Soldier systems at the technological crossroads

Technologies for the warfighter must run a cruel gauntlet of size, weight, and power consumption, as well as enhanced capability and affordability, before they can take their places alongside the most promising network-centric systems on the digital battlefield.


For the boots-on-the-ground combat soldier, size and weight is everything. Each combat soldier can carry only a finite amount of gear into battle–loads that often approach 100 pounds per warfighter. This means he and his commanders need to strike the right balance of weapons, sensors, communications, food, water, and survival equipment to give him the best chance of achieving the mission and getting back alive.

Weapons and ammunition are not getting noticeably smaller or more lightweight. Neither is food, water, or survival equipment. For the infantry soldier, about the only way he can enhance his fighting capability is to reduce the size of sensors, communications, and other soldier systems that involve electronics and electro-optics. Reducing the size and weight of electronic devices, while maintaining or improving capability, are among the chief concerns of today's soldier systems designer.

Advanced technologies compete with necessities like ammunition, water, and food to be part of the load carried by today's infantry soldier.

Although today's soldier systems technology chiefly concerns reducing size, weight, and power, at the same time soldiers in the field are demanding ever-increasing capability in computing, communications, navigation and guidance, wireless networking, and–perhaps above all–sensors to help infantry soldiers see at night and in bad weather, as well as to measure distances and designate targets.

As U.S. military operations continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military forces have put a premium on developing capable, lightweight soldier systems for the past several years– often as a higher priority than traditional big-ticket military platforms, such as jet fighters, main battle tanks, and surface warships.

"Look at the budget," says David Strong, vice president of marketing for the FLIR Systems Inc. government systems division in Wilsonville, Ore. "A very large share of the overall DOD budget is for supporting and equipping the soldiers. Putting a priority on soldier systems has to be part of the thought process. Most of the Future Combat Systems program was cancelled, and yet we need to get capability into the hands of soldiers."

Panasonic is using circular polarization technology on the screens of its Toughbook handheld computers to cut glare and make the devices readable in bright sunlight.

Size, weight, and power

The typical combat soldier, even though he has superior training and technology, is still human, so his or her ability to carry heavy loads is limited. "Lightweight body armor is over 30 pounds, and the soldier has to carry water and ammunition for three days. The backdrop for everything is the need to unburden the soldier, which is getting the weight out of the systems," says Michael Lewis, vice president and general manager of soldier and vehicle solutions at the BAE Systems Electronics Solutions Sector in Nashua, N.H. "There is a big premium on lightweight systems."

These technologies and systems also must be rugged enough to operate in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of the globe where the U.S. and its allies are involved in military operations.

These areas of South Asia offer extremes in weather and temperatures, which places a premium on equipping soldiers to avoid fatigue during long, dangerous missions. "The soldier by his nature has a fixed load he can carry," points out Kurt Grigg, director of marketing for surface solutions at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "He has demand for power as he gets more electronics, and he has to make some tough tradeoffs, such as, do I carry more batteries or more water?"

Recent developments in soldier systems technology may have reached a tipping point, in which existing technologies are sufficiently small and lightweight to meet the latest Army requirements for infantry warfighters. "The current generation of technologies is meeting the requirements, as written," says Grigg.


Improvements in uncooled infrared sensor technology is yielding lightweight thermal weapon sights, like the one shown at left, which ultimately may be data linked to other soldiers and to upper-echelon commanders.

"Prior generations of deliverables did not meet what the Army and other forces specified, yet lately we have made great strides in advancing the technologies to meet the objectives," Grigg says. FLIR's Strong says he agrees. "We are at that stage now where we have introduced over the last year a complete line of sensors that span the range of soldier solutions, vehicle vision solutions, and vehicle RSTA [reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition] that meet the soldier's requirements."

Despite broad improvements in the size, weight, and power consumption of the latest soldier systems, "you are never done," Grigg points out. "As we continue to advance electronics, we have enhanced demands for more; the mindset drives the expectation for more processing horsepower to run the more complex applications." Echoes Strong, "Size, weight, and power consumption will continue to decrease; that's a steady trend as the technology develops."

Enhanced capability

One of the primary areas for soldier systems involves uncooled infrared sensors for night vision and situational awareness in fog, dust, and smoke. These sensors have become extremely small, lightweight, and rugged. "Night vision in all its forms is no longer a tool; it's a necessity," says FLIR's Strong. "Every little outpost needs infrared nightvision capability."

Uncooled infrared sensors by design are substantially smaller and more lightweight than their cooled counterparts because these devices operate at ambient temperatures while retaining their sensitivity to infrared light.

"ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] is a huge topic in soldier systems," says FLIR's Strong. "We are seeing activity in putting our sensors into multispectral and multisensor systems to blend IR and TV cameras, and basing them on vehicles. We have a bunch of sensors going onto MRAPs [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles]. Vehicles need it so [soldiers] can operate at night and see down the road in the daytime in smoke, dust, and fog."

The Micro DAGR global positioning system receiver, shown above, is among the tiny, lightweight systems today's soldier carries into the field to increase his effectiveness and lethality.

Designers of soldier-carried sensor systems still have a ways to go, however, not only to package their technologies for the battlefield, but also to keep the technology ahead of U.S. and allied adversaries. "We have our lead in night vision, but we are not as far ahead as we used to be," says BAE Systems' Lewis. "There is strong interest in shortwave IR and other capabilities to see multiple bands at once, or see in other bands. Our customers always put a premium on great performance, but at a practical size, weight, power, and cost."

The ability to shrink uncooled sensor technology also makes it easier to create multispectral sensor systems that blend the best of infrared, visible light, and amplified light. "Right now, we are blending uncooled longwave infrared and image-intensified night vision," says FLIR's Strong. "We are going to start seeing multi-band or dual-band infrared also coming into play."

Dual-band infrared blends longwave and midwave infrared sensors–each of which have specific strengths and weaknesses that when combined can be greater than the sum of their parts. Midwave IR, for example, might see better through windows than longwave IR. One kind of sensor also sees better through foliage, and better through smoke and fog. Blend outputs from the two sensors and users will have the best of both worlds. Small, lightweight designs can enable those kinds of developments for soldiers to take comfortably into battle.

Blending outputs from two or more infrared sensors "is almost like going from black-and-white to color vision," Strong says. "We will be ready to deploy that technology in a year or two, and in five-plus years we will see more multispectral infrared. The key is to make it more affordable."

Once optical sensors gather imagery from the battlefield, potential users of this information need a way to display it easily on small, lightweight displays rugged enough for military operations, and that is where developments in handheld computers and digital displays come in. Soldiers today "want products that are readable in the bright sunshine," says Fed De Gastye, business development manager of federal business at Panasonic Solutions Co. in Secaucus, N.J.

Panasonic is using what the company calls circular polarization on the Toughbook 10 and H-1 Field portable and handheld computers that are designed for military and law-enforcement applications. Circular polarization uses a special film on computer screens that make them more viewable in bright sunshine by dulling screen glare.

When it comes to lightweight computers for the battlefield, Panasonic designers are considering improvements to systems to include voice activation, as well as improved security for wireless data networking to enable military computer users to operate their machines on the move without risk of interference or interception by the enemy.

"The digital battlefield is here today," says BAE Systems' Lewis. "It is a question of how fast we will progress. Already we can export imagery to handheld PDAs and COTS telephones, which are frequently taken into the field, to share this information. Devices are [required] to export video and to interface with things like the Land Warrior system."

When it comes to tactical networking on the battlefield, Rockwell Collins is one of the experts. Rockwell Collins, along with Raytheon and General Dynamics, is competing for a U.S. Army program called Nett Warrior–named in June for World War II Medal of Honor recipient Col. Robert B. Nett.

Nett Warrior, which concentrates on establishing digital data links among soldiers fighting together, essentially picks up where Land Warrior leaves off. Nett Warrior technology is worn on a soldier's body to provide networked situational awareness by blending radio, global positioning system, helmet-mounted display, and a handheld data input device. Wiring is integrated into a protective vest.

"Nett Warrior consists of a body-worn computer system– something that lets you run software–a means of displaying that data to the soldier, and a means of sharing that information among those in the battle space," Grigg says.

This system, which should be fielded around 2013, will enable soldiers to see their locations, the locations of their buddies, and the locations of known enemies on a moving map. "The intent is to provide situational awareness," Grigg explains. Although the enabling technologies for Nett Warrior exist today, "the drive is to get to more power-efficient, smaller, lighter-weight radios, computers, and display technologies," he says.

Small electro-optical sensor technology is enabling new applications that blend several kinds of infrared sensors, as well as laser measurement units and laser target designators.

Affordable technology

Soldier systems technology constantly faces a stringent set of requirements. If these systems are to be developed and fielded, however, no requirement is as immediate and crucial as affordability. "[U.S. Defense Secretary Robert] Gates has said it, there is a crunch coming in the U.S. defense budget," points out FLIR's Strong. "The DOD budgets are going to shrink, there will not be as much money as there has been, and it is already starting. In the next fiscal years–2011 and 2012–we will see a real crunch on the acquisition side."

What that means is nothing can be even remotely considered to be too expensive if the technology will ever make it to the field. Systems developers perhaps learned that lesson with the cancellation of the Army's Future Combat Systems (FCS) program.

"The DOD is going to have to start looking very hard at affordability," Strong says. "If systems are not affordable, their developers need to make a change. Our strategy is taking uncooled infrared technology, with battery power, instant-on capability, lightweight, small, and affordable relative to other technologies."

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August 2015
Volume 26, Issue 8

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