Army Shifts Focus to Dismounted Soldiers

By Eric Beidel
The Army’s acquisition chief carries old battle scars.

During a mission in Vietnam, a young Malcolm O’Neill didn’t realize he had come so close to an enemy fighter who was waiting in the weeds.

“I hadn’t seen the guy and about 10 feet away he hit me through the side of my helmet out the top of my helmet,” said O’Neill, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology. “I’m still suffering the consequences of that. If I don’t take my medicine every day, it’s goodbye. That’s the kind of thing you have to learn to live with as a soldier, and it’s idahe kind of thing that I don’t want my soldiers to have to live with.”

But not much has changed for dismounted soldiers since Vietnam. They continue to sketch battle plans on paper maps the way they did in the 1960s and during World War II, and they are still are too vulnerable to enemy fire when they step out of their aircraft and tanks, officials said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual winter symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Army leaders say soldiers are the service’s greatest weapon, and they are asking industry to shift their focus from platform to person and consider the infantryman first as it plans investments in new technology. The Army wants to ensure every soldier is lethal in any kind of battle.

The Army has spent billions of dollars on the platforms used to deliver the soldier into battle. Leaders in the service’s science and technology community say it’s time to flip things around and start spending big on small units. They say they want to “reinvent” their science and technology research efforts around the foot soldier and to redirect investments that traditionally are made for big-ticket weapon systems.

No enemy wants to go up against the Air Force’s F-22, O’Neill said. “If you’re the pilot of an F-22, the U.S. government wraps about $200 million around you,” he said. “You can engage [the enemy] before he ever sees you. You can be an ace in the Air Force and never have seen an enemy fighter plane. All you see is the radar display that says there’s a bogey 60 miles out … and you shoot him down. That’s what we call a decisive advantage.”

While the Army has its own powerful arsenal of high-tech weapons, the individual soldier continues to be vulnerable in one-on-one fights.

“Unfortunately if you’re not fighting a buttoned-up war, you’re going to have to get out of that vehicle and get into intensive combat for about the last 100 yards to the objective,” O’Neill said. “That’s where I think we should focus.”

Today’s infantrymen have a clear advantage when fighting at night thanks to advanced sensors. “But if you’re fighting during the day — and the enemy can generally pick the time of the fight — and if the enemy is hiding behind a rock, you’re in deep, deep doo-doo,” O’Neill said. “We have the best combat attack helicopter in the world. We’ve got excellent rotary winged aircraft. We’ve got excellent armored vehicles. We’re [still] working on the soldier.”

In the near term, efforts have been slowed down by delays in approving a budget 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.

Even when the budget situation is back on track, hurdles will remain. It will take a lot of effort to refocus Army organizations on small units instead of big systems, said Marilyn Freeman, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology.

“We’re talking about turning things upside down here,” she said. “I challenge all of the S&T community to put themselves in the boots of those soldiers.”

After a decade of war, Army leaders have learned that individual soldiers may be the most complex systems they have, Freeman said. Establishing a new focus on them will require currently “stovepiped” organizations to work together, she said. The Army has about 3,000 scientists and engineers in its laboratories across the country. Freeman challenged agencies such as the Research, Development and Engineering Command, the Corps of Engineers and the Army Research Institute to align their goals.

“We have been loathe to make priorities,” she said. “We’re kind of all over the map.”

There is “nothing of substance” on the horizon to improve the lethality and survivability of troops, just new combat boots, said Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, the head of Program Executive Office Soldier, which provided 230,000 soldiers with 17.8 million pieces of gear in fiscal year 2010.

Army leaders have criticized themselves for treating soldiers like Christmas trees, hanging new gear on them instead of stepping back to look at a whole system and the integration of its parts. The additional widgets weigh soldiers down.

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. But protecting soldiers has become paramount, and they can end up wearing 40 pounds of body armor before adding any other equipment to the equation.

Americans have been led to believe that superior U.S. technology means fewer casualties. “The taxpayers, the stakeholders on the Hill and a lot of other locations are not expecting kids to come back in body bags,” Fuller said. But no matter what technology troops carry into battle, casualties are an unavoidable reality of war. Citizens and politicians need to “understand when you put [troops] in harm’s way, the key word there is ‘harm,’” he said.

Though there is no comprehensive program that covers all aspects of soldier protection, Fuller’s agency is working with industry on a variety of efforts to make body armor lighter and as effective as possible. PEO Soldier also has contractors developing a new system that will provide situational awareness to front-line leaders through a wearable computer, navigation device and communication system.

The ensemble, named Nett Warrior after a World War II Medal of Honor recipient, is one of several efforts intended to enhance soldier gear. The Army 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 in Afghanistan now have a weapon they 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 wants to have a self-sustaining set of vehicles within a brigade that would generate their own fuel, water and munitions for about a month, he 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. Land Warrior weighs about 18 pounds. A final version of Nett Warrior will weight about 12 pounds, Fuller said.

The conflict in Iraq was described as a “commuter war” in which vehicles could take soldiers right up to the fight, but “Afghanistan is about weight,” Fuller said. “You’re carrying your kit three days. Doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 52, you’re going to wear out carrying 130 pounds on a regular basis.”

Smartphones could help reduce that load, he added.

“Where are we getting that lighter body armor? Where are we getting the capability that gives you where you are, where are your friends and where’s the enemy at half a pound, and it lasts a long time, and it’s secure, and I got rid of all of the wires?”

Fuller used the example of Sgt. Matthew Kinney, who carries about 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 the requests of soldiers, who have expressed frustration that it takes so long to field new systems. Often times, the operating environment has changed by the time it reaches them. 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.

The Army is hoping to receive money in the 2012 budget that would allow labs to oversee some competitive prototyping, perhaps speeding up the innovation process. Freeman admitted that Army S&T efforts are considered irrelevant because it takes too long to field new technology. “If we don’t do timely transition of technologies, we ought to be out of business,” she said.

O’Neill agreed. The Army needs an alternative acquisition system “to get the things needed today out in the field tomorrow,” he said. The retired lieutenant general became emotional at a recent industry conference when speaking on the subject. Future systems must be built around the individual soldier and fielded faster, he 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.’”                              

Topics: Land Forces

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