Where is Land Warrior? Not in Iraq

The throngs that converged at this year's Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) annual meeting last month at the new Washington Convention Center saw more advanced military technology than the U.S. forces currently deployed to Iraq are seeing.

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WASHINGTON — The throngs that converged at this year's Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) annual meeting last month at the new Washington Convention Center saw more advanced military technology than the U.S. forces currently deployed to Iraq are seeing.

In a way, that's not remarkable. Conferences like this are always about the future. The exhibit areas are perfect venues for defense contractors to promote their latest wares, chat up the military program managers, and try to book some business.

Nonetheless, the contrast is disturbing. It has long been a standing cliché of military leaders that the troops in the field are entitled to the best weapons that we, the taxpayers, can provide. We may grumble about the costs, but I don't think we can challenge the need.

Where, for example, is the U.S. Army's Land Warrior backpack computer for real-time battlefield visualization? It was in the Washington Convention Center at the booth of Quantum3D Inc. of San Jose, Calif. — but not in Iraq.

I remember attending a Pentagon news briefing in 1995 at which the Army unveiled Land Warrior with all the appropriate fanfare and made a compelling case that it would be the perfect ingredient in the military establishment's ongoing evolution to command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance — commonly referred to as C4ISR.

That was eight years ago. The need for enhanced C4ISR has, if anything, surely increased in the intervening period and could be crucial today, when American soldiers are being killed almost daily in Iraq. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon — again — I'd much rather see my tax dollars going into essential hardware like this that could save American lives than spending $87 billion on some pie-in-the-sky scheme to bring democracy to Iraq.

A demonstration at the Quantum3D booth at AUSA made me even more of a believer. The heart of Land Warrior is the computer, which provides the essential real-time 2-D and 3-D graphics — in effect fulfilling the C4ISR mission by giving the troops in the field critical situational awareness and then sharing that awareness with commanders back at headquarters.

The original Land Warrior was only a Pentium-based 200-MHz computer that lacked these 2-D and 3-D graphics, explains Thomas McAfee, Quantum's director of embedded programs. His company had built more-advanced tactical computers for such aircraft programs as the F-22 jet fighter, Apache Longbow attack helicopter; and F/A-18E/F fighter-bomber, and then transferred that technology to the Land Warrior application.

The program, which company officials call Thermite, is only beginning to pick up momentum. Quantum3D signed a development contract in April with the Orlando, Fla.-based Simulation & Training Technology Center of the Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command, and is currently in the second phase of the program.

In a way, Thermite strikes me as the missing piece in the puzzle. For openers, it's a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) product in which a 1-GHz central processor is packaged in an aluminum alloy enclosure with a 512-megabyte memory and a 20-gigabyte shock-mounted disk drive. Both hard-wired and wireless modes are available.

"In effect, we shrank the technology," McAfee says. "The whole computer weighs just 27 ounces," which does not include the PCMCIA cards or the standard-issue BA5590 battery. Weight was a critical consideration in the original Land Warrior concept. The troops — understandably — grumbled about putting one more piece of hardware on their backs.

The batteries are another problem. They have long been the Achilles' heel of portable equipment. That situation hasn't changed. "Battery life is the killer," McAfee notes. "Anybody can build a refrigerator. The trick is to make one work."

That situation isn't likely to change anytime soon, either, without some major attention at the highest levels of the military and aerospace hierarchy. Twenty years ago NASA, which obviously has an even bigger problem with battery life, launched a program to advance this technology. The project was assigned to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., as the lead NASA center. Nothing came of it. Maybe it's time to rethink that problem and put some serious muscle into it.

The alternative — or at least a partial remedy — is to continue to reduce power consumption of advanced electronic devices. That's almost a standard operating procedure in the COTS world. It should be for the military, too. Another approach, and one employed in Thermite and other such systems, is to power-down idle portions of the system.

Also of concern in any deployed tactical system is its ability to support a broad range of operating systems due to their open architectures. This points to Windows and Linux at a minimum, but it also involves the specialized battlefield and embedded training operating systems of the various platform prime contractors.

What I found particularly refreshing about the Quantum3D presentation is the company's pricing for the Thermite line, which will be available in industrial and full-military versions. The units cost $9,999 each, and will start shipping later this year.

I think that most taxpayers would agree that's money well spent. I have never — to use the Civil War term for going into battle — "seen the elephant." If I were to encounter one, however, I would want something like Land Warrior on my side.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his team at the U.S. Department of Defense talk a lot about transformation. Let's hear a little more about implementation.

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