FORT LAUDERDALE - In the chain of U.S. military strength, the dismounted soldier may be the weakest link. Army leaders are asking industry to consider the infantryman as it plans investments in new technology.
The individual soldier needs to become a "decisive fighter," Malcolm O’Neill, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition. logistics and technology, told attendees Feb. 23 at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual winter convention in Fort Lauderdale.
The Army has a powerful arsenal of high-tech weapons, but the enemy still has an edge against soldiers once they are out of their tanks and aircraft, he said. “What makes us different from the guy on the other side hiding behind a rock?”
The enemy doesn’t want to go up against the Air Force or Navy, so they “take it to the one-on-one,” O‘Neill said. U.S. soldiers' main technological advantage are advanced sensors to fight at night, he added. “If you’re fighting during the day … and if the enemy’s behind a rock, you’re in deep, deep doo-doo.”
The Army has spent billions of dollars on the platforms used to deliver the soldier into battle. It’s time to flip things around and start spending big on the small units and infantrymen who must fight one-on-one with the enemy, he said.
“We have the best combat attack helicopter in the world. We’ve got excellent rotary winged aircraft. We’ve got excellent armored vehicles,” O’Neill said. “We’re [still] working on the soldier.”
Army leaders said they want to “reinvent” their science and technology research efforts around the foot soldier. In the near term, however, efforts are being slowed down by the absence of a budget for the current fiscal year. Operating under a continuing resolution prevents the Army from increasing funding for any program or starting new ones. “Every day we’re losing ground,” O’Neill said.
But even when the budget situation is back on track, technological hurdles remain. Equipping a soldier with better weapons and protection generally means adding weight to the load he must carry. An infantryman already carries about 130 pounds of gear. The Army would like to reduce that to no more than 48 pounds, said Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center.
Work on body armor and weight reduction is under way at the Program Executive Office Soldier, which provided 230,000 soldiers with 17.8 million pieces of gear in fiscal year 2010. It’s also the agency working with contractors to develop a new soldier system that will provide situational awareness to front-line leaders through a wearable computer, navigation device and communications system.
The ensemble, named Nett Warrior after a World War II Medal of Honor recipient, is one of several efforts intended to make the individual soldier more effective. The Army also is fielding a new 7.62mm caliber rifle that adds 400 meters to a sniper’s operating range and has begun buying a lightweight titanium machine gun. Soldiers also now have a weapon they like to call “the punisher.” The XM25 is a high-tech rifle whose ammunition can detonate at the right moment to kill an enemy fighter hiding behind a wall.
But weight, and especially power, remain “Achilles heels” for the Army, which would like to make each soldier a “net zero” entity generating power himself on the battlefield, Vane explained. The service eventually would like to have a self-sustaining set of vehicles within a brigade that would generate their own fuel, water and munitions for about a month, Vane said.
The current Land Warrior ensemble that was developed a decade ago and is now being replaced by Nett Warrior requires 13.7 watts per hour, or three 2.2-pound batteries per day. Nett Warrior seeks to reduce that to two batteries a day, shaving some weight from the total load.
The head of PEO Soldier, Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, used the example of Sgt. Matthew Kinney, who carries more than 100 pounds of gear in the field as a member of an aviation regiment. Kinney is also a medic, so he must haul another 26 pounds of medical equipment. The sergeant told superiors that his biggest challenge was keeping gear from hanging down into wounds while he was performing triage on injured service members.
Fuller and other Army leaders said that they have to listen more closely to soldiers' requests. Fuller recently spoke to service members who said that they didn’t know if their gear was easy to use, but they described it as “easy to inventory.” They put it into shipping containers at the beginning of their assignments and took it out at the end. They never used it. “That’s a sad story,” Fuller said.
Soldiers are also frustrated that new systems take about seven years to reach the field, he said, Future systems must be built around the individual soldier and fielded faster, O’Neill said. “I want every soldier in every army across the world to say, ‘Hell no. I don’t want to fight the Americans. It’s a losing proposition,’” he said.