After a disappointing evaluation by users of a new high-tech soldier ensemble, the Army is redesigning portions of the system to make it lighter and easier to use, officials said.
The ensemble is a computer-radio suite that connects members of a small infantry unit into a mobile local-area network—a miniaturized version of the networked technologies that today only are found on vehicles. It provides moving maps that track their location in real time, and lets them send and receive data.
The technology, known as the “distributed battle command system,” began as an attempt to assemble off-the-shelf components into a soldier-friendly electronics package similar to what the Army had been pursuing under the Land Warrior program.
Land Warrior has been in development for more than a decade, but only recently has the technology begun to earn favorable reviews and gain acceptance as a potentially useful combat capability for dismounted soldiers.
A platoon of soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division in Fort Drum, N.Y., tested the dismounted battle command system, or DBCS, last summer, and opted to not bring that technology to Afghanistan, where they were being deployed.
“This version of the DBCS did not demonstrate the capabilities necessary, and the unit will not take it to Afghanistan,” wrote David W. Duma, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, in his fiscal year 2005 annual report. According to soldier surveys, the report noted, the system was criticized for “excessive weight, poor communications and a number of human factors concerns.”
Army officials said that, despite the unfavorable reviews, the DBCS technology will continue to be improved, and parts of the system are being integrated into the Land Warrior.
The trials at Fort Drum should not be deemed a failure, said Col. Richard D. Hansen Jr., project manager for warrior systems. “Some things they liked, others they didn’t like or didn’t understand.”
If DBCS had been successful, the program office would have sought funding to equip 30 combat brigades with the new technology. But following the tests, the Army decided to fold the system into Land Warrior and continue to fine-tune the components in preparation for a battalion-size field test this summer, at Fort Lewis, Wash.
The goal now is to eventually equip three of the Army’s Stryker brigades with Land Warrior systems. The Stryker brigades are deemed ideal candidates for Land Warrior because they are trained to operate high-tech systems. The Land Warrior computer-radio suites are interoperable with the Stryker vehicles’ information systems. The ensemble also includes a helmet-mounted display and advanced weaponry and sensors that let soldiers shoot from covert positions, identify targets and call for air strikes.
The contractor, General Dynamics C4 Systems, will deliver 440 Land Warrior systems this spring to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Lewis, where soldiers will test the technology. Their feedback will determine the path forward for this project.
After years of testing and tweaking Land Warrior, officials have concluded that key to its success is the ability to mix-and-match components based on the unit’s size and mission.
“A rifleman doesn’t need to be carrying around a tablet computer,” said Hansen. “But the company commander is the right application for a tablet computer.”
The ensemble that will be tested at Fort Lewis is a “best of breed” that combines the useful pieces of DBCS and Land Warrior, explained Mark Showah, program director at General Dynamics C4 Systems. “If a soldier is equipped with the DBCS and the commander decides he needs the lethality pieces from Land Warrior, they can be added,” he said.
One of the desirable features of DBCS, for example, is a satellite receiver that connects the soldier to the Army’s blue-force tracking network. The drawback of this technology is that it requires a tablet-size PC to accommodate the satellite link and a large-enough display that a soldier can see clearly. That led the Army to conclude that the tablet-size PC, known as the “commander’s digital assistant,” only will be provided to company commanders, while lower-level leaders and soldiers will have either handheld PCs or helmet-mounted Land Warrior displays.
“At the company level, it’s the right solution,” Showah said.
The complaints about the system’s weight and ease-of-use are being addressed in the latest version of Land Warrior, said Lt. Col. Brian Cummings, the project manager. “The system that was tested at Fort Drum in August 2005 has been changed drastically,” he said.
The weight of Land Warrior is one of several sore issues that nearly led to the program’s cancellation several years ago. The notion that soldiers — who already are saddled with 100 pounds of gear — should be expected to lug 10 to 20 more pounds of stuff prompted criticism and questions about the utility of Land Warrior.
An earlier version of Land Warrior was slimmed down to 13 pounds, but failed to perform in field tests. By 2004, the Army reengineered the system and took it to Fort Benning, Ga., for more trials. Those tests proved far more successful, and the Army then decided that the Stryker brigades would become the users of Land Warrior.
Weight continues to be a stumbling block, even though the components have been lightened considerably, Cummings said. A full complement of DBCS and Land Warrior gear, including batteries for a 24-hour mission, weighs nearly 17 pounds.
But not every soldier will be carrying all 17 pounds worth of gear, cautioned Cummings. “There are different components for different soldiers, “ he said. “Every configuration is different. You don’t load every component on every soldier.”
Among the heavier items are the weapon sights — one for day and one for night operations. The batteries required for a 24-hour mission weigh 4 pounds.
Weight poses a number of dilemmas for Army planners, Hansen noted. “If you want added capability, it doesn’t come free in money, size or weight.”
The Land Warrior system, despite setbacks, is a remarkable achievement, said Hansen. “Over the past 12 years, the biggest thing that we have tackled is that we have a reliable system in an unforgiving environment—the soldier in the mud, in the rain, rolling around.”
Weight is a drawback that has to be measured against the return the technology provides to the soldier, Showah said. “As soldiers start employing new techniques for how to fight, they’ll really see the advantages.”
The Army’s plan is to field about 6,000 systems to equip three brigades by 2010. Each ensemble is expected to cost about $50,000. The most expensive items are the handheld computers, which average about $10,000 a piece. The Army estimates it costs between $20,000 and $25,000 to equip a soldier with everything from tee shirts to body armor.