After nearly 20 years of development and some $500 million spent on a now-defunct program, the Army is making another attempt to connect infantrymen to the battlefield network with a wearable system of hands-free computers and radios.
The Nett Warrior program has taken bits and pieces from the Land Warrior ensemble cancelled in 2007 and is currently testing three prototypes that officials say will provide soldiers and commanders with better navigation, friendly force tracking and communication devices.
“It tells you where you are, where your buddies are and what your mission is,” said Jason Regnier, the Army’s deputy product manager for Nett Warrior.(Above: Nett Warrior seeks to improve upon the embattled Land Warrior system worn by soldiers here.)
The Land Warrior program began nearly 20 years ago when the idea for a high-tech, omniscient system that would be worn by soldiers sounded more like science fiction than military fact. The Army cancelled the program after complaints from soldiers and politicians about its functionality and cost. The initiative did much to point the way forward for soldier technology, but it failed to reach the battlefield in great numbers. After the program’s termination, an infantry brigade took rehashed versions of the system to Iraq. Parts of Land Warrior also made it to Afghanistan, but the system as a whole ultimately missed the high mark set by the program.
The Army’s vision of connecting every soldier to a network did not die with Land Warrior, though. It almost immediately began planning a follow-up system to give ground soldiers tools generally reserved for those in planes, tanks and command centers.
Prototypes of Nett Warrior currently are being tested at Fort Riley, Kan. There, soldiers are wearing the systems during scenarios that include a “cordon and search” of hilly terrain and a “movement to contact” with an enemy in an urban environment. The prototypes come from three competing contractors — General Dynamics C4 Systems, Raytheon and Rockwell Collins. Each received contracts between $5 million and $5.5 million for their work thus far.
All three competitors have a history with soldier systems. General Dynamics was the prime contractor on Land Warrior, but Rockwell Collins built a lot of the hardware and Raytheon provided the radio for the system. Using three competing companies during the development phase of the program likely will mean that the Army will get more bang for its buck come production time, said Lt. Col. Roland Gaddy, the program’s product manager. “It drives down price and drives up innovation,” he said.
As stated in the Army’s promotional materials for Nett Warrior, the program’s mission is to “provide unparalleled situational awareness and understanding to the dismounted leader allowing for faster, more accurate decisions in the tactical fight and connecting the dismounted soldier to the network.”
The system takes its name from World War II Medal of Honor recipient Col. Robert B. Nett, who died in 2008. He led an attack in 1944 against Japanese soldiers in the Philippines, killing seven of them with his rifle and bayonet despite having been wounded multiple times. A Connecticut native, Nett enlisted in the Army in 1940 at the age of 17 and served until 1978.
Nett Warrior features many of the same components as its predecessor. The centerpiece of the system is a full-color, hands-free viewing monitor attached to an eyepiece that gives the soldier the illusion of looking at a 17-inch screen. Consisting of a computer, navigation system, control unit, radio, microphone and headphones, the ensemble allows dismounted leaders to track themselves, other soldiers and the enemy on the hands-free device. A protective vest hides the wiring for the system.
It’s a command-and-control center for the body and “a revolutionary change to the way we fight,” Gaddy said. “Finally, commanders have that situational awareness when they get out of the back of the vehicle, out of that helicopter, out of that airplane.”
One of the issues the Army struggled with in Land Warrior is who would wear the system. Nett Warrior has been designed for team leaders and above to connect them with infantrymen out of the line of sight. The ensemble will be compatible with coming devices like the “rifleman’s radio,” which aims to bring each individual soldier into the network. Recalling his own experiences, Gaddy said it was easy to lose track of a team of soldiers almost as soon as they jumped out of a vehicle.
“That’s a scary thought when you’re driving around with Bradleys and tanks,” he said, adding that deaths from friendly fire should drop because of Nett Warrior. “Not only do I want to kill the bad guy, I want to prevent my guys from getting killed. I’m really worried about where I’m at and where my buddies are at.” Nett Warrior will keep everyone on the same page, Gaddy said.
The contractors are determined to improve upon Land Warrior by focusing on what the Army calls “SWAP” — the size, weight and power of the system. Gaddy called it the top priority at this point. Much of the criticism aimed at Land Warrior concerned its overall heft. Early on, the gear weighed a cumbersome 40 pounds, though it had been trimmed to a little more than 14 pounds when the brigade took it to Iraq. The three Nett Warrior prototypes average about 11.8 pounds.(Above: Like its predecessor, Nett Warrior will include a monitor for ground leaders to track themselves, their soldiers and the enemy.)
“Our focus is to continue driving the size and weight to the lowest levels possible,” said Dave Treichler, manager of Raytheon’s effort. Nett Warrior seeks to do away with the question, “Do I carry bullets or water, or my Land Warrior system?” he added.
But before it reaches the battlefield, the Army wants to ensure that everything on it works. A foot soldier puts technology through the ringer, and industry is at a crossroads trying to develop devices rugged enough to take a beating, said Rockwell Collins’ Preston Johnson, who likens it to the critical juncture with unmanned aerial systems a decade ago.
“Everybody was worried about getting the thing to fly somewhere and being able to recover it without crashing the darn thing,” said Johnson, the company’s business development lead for soldier systems. “It was all about the hardware functioning.”
There isn’t a worse environment for electronics than the body of a ground soldier who trudges in extreme temperatures through water, dust and dirt, Johnson said. He throws himself on the ground, bangs into doors and crawls in the mud. “It’s almost impossible to make things for the soldier environment too rugged,” Johnson added.
The new system also will consume less power while providing more memory and a graphical user interface inspired by soldiers with battlefield experience, Gaddy noted.
The Army took a new approach to the design of its latest soldier system. It provided each contractor with a liaison team consisting of combat veterans. These “embedded users” worked side by side with the contractors as they developed their versions of Nett Warrior.
“They provided instant answers to questions we had,” Treichler said. The Army has put Nett Warrior on the fast track and meeting the deadlines would have been impossible without the liaison teams, he added. The approach brought engineers in contact with the end user before having to deliver a final product. This eliminated guessing games and repeated attempts to build something just to watch it fail, contractors said.
“Soldier acceptance is critical,” said Mark Showah, integrated systems director at General Dynamics. “You can field systems on vehicle platforms and they won’t complain about the size.” Hanging heavy equipment on a human body comes at a price. Knowing how a soldier feels about the gear while still in the lab saves time, money and frustration, Showah explained. Many user suggestions are included in Nett Warrior.
For example, it’s common practice for soldiers who have just cleared a building to break a chemical light and hang it on the structure. This lets other troops know the building has been investigated, but it also imparts information to the enemy. Soldiers indicated that they wanted a way to record and view such actions secretly, Showah said. Nett Warrior’s software allows them to mark cleared buildings on a map that can be shared through the network with other units.
“Consumer needs are driven by consumers,” Gaddy said. “Who better to give feedback than the guys who have to use it in the field?”
Wars have changed since Nett’s service, and the system that bears his name brings together two Army slogans — the “soldier as a system” and “every soldier is a sensor.” The 2010 Army modernization strategy refers to the individual soldier as the “center of gravity” and says the service’s primary goal is to integrate these men and women into the network. The Army wants “integrated networked” soldiers in all brigade combat teams by 2025, according to the strategy.
“Bringing battle command and networked connectivity down to dismounted leaders is a breakthrough,” Showah said, adding that the technology can’t afford to advance at the expense of reliability. “These systems need to work every time a soldier turns it on, every time they look at it.”
The prototypes already have been through a series of environmental and electrical tests. The operational exercises at Fort Riley will run through November. The Army plans to decide in March or April of 2011 which contractor or combination of contractors will be called on to produce the definitive version of Nett Warrior. The ultimate goal is to provide 20,000 systems to 30 infantry brigade combat teams by fiscal year 2016. The Army plans to begin fielding the gear within two years.
The Marine Corps also has asked to see the prototypes strictly for analysis purposes, Gaddy said.
Systems like Nett Warrior will play a big role in the Army’s vision of connecting the Pentagon to the front lines in real time. And it won’t stop there, Regnier said.
The future of the program could include cell phones, voice translation, sensors and the ability to control unmanned systems. “The user defines the next requirement,” Regnier said.
And soldiers are having their say this time around, all the way from the lab to the battlefield.