the equipment load troops must carry on their backs.
“Combat load is a huge issue,” says Solhan. Soldiers and Marines are weighed down by 30 pounds of body armor and at least 50 to 60 pounds of gear in their rucksacks.
“We have lightweight stuff, but we make the poor guy carry more of it,” Solhan says.
Mechanical load-carriage devices, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “exoskeletons,” are not realistic solutions, he adds. They are bulky structures that would allow a soldier to carry hundreds more pounds of weight, but are impractical for use in the battlefield and require energy to operate the hydraulics and pneumatic systems.
Solhan is doubtful that the combat load will drop much below 90 pounds, which is the same weight he himself carried as an infantryman in Vietnam four decades ago. It would make more sense to boost soldiers’ fitness, so they can carry the weight, he says. “My theory is that we have to make the Marine or sailor higher performing, and then he can carry more … What we really need to do is build a reliable model to make tradeoffs between performance and weight. A guy still is going to carry 90 pounds if he can.”
Body armor is not likely to get any lighter. The current “gold standard” for body armor is the SAPI (small arms protective insert) plate, which weighs eight pounds per square foot. No major breakthrough can be expected, at least “until we get into real nanotechnology,” Solhan says. “We are not there yet.”
Scientists are hopeful that the M5 synthetic fiber, which is considered the strongest, most flame-resistant material available to date, can be produced in large enough quantities to be incorporated into military body armor. So far, he says, the supply is very limited.
Even further out into the future is the promise of “spider silk,” or “biosteel,” which are exotic materials estimated to be 20 times stronger than steel.
ONR designed a Kevlar-based extremity protection armor attachment. But Kevlar does not stop bullets. A bulletproof SAPI armor ensemble with extremity protection would weigh 90 pounds — much too heavy even for soldiers riding on vehicles.
Head protection also needs to be improved, says Solhan. The biggest problem with the helmet is that people can’t tolerate that much weight on their heads. Current Kevlar helmets, at 3.4 pounds, are acceptable, but they leave key areas unprotected, such as the face, neck and throat. In roadside bomb blasts, shrapnel injuries in those areas could be deadly, says Solhan. But adding facial or neck panels to helmets is difficult because they get in the way of using a headset or radio, or shooting a rifle.
ONR expects to have a prototype design for an advanced Marine Corps helmet in about a year.
New armored truck designs, meanwhile, are being studied as part of a broader Marine Corps-Army program known as the joint light tactical vehicle. Eventually, both services want to acquire a new truck to replace the Humvee. “We are addressing crew survivability as a top priority,” says Solhan. Options include lifting the compartment high off the ground to mitigate blasts, sloping rather than orthogonal surfaces, and specially engineered seats that soften the impact of an explosion.
Engineers working on this project are collecting forensic data from soldiers and Marines killed by roadside bombs in Iraq. Cat scans provide valuable information about the impact of the explosions and could help vehicle designers figure out how to make vehicles safer, Solhan. “Iraq is a very rich laboratory for us … to capture the experience of our guys.”
The program office overseeing truck procurements received dozens of proposals from interested vendors. The Nevada Automotive Test Center was selected as a “trusted agent” to build a prototype truck featuring state-of-the-art technologies. A committee of Army and Marine officials will evaluate vendors’ proposals and select up to four contractors to build mockups.
A contentious issue in military truck programs today is the notion that adding armor, while it protects the crew from blasts, creates other potentially lethal hazards, such as unstable trucks that more easily roll over. Current steel armor adds thousands of pounds of weight to a Humvee. Lighter ceramic armor is available, but at prices the Army considers unaffordable. “My prediction is that we are going to be deploying advanced composite aluminum based armor,” Solhan says. “We haven’t made a decision yet.”
If the next generation of the Humvee is going to enter service as scheduled by 2011, the services are going to have to use lower tech armor, he says. Lighter, more advanced armor will come along later.
As a more immediate task, the Office of Naval Research is spending $5 million on new gear for the Navy’s new tactical units, which are part of the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command. The Navy plans to deploy these forces — which focus on antiterrorism, irregular warfare and riverine operations — sometime next year.
“They tend to ask for gizmos, but we are trying to get them to tell us what capability they want,” Solhan says. “They inherited Marine Corps boats. They are trying to define their riverine mission.”
Most of the money will be spent on unmanned vehicles, command-and-control devices and self-defense weapons, he says. “I’m going to stretch the $5 million as far as I can stretch it.”
The NECC troops, he says, “are going to be doing much of the same stuff the Marines are doing — carrying rifles, coming in direct contact with the enemy, which is different than the rest of the sailors.”