Pivotal Land Warrior project expands its reliance on COTS

Aug. 1, 2001
As top U.S. military commanders move forward with plans to restructure and reorganize their weapons, strategies, and operations for the digital battlespace, leaders are giving more attention to Land Warrior — one of the first attempts at dramatically changing the look of the infantry soldier since knights of olde donned suits of armor.

By J.R. Wilson

WASHINGTON — As top U.S. military commanders move forward with plans to restructure and reorganize their weapons, strategies, and operations for the digital battlespace, leaders are giving more attention to Land Warrior — one of the first attempts at dramatically changing the look of the infantry soldier since knights of olde donned suits of armor.

The Land Warrior integrated fighting system comprises five modular subsystems. Its designers intend it to enhance the lethality, command and control, survivability, mobility and sustainment of individual soldiers and infantry units as a major contribution to the Joint Vision 2020 operational concept of dominant maneuver by dismounted forces.

The U.S. soldier of the future is expected to rely heavily on commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software.
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The major elements are:

  1. computer/radio subsystem, including a wearable computer, squad radio, soldier radio, and global positioning system (GPS);
  2. software;
  3. integrated helmet assembly subsystem, including a helmet-mounted display (HMD) and a day/night image intensifier;
  4. weapon subsystem with currently fielded M16A2 or M4 rifles (a variant of the standard-issue M-16A2, modified for U.S. special forces), light-weight thermal weapons sight, close combat optic, infrared aiming light, laser range finder, and digital compass assembly; and
  5. protective clothing and individual equipment subsystem, including body armor, nuclear/biological/chemical (NBC) protective clothing and load-bearing equipment.

The development — and technology components — of those subsystems has changed markedly since the program's start in 1994, with an increasing emphasis on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and software to reduce costs, improve prospects for future technology insertion, and speed delivery to the field.

That re-alignment strategy leaped forward yet again two years ago after the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report saying Land Warrior was "over budget, behind schedule, and needed more oversight." The GAO is the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress.

In October 1999, Col. Bruce Jette, Project Manager-Soldier Systems, responded with an announcement that Land Warrior would in the future be treated as a "fast-track Silicon Valley project", with an even heavier emphasis on COTS in the development of a wearable computer, voice-over Internet Protocol (IP) radio and the software package necessary to control the entire integrated system. Even then, it was a radical departure from standard military procurement and program development methods.

Reliance on COTS"Our mantra here is COTS," says U.S. Army Lt. Col. Scott Crizer, project manager for soldier electronics at Army Soldier Systems Command at Fort Belvoir, Va. "You can't do everything COTS, but as much as is available to meet the mission requirements. And Windows 2000 has been very solid for us."

Land Warrior's main computer system is a box strapped to the soldier's lower back, which uses the Microsoft Windows 2000 operating system on PC/104 printed circuit board hardware. If the owner loses that computer, the soldier can continue using the system's video and thermal weapon sights through a separate communications-navigation (CommNav) unit that runs WindowsCE on an Intel Strongarm processor. Version 1.0 is to begin field-testing in the summer of 2002.

The computer and other electronics are encased against wear and tear as well as thermal and EMP hazards, but do not have ballistic protection. The casing and rugged material used to stabilize the electronics within it may, however, offer some additional ballistic protection to the soldier.

The Soldier Biological and Chemical Command (SBCCOM) PM-Soldier in Natick, Mass., is the system integration manager for Land Warrior, with the subsystems developed through the collaborative efforts of PM-Soldier Electronics, PM-Soldier Equipment and the Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

Contractors involved in a Land Warrior consortium are Computer Science Corp. in El Segundo, Calif.; Exponent in Menlo Park, Calif.; Pacific Consultants of Mountain View, Calif.; Omega Training Group in Columbus, Ga.; and The Wexford Group International in Vienna, Va.

Reduced costsThe move to a heavy emphasis on COTS already has had a dramatic influence on per-unit costs. The original program estimate was $102,600 per unit. That dropped to $39,000 as COTS began to come into play. Meanwhile, Crizer says they now have it down to $20,000 and hope to cut it in half again by 2005 — shortly after the first full units have been equipped. The biggest cost driver at the moment, he adds, is the GPS element.

The program recently went to its sixth iteration, officially dubbed version 0.6. The most significant of the recent changes was a decision to forgo — for now — efforts to create a wireless "personal area network" that links all of the subsystems with radio signals; the original expectation was that would be the 10-meter range Bluetooth chip technology.

However, a number of problems became evident as the program progressed — not least among them the need for some kind of power source for each wireless system element and Bluetooth's very low data rate (721 kilobits per second maximum), which is insufficient for the kind of live, high-quality video necessary for the M4's optic and thermal sights that project the soldier's HMD.

The result has been two 2-pound batteries strapped to the soldier's back (actually a significant improvement over earlier designs in weight and number). These batteries provide power for as long as 24 hours to the Land Warrior system and its supporting cables linking the helmet, weapon, and other subsystems. With version 1.0, those will become flat ribbons with 12-pin connectors rather than the version 0.6 round cables.

Crizer and others were concerned about the cables, which tie the helmet and weapon to the soldier's vest harness. However, soldiers who have tested the system, such as Spec. 4 Chris Bashaw, a member of the PM-Soldier team, say they did not feel constrained or inhibited by the cabling, which has quick breakaway connectors. Nevertheless, the program will continue to look to ways to reduce and eventually eliminate such "hard wiring".

The batteries continue to raise concern, as well, and plans call for developing mobile recharging stations that can accompany the units to the degree possible, depending on terrain and mission limitations.

"If you have a unit going out for several days, they will have to carry extra batteries. In a normal situation, each unit will be re-supplied every 24 hours," Crizer says. "By 2005-06, we're looking at using fuel cell technology. We've gone about as far as we can with batteries."

Wired vs. wirelessArmy leaders most definitely have not abandoned the wireless concept, he adds. Rather, they are waiting for the technology to mature and correct the current shortcomings. Such advances also are expected in other areas.

"By 2005, we'll probably have voice recognition," Crizer predicts, noting the move to COTS also has enabled them to pursue future upgrades more easily. "We have to have a clear path. What can we do today without slipping the schedule? Other things can be inserted later as they mature. Time is just too precious."

One of those other insertions is expected to be health status monitoring systems that will enable medics to determine vital signs from a distance and calculate the type, location and extent of a wound before reaching a downed soldier.

Mark Hanna, a retired airborne Ranger lieutenant colonel, now with SY Technology Inc., who works with the Land Warrior program as an infantry advisor, says it is a fine balancing act: "We only want to be constrained by the pace of technology, not by the pace of Army acquisition."

Army leaders currently plan to acquire nearly 50,000 Land Warrior battle systems to integrate the 21st Century infantryman into the digitized battlefields of the future. The present schedule has the first Land Warrior units going to the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga., followed by the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., then the new Interim Brigade Combat Teams at Fort Lewis, Wash. The plan is to equip all five types of infantry — Ranger, Airborne, Air Assault, Light, and Mechanized.

"Every infantryman in the regular Army will have one and we're looking at equipping the Army National Guard, as well," Crizer says. "As the soldiers gain more confidence in this system doing what we say it can do and as it moves up to whole companies, we'll learn better how to us it to our advantage."

Leaders of the U.S. Marines Corps also are keeping a close watch on Land Warrior progress and have participated in some field tests with an eye toward incorporating at least some of its elements into their own future battle gear.

Field testsThe system already has undergone some extensive field trials — although none officially designated as test and evaluation activities — most recently at Fort Polk, La. It was at Fort Polk where 52 members of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment participated in a Joint Contingency Force Advanced Warfighting Experiment (JCF-AWE) at the mock city of Shughart-Gordon, a $48 million Military Operation in Urban Terrain (MOUT) training complex of 26 multi-story buildings surrounded by swamps and pine forests.

Feedback from that exercise and other tests, while generally positive, has included soldier requests for a lighter helmet and a longer-range radio — at least double the current 150-meter limitation of the "soldier" radios that enable individual soldiers to communicate with each other in the field. However, transmissions can be extended in range by relaying them from soldier to solder through the Army's "mesh" system. Those radios also enable Land Warrior-equipped soldiers to transmit color still images (800x600 SVGA) and thermal images from their weapon sights as an enhancement to reconnaissance reports.

That also works in reverse, as each Land Warrior microcomputer can receive updates with new maps and orders that the user can view on the HMD. Soldiers also can blend the HMD and GPS to view where they stand in relation to other squad and platoon members, as well as to known enemy positions.

Not all Land Warriors will be identically equipped. In addition to the standard equipment, squad leaders will have handheld displays with wrist-mounted keyboards. These devices will enable them to create text messages, which they can send by burst transmission via SINCGARS-compatible radio to higher echelons. Additional variants also are being developed for medics, combat engineers, and forward observers.

The short-range "soldier" radio is a wireless local area network system operating between 1755 and 1850 MHz, while the "leader" radio operates on 30-88 MHz SINCGARS frequencies. Versions 0.6 and 1.0 can set up several software-configurable "networks" that can change on the fly.

Increased survivability also is a hallmark of the Land Warrior program. In addition to improved lightweight body armor that repels standard bullets, the weapon sights — viewed through the HMD — enable the soldier to detect, lock onto, and fire at targets while exposing only his hands and arms. In this way, a Land Warrior-equipped soldier could fire accurately from cover, including around the corners of buildings.

System detailsThe weapon subsystem's multi-functional laser further enhances lethality and survivability by combining the capabilities of six separate devices into one. This provides range and direction finding, aiming light, infrared illuminator, laser-based training, bore light, and combat identification interrogator (identification friend or foe). Combining the range and direction finder with the computer/radio subsystem also enables one soldier to rapidly and accurately "pass off" targets to another for indirect fire.

One change in version 1.0 will eliminate the on-weapon mouse controller, which on the current version duplicates the capabilities of the vest-mounted soldier control unit (which itself is being reduced in size and better integrated into the combat vest). Crizer says soldiers testing the on-weapon system found it was not a particularly useful enhancement; removing it simplifies changes to the M4.

In addition to the monocular HMD, which slides up the helmet out of the way when not in use, the integrated helmet assembly subsystem also includes a monocular night vision sensor with a 40-degree field of view. All the weapon information goes into the HMD, which soldiers are able to view while still wearing special ballistic laser-protection glasses.

The modular, COTS-heavy approach to Land Warrior has moved the program somewhat into the new arena of "spiral development", where end users test and provide feedback on various elements as they are added to the effort, enabling any necessary changes to be made before the system actually goes into production. That both reduces costs and speeds deployment of a battle-ready system.

"We're on our third significant upgrade in the last two years. On a normal Army procurement cycle, that wouldn't be possible," Crizer says. "It's a hectic pace in a schedule based on success."

Land Warrior is not the Army's ultimate plan for improving lethality and survivability of the 21st Century infantryman, but rather the first major iteration. It will continue upgrades through technology insertion through the end of this decade, leading to fielding of the next level — the Objective Force Warrior — between 2010 and 2015.

Beyond that is Future Warrior 2025, although current plans now call for the acceleration of as many FW 2025 technologies as possible — as part of an expanded program to implement them into the Objective Force Warrior (OFW).

OFW 2025 will require significant advances in technology to achieve such goals as reducing to helmet-mounted size sensors, now in early development, that enable users to "see through walls"; reducing pack weight and increasing mission duration by incorporating water recovery and production systems into the battlesuit; an even more advanced power source with the same objectives.

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