Infantry soldiers to become walking weapon systems

Jan. 1, 2002
U.S. Army moves up developmental timetable of the "Soldier of the Future" program in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in an effort to transform ordinary infantrymen into extremely lethal independent weapon systems in the nation's continuing global war on terrorism

U.S. Army moves up developmental timetable of the "Soldier of the Future" program in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in an effort to transform ordinary infantrymen into extremely lethal independent weapon systems in the nation's continuing global war on terrorism

By J.R. Wilson

U.S. Army leaders have established three programmatic stages for transforming the "common" foot soldier into a self-contained walking weapons system of the 21st Century. All three of these stages for developing the so-called "fully networked soldier of the future" may have their respective timetables advanced in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

U.S. Army officials envision a soldier of the future that looks nothing like today's warrior. The soldier of tomorrow will have electronics and data networks embedded in his clothing.
Click here to enlarge image

The first, to begin fielding under the current schedule in 2003-04, is Land Warrior (LW). The second, scheduled for initial duty around 2010-12, is the Objective Force Warrior (OFW). At the end of the cycle, circa 2025, is Future Warrior (FW).

Each is a dramatic departure from infantrymen of generations and centuries past. The objective of the 21st Century concept is to create a soldier whose combat uniform is as much a weapon as was the armor of medieval knights — and with some of the same goals, albeit considerably lighter and far more flexible from what foot soldiers wore centuries ago.

Chain mail and full-body steel suits of armor today give way to materials made from nanocomposites to provide soldiers with ballistic protection. But the new millennium's "suit of armor" also must protect against biological and chemical agents as well as radiation. And it must be lightweight, flexible, and provide heating and cooling to operate easily in all climates. And that is only the beginning.

Electronic marvelsThese new suits also will be electronic marvels — in rudimentary form for Land Warrior, to far more sophistication with Objective Force Warrior, to something akin to the Imperial Storm Troopers of Star Wars fame with Future Warrior.

Designers of these new soldier suites will weave the soldier's helmet, rifle, communications, and, eventually even his medical status into a seamless whole. These suits also are to be the foundations of a wireless communications network that links squads, platoons, and so on up the organizational chain with a near-constant exchange of bits and bytes of information. It would be possible for the lowest private in the most forward foxhole to have the same information — at the same time — as the highest command authority in the White House situation room.

Objective Force Warrior thus becomes a central pillar in the evolution of a warrior-centric Objective Force that integrates the individual soldier and small units with, and complements the capabilities of, the Future Combat System (FCS) — the Objective Force's family of combat vehicles — changing the way the U.S. military will fight in coming decades.

This plan confronts electronics designers with formidable challenges. All tasks of the futuristic soldier must be done within the limits of battery power, as well as with simplicity of operation under the most demanding conditions and weight. It has been said that the weight of a soldier's knapsack has changed little since the time of the Roman legions — only the content is different. Now both will depart forever from those ancient roots.

In addition to civilian contractors, the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) at Fort Monmouth, N.J.; Tank and Armament Command (TACOM) Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center in Warren, Mich.; and all directorates of the Army Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are among the agencies contributing to the effort.

"We want to bring new capabilities to the foot soldier, but at the same time there is a tremendous demand to drive the average weight of every soldier's equipment down from about 92 pounds to about 50 pounds," says John Munroe, team leader for warrior systems integration at the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command Natick Soldier Center in Natick, Mass.

Efficient electronics"We also have set the bar very high to drive the power requirements down, including a six-fold increase in duration of battery power [from 12 hours between changes on Land Warrior to 72 hours for Objective Force Warrior]. We're looking at fuel cells, for example. We're looking for a 2.5-time increase in power available. Hybrid fuel cells, for a 72-hour mission, are looking at a 200- to 500-percent increase in how long those will last compared to what we now have."
U.S. Army officials envision a soldier of the future that looks nothing like today's warrior. The soldier of tomorrow eill have electronics and data networks embedded in his clothing.
Click here to enlarge image

More power will mean more capability, Munroe says. "At the same time, we will have more electronics on the soldier, more high performance. So we need to cut in half — if not more — the power demand of each soldier. In LW, they want to drive the average power requirement down to 18 watts in order to make the batteries last 12 hours within a certain weight profile. We're asking if it is possible to bring all this revolutionary technology to the warfighter and distribute it among the soldiers and get it down to 10 watts or even less [for Objective Force Warrior]."

Recognizing that even the most advanced, reliable, and long-lasting power packs will encounter technological problems in combat, the program requirements also call for "graceful degradation" to enable the soldier to keep fighting even if his battery power wanes or his electronic systems fail or are destroyed.

The concept of distribution is nothing new, in itself. In World War II, the radioman, Browning Automatic Rifle man, and bazooka man provided the value of their special systems to their entire unit. In this future scenario, it may not be necessary for every soldier to have a GPS position locator, for example, because whatever information one has can be shared by all over a wireless network.

"By using man-packable UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] as scouts, we won't have to send one guy way out in front, so everyone will be fairly close together and thus everyone won't need his own GPS," Munroe says. "It may not work out that way, but we need to make that determination."

Some of the offloading may not be to another soldier but to the future battlefield's equivalent of the Army mule — a robot, which will be key to the Objective Force Warrior program, notes Andy Taylor, Objective Force Warrior senior systems engineer at Natick. The OFW program involves "not just what the soldier can carry, but also what his mule can carry," Taylor says. "That includes robotics. For example, if a soldier is responsible for a large-caliber weapon or water purification or power systems, those can be offloaded onto a miniature armored vehicle that is remotely controlled. The idea is to make those things organic to the main army, not just to the special operations forces, who have some of that now. That includes micro-UAVs. You also can use robotics to let soldiers carry a lightweight communications device and put the heavy stuff on the robot."

At every juncture, however, will be the twin considerations of weight and power.

Power requirements"Power is probably the number-one driver of the systems architecture we need to develop. Cost is also a driver — not just acquisition costs, but lifecycle costs. And, ultimately, performance. The tradeoffs of weight, power, and cost need to be made in a way to maximize performance. We need to determine what functionality is most important to the individual warrior and to the warrior groups to maximize performance within the lowest weight, cost, and power profile," Munroe says.

"Part of the program also involves developing new weapons, including very lightweight sensor packages. We want to take systems that now weigh 18 pounds and, using revolutionary materials technology and nanotechnology, drive the weight of those weapons and ammo to half that," he says.

Nanotechnology will play a major role in that evolution, with experts at the Natick Soldier Center (NSC) concentrating on such areas as hard particle/polymer nanocomposites, carbon nanotube nano-composites (polymer matrix, ceramic matrix), nanocomposite fibers, hierarchical materials, dispersion/stabilization technology, interphase design and control, ballistic testing, and modeling and simulation.

Material performance is a critical enabling technology with potential to influence all aspects of the Future Warrior System, says Michael Sennett of NSC's Materials Science Team, "Nanotechnology provides opportunities to think 'outside the box' when designing new systems and components. New materials development has the greatest potential of any single effort to achieve the goals of Future Warrior System planners."

Nanocomposites represent a new class of materials with unprecedented properties. Researchers at Japan's Osaka University have observed a 150-percent increase in interlaminar fracture toughness in carbon fiber-reinforced epoxy with the addition of 10 percent nanoscale alumina filler to epoxy resin. At Germany's Freiburg Material Research Center, nanocomposites have been found to boost material performance without the traditional tradeoffs between strength and toughness. Scientists there report tripled tensile strength and tripled elongation to break in polyurethane reinforced with 10 percent nanoscale fluoromica filler.

"Nanotechnology has the potential to produce leap-ahead gains in material performance," Sennett notes, pointing to University of Kentucky research showing a 90-percent increase in tensile strength, 150-percent increase in elastic modulus and 340-percent increase in conductivity in pitch-based carbon fiber reinforced with 5-percent carbon nanotubes.

Light and smartAll of that leads to increased protection with decreased weight. It also means that engineers can design combat suits to protect the soldier automatically, when needed, even to the extent of incorporating "smart" fabrics that would "heal" themselves if penetrated and automatic sensor-triggered seals against chemical and biological attack.

"In the past, especially with the chem/bio threat we have now, soldiers couldn't get ready to meet that threat in time once warned. It takes time to put on that whole suit and it's heavy. But we can have a selectively permeable membrane that is paper thin but does three times the job of the current suit in keeping chemicals out. So we'll just build that into the uniform," Munroe says. "Then there's the helmet. We won't have separate programs for laser eyes and communications and computer screens and so on. We'll just put it all into one smart helmet.

"Ultimately, if a warning goes out, the soldier can push a button and in three seconds his suit seals itself and he has his own self-contained environment, with heating and cooling, Munroe continues. "That speaks to a visor-type system that will provide that seal. But that visor also provides your display, night vision, thermal vision, laser eye protection, as well as protection from sun, wind, dust, and debris. It also has 3-D audio, the ability to let the soldier see and hear better. And it is an antenna, fully embedded into the textile, to give equal performance no matter what position you are in — standing, prone, whatever. We need assured communications in restrictive terrain. If we're in an urban canyon or a jungle, perhaps we could use those small UAVs as communications relays."

One element of this new communications linkage already being field-tested is the U.S. Navy's wide-area-relay network (WARnet), a wireless digital communications network using sea-, air- and land-based mobile nodes and radio relays to provide ship-to-shore and unit-to-unit connections across a theater of operations 200 miles deep.

No user needs to "log on" to WARnet, which can dynamically reconfigure itself as the elements that comprise it move about the battle theater.

Even as military leaders increasingly come to rely on technology, they also must make certain everyone in the chain of command can continue to operate effectively if the electronics fail, are jammed, or otherwise compromised, despite the best efforts of designers such as frequency hopping, anti-jamming, anti-spoofing, and the strongest possible encryption.

A filtration system will also be necessary to ensure that the best available information reaches the right level in a usable format as quickly as possible. Added to that, of course, is a not-inconsequential concern about what happens if the technology falls into enemy hands, as would certainly happen if these Objective Force Warriors are captured.

New command structureThese advances in communications and information dissemination also will mean a rethinking of command structure, not to mention who has a 'need to know'.

"Today, privates in the Army do not have the clearance to view the information that will go over the tactical intranet," Munroe says. "And it would be too expensive to do that kind of clearance on every soldier. So that's another problem we'll have to solve."

The battlefield that these future warriors will inhabit will be awash in data streams and electronic transmissions, from soldier-to-soldier communications to UAVs (scouts, communications relays, even weapons platforms) to GPS position to medical data and more. This in itself will cause problems for systems integrators.

"We need to reduce the amount of data going out," Taylor says. "The digital world is now taking over analog. One thing we need to look at is bistable displays, which only refresh those areas that are actually changing. That results in a 10-magnitude reduction in the amount of data you have to transmit because you don't have to keep sending a tree or a building that doesn't change. That also reduces the electronic signature of the soldier in the field. If we start putting a lot of data communications and Internet and so forth into the helmet, you have a lot of stuff radiating. So we need to eliminate extraneous data. That also saves energy."

Looking to the futureWhile Land Warrior is the first of these to be fielded (see the August 2001 issue of Military & Aerospace Electronics), the most dramatic advances are yet to come in Objective Force Warrior and Future Warrior. Some of the latter are now planned for early development as part of Objective Force Warrior — if the technologies necessary are ready. Basically, these will include built-in monitors for heartbeat, breathing, hydration, sleep, and combat stress. All that information will be available to the soldier involved, his nearest medic (designated Warrior Medic in the upgrade process), and his commanders on up the chain of command.
The soldier of the future is expecte to carry a wide variety of sensors embedded into his equipment, which will data link to his weapon and to displays on his helmet.
Click here to enlarge image

"Land Warrior, being the first soldier system, is invaluable. We will learn so much from that which we will apply to Objective Force Warrior," says Cheryl Stewardson, team leader for the Objective Force Warrior protective ensemble. "The [Army chief of staff's] vision is that the soldier is the centerpiece of the force. Vehicles and airplanes don't close the fight; soldiers close the fight."

Objective Force Warrior, in particular, will bring to fruition the Army's desire for "full-spectrum capabilities" — putting soldiers in combat suits applicable to any mission, from peacekeeping to high-intensity conflicts — and any weather or other environmental conditions.

This would eliminate field jackets, rain gear, and chem/bio protection such as masks from the soldier's knapsack. Instead, all this gear is to be integrated into the combat suit. Backpacks for food, water, and extra ammunition will be largely replaced by specially shaped and weighted packs designed to fit onto the suit in ways that create the least encumbrance.

Each soldier's weapon will integrate into a helmet-mounted heads-up display, beginning with a drop-down monocular screen with Land Warrior, and then moving to the faceplate of future enclosed helmets. That display also will include night-vision and thermal sights from an embedded sensor suite. Eventually, the helmet display will provide each soldier with 360-degree vision, with every other friendly — both human and mechanical — identified, along with real-time information on known enemy positions and weapons.

"This is the first time we've had a chance to include everything," Munroe says. "We have the challenge to look at every aspect of the soldier's warfighting capability, including the equipment and integration of all of it into a comprehensive package. We can make judgments on what goes in and what comes out — and that's exciting for us."

Integrated sensorsThis enhanced situational awareness, using integrated sensors and networking with manned and unmanned ground and aerial vehicles through a rugged squad communications system, is to increase each soldier's lethality and survivability. The unified combat suit is a force enhancer Army leaders say will enable fewer soldiers to do more with greater efficiency and less risk than fighting forces can do today. Toward that end, they also will be equipped with a new ultra-lightweight family of weapons, with advanced fire control distributed across the team and optimized for urban combat.

The Future Combat System, scheduled for deployment around 2012 along with Objective Force Warrior, will help synchronize direct and indirect fire. The Army describes FCS as a multi-functional, multi-mission, re-configurable system of systems to maximize joint interoperability, strategic transportability and commonality of mission roles, including direct and indirect fire, air defense, reconnaissance, troop transport, counter mobility, non-lethal, and command and control (C2) on the move.

"To make our ground force more effective in the new millennium, the FCS program is developing the capability to rapidly project a dominant ground force anywhere in the world within days," says Maj. Ken Strayer, the FCS assistant program manager. "We have this marvelous heavy Army with Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles — the Army that won Desert Storm. But we have a problem with some of our conflicts in that we can't get the equipment there fast enough; and once it's there, it's too heavy to be driven on the infrastructure. The bridges are too light and the roads are too muddy. And it takes an incredible amount of fuel and logistics to maintain that type of equipment."

The goal is to create a light, strategically deployable Army in the next three decades to replace nearly all current ground combat systems with equipment that transport aircraft can fly into any theater within four days; this would create a strategic force from scratch anywhere on the globe in a matter of days.

The integrated Objective Force Warrior and Future Combat System will make a deadly duo, says Paul Wilson, FCS deputy program manager.

"Up until now, a soldier would see the enemy and make the decision whether or not to shoot," he says. "If the enemy sees him, too, it almost always turns into a gunfight and whoever shoots first generally wins. With FCS, that soldier will be able to see 20 to 50 kilometers down range with an unmanned aerial or robotic crawling vehicle. He'll be able to understand the enemy's intent and determine if he wants to shoot with lethal or non-lethal munitions. This is a real leap forward for the Army and is something that has never been done before."

The Objective Force Warrior initiative was officially launched in October, with contract solicitations released in December for as many as four contractor teams to compete for the science and technology demonstration phase, which will run through September 2008, concluding with demonstrations of competing designs. The Army, Oak Ridge National Lab in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington are assembling the teams.

Objective Force WarriorObjective Force Warrior will carry the next generation beyond the Objective Individual Combat Weapon (OICW) being developed for Land Warrior. Both will be capable of firing 5.56 mm NATO-standard and programmable 20 mm airburst ammunition, but the Objective Force Warrior weapon is to deliver enhanced effects as required in open battlefield engagements and complex urban terrain. OICW and its Objective Force Warrior follow-on will feature an electronic fire control system integrated into the combat suit.

Some elements of Objective Force Warrior — and even more so with Future Warrior — seem to come directly from science fiction. For example, Army leaders are serious in pushing the development teams to create "active" camouflage systems, not unlike those worn by the alien hunters in the movie Predator. They also would like the helmet to go beyond night vision and provide the soldier with something akin to the multi-spectral electronic vision of Star Trek: Next Generation's chief engineer, Cmdr. Geordi La Forge. And they are looking to recent DARPA research into the practical application of some form of exoskeleton to assist with the workload.

"We want to dominate the enemy with this new system," Munroe says. "It's not just technology, it's human performance, so training is also paramount."

That training is likely to involve greater authority and tactics by the soldier in the field than do infantrymen today, with less reliance on mid-level command ranks and a more strategic view of the entire battlefield at the general-staff level. That, in turn, means a significant rethinking of command structure in the Objective Force, perhaps leading to a military force that is entrepreneurial and independent from strict lines of command — even though all levels of command will have the communications capability to intervene at any level at any time — a blueprint for chaos that would defeat the very purpose of an Objective Force.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, former Marine Corps Director of Intelligence, has called it "being in command but out of control", comparable to an ant colony where each member pursues a common goal with no apparent hierarchy of command. But for that to succeed will require a thorough restructuring of command — theory and practice — as well as long-term, experienced, well-educated professional soldiers.

It is not simply a matter of "if you see the battlefield, you win the war", Van Riper warns, but rather having a real understanding of — and ability to maintain and repair — all of the new technology of Land Warrior, Objective Force Warrior, and Future Warrior, as well as their limitations, combined with a greater understanding of the enemy — not only weapons and tactics, but culture and perspective. This is especially important, as seen in Somalia and Afghanistan, when future conflicts are less likely to involve combatants with common cultural histories — such as Europe — and more likely to involve cultures, religions, and even political concepts with which few Americans are familiar.

Tested in AfghanistanThe technology challenges facing the networked soldier of the future and his Future Combat System family of integrated weapons and platforms was graphically demonstrated during operations against terrorists and the Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force Gen. Richard Meyers, who chairs the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, took note of those problems at a mid-November Fletcher Conference, jointly sponsored by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis and the Army, in Washington.

For joint warfighting, into which U.S. military actions already have evolved, the coordination of interoperable weapon systems and interoperable command, control, communications, computers intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) is crucial, Meyers says.

"In some cases, we've been forced to cobble together 'work-arounds' because some of our existing systems do not 'plug and play' in this joint war fight," Myers told the conference, specifically citing B-2 bombers, which had to fly almost two days, round-trip, from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, to attack targets in Afghanistan.

"If it takes you that long to get to the target, you're going to have to have updates along the way. The threat can change, the targets can change — and they did. You would think that a modern aircraft that cost as much as the B-2 would have this interoperability built in, but it doesn't. They had a special antenna with a special communications set-up that came to a laptop, which one of the pilots would hold on his lap. That's how they did their communications and got their updates on the targets. Effective, but a lot cruder than we need."

Similar problems already can be seen with the yet-to-be deployed F-22 Raptor air-superiority fighter, whose superior sensor avionics cannot communicate with anything but another F-22.

"We hear this term 'born joint' — and that's certainly what we'd like to do," Myers says, which ranges from not fielding new systems without full interoperability to upgrading existing legacy systems to meet the need. "If a system does not contribute to the joint fight, then it is probably not right. What we're really trying to do here is dissipate, as much as possible, the fog of war to allow timely, decisive action on the part of our commanders."

The speed and extent of change technology is bringing to the individual soldier and the entire military structure in the first quarter of this century has been likened to Czech President Vaclav Havel's 1990 comment to a joint session of Congress: "The world is changing so rapidly, I have little time to be astonished."

"We're looking for a revolutionary change with the way soldiers fight at the small unit level," Munroe predicts.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!