Thursday, April 19, 2007

 

Hi-Tech Soldiering

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit linked to a story by Noah Shachtman, writing in Popular Mechanics, about the Army’s new Land Warrior gear. Here’s how the PM piece is introduced:

After spending 15 years on R & D, the Pentagon is outfitting soldiers for a high-tech battlefield network designed to cut through the fog of war. Popular Mechanics tests out the high-tech package and discovers why America's wireless warriors think it will slow them down in Iraq.

You have to wonder how the unhinged would respond to this report in PM. You know, the same crazies, expansively represented by those like Rosie O’Donnell or Michael Moore, who answered PM’s definitive refutation of 9/11 Conspiracy Mythmaking by calling them Neocon toadies. (In case you missed these, see here and here.)

So much for being toadies. Shachtman writes an insightful story, faithfully capturing the very legitimate objections soldiers have to the overly hi-tech equipment.

I’ve seen several versions of Army 2000, Army 2010, Army 2020, or whatever these fanciful designs keep getting called. Some of it sounds promising, honestly, but other parts, well, queue the SCIFI music and Rod Serling.

While sweating my butt off in day-after-day of 130 degrees Fahrenheit for many months in Iraq, I really liked the one I saw about climate control uniforms, water and oxygen fed, like some kind of spacesuit, only in Kevlar. I think most of us would go for that, provided the thing would let us move.

Much like the ever growing Ideal Body Armor, there are always trade-offs to any form of cover, whether in facilities, vehicles, or personal protection. (I’m talking individual body armor or IBA now, thanks to the Doc and a monogamous marriage before God, I don’t have to worry about the other kind.)

Shachtman covers the issue quite well, describing the test runs with the Army’s Land Warrior System. He starts with context, and the premise for Land Warrior:

Since the late 1990s, the U.S. military has pushed hard to link every vehicle, every sensor and every soldier in a sprawling intranet for combat. The objective of this network-centric warfare: Boost battlefield communication and situational awareness — making troops smarter, quicker and deadlier. Today, a big chunk of the combat vehicles and command posts have been wired up. But most soldiers on the ground still don't even have a radio.
Alpha's electronics package, known as the Land Warrior System, is designed to finally plug the infantryman into the battlefield network.

That’s Alpha Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, who plan on taking Land Warrior along on their deployment to Iraq, despite some reservations. But then, these Alpha soldiers sound like they’re doing Beta testing, and uncovering what some consider some pretty basic design flaws. More on that later.

Here are some design specifics, again courtesy of Shachtman:

The Land Warrior System marks the first time that a soldier has been able to keep tabs on his buddies without monitoring them on the radio or keeping them in visual range. "We can track each other without saying a word," says Staff Sgt. Michael Wyatt as we squeeze into a Stryker fighting vehicle. The slender 5-ft. 3-in. Virginian ran convoy missions in Iraq for a year before joining Alpha company. Before that he spent seven years with the Marines. "All guys bitch and moan for a while about new gear," Wyatt says. "They'll get used to it."
If Land Warrior troops want to communicate verbally, they can use the radio headsets and noise-canceling, over-the-ear headphones that fit into every Kevlar helmet. A transmitter for a wireless network is on the soldier's body armor, broadcasting encrypted signals for up to a kilometer. There's also a lithium-ion battery pack, a GPS transponder and a paperback-size 400-MHz computer to run the whole system. The soldier operates the gear with a controller on his chest that's shaped like a gun grip or via buttons on his M-4 rifle.
It's not the only change to the weapon. Mounted on the rifle and connected to the rest of the system is a digital sight that lets a soldier, in effect, see around corners; all he has to do is stick his gun out — not his neck. The sight also serves as a long-range zoom, with 12x magnification. "It makes every rifleman a marksman," says Col. Richard Hansen, Land Warrior's project manager. Night vision and laser targeting, which once required clunky binoculars or attachments to the weapon, are now built in.

That’s some pretty hi-tech gadgetry, and calls to mind modern video game components. PM even includes reference to the game Ghost Recon 2, and even compares the game with the Land Warrior System in a companion article.

For techno-geeks, you better just read the whole thing.

From a strategic point of view, we’re talking a desperate attempt to salvage a high cost, low utility project that’s already racked up a cost of $500 million after 15 years of work. By the end of the 1990’s, as Shachtman reports, “Costs skyrocketed past $85,000 per soldier for a 40-pound, turtle-shell collection of gear that would barely let an infantryman drop and roll.”

Lots of rework, program redesign, and a new contractor allowed the project to slim down to 16 pounds at a $30,000 per soldier cost.

I have never used the system, but Shachtman has. His first-hand report does not offer promise for the long range health of the project. Still too cumbersome, and forget real time updates from its advanced intelligence gadgetry. Components appear to continue to lag behind technological advances. Reading Shachtman’s account, I kept thinking that combat soldiers and their commanders would do better getting themselves off-the-shelf spy and commando gear themselves, and patching something together more effectively.

Given the lukewarm and even negative response to Land Warrior from many soldier testers, the Program Managers are scaling back on their goal of “wiring every soldier”:

For now, the game plan among Land Warrior managers is to have only commanders carry the load. Just 230 of the 440 systems used at Fort Lewis will be brought to Iraq. After all, lieutenants, captains and senior sergeants are the ones who really need to know where all the troops are. Let them have the digital mapping gear and give privates and corporals simple beacons that broadcast their positions to higher-ups. "We may not have to belabor every rifleman with the full system," Hansen says.

Same goes for the radios. Land Warrior's wireless network makes it easy for a commander to plan missions on the run. But maybe the leaders of Alpha company's 11-man squads are the only ones who need to be on the receiving end of those transmissions; maybe they can, in turn, tell their soldiers what to do the old-fashioned way — with hand signals and shouted orders. That would suit Starks just fine. "There are a lot of things I'd never use in my position," he says. "It seems like a lot of excessive stuff."

Evidently. But that hasn’t stopped the 4-9th from going ahead with Land Warrior:

Nevertheless, the 4-9th is pressing on with plans to go into battle wearing Land Warrior. The systems are already bought and paid for, and there is money in this year's budget to maintain the gear.

If they’ve trained on it, and worked through the advantages and disadvantages, and still want to carry the equipment into combat, all power to them, Godspeed.

But I think this present experiment in network-centric soldiering will need to take a couple of steps to the rear. The fact that they’re limiting this system to Commanders and Senior NCOs tells me they’re on the right track, although I’m not sure they fully grasp why.

That’s not to slam or fault the intent or objective, just to suggest that we don’t have all of the necessary components of such a system. For one, we don’t have the human being capable of fully exploiting the technology in play.

More information can be counterproductive to the close-in fight, just like more data doesn’t improve the quality of analysis. Initially, both degrade the resulting product. There’s too much information. Has anyone enamored of these videogame systems ever watch a kid play them? They twitch and jump, and fiddle and tap, and their attention is constantly darting between too many controls, too many views, too many targets, in short, too much information.

They are stressed to the max. Isn’t combat stressful enough, without adding a couple of technological layers to make it even more stressful? Heck, it strikes me that, rather than improve performance, better battlefield sensors might reduce combat effectiveness on the single most valuable weapon we have: our soldier.

Why do I say that? Think of all the crazy, certain death combat situations where soldiers accomplished the unthinkable. The charge against impregnable defenses, holding out in defense against vastly superior forces, the impossible to comprehend twists of circumstance, that bump a force up against a need so great, that a leader has to think so far outside the box that he or she thinks himself deranged.

How many of those situations would be improved by knowing with greater certainty how doomed those soldiers were?

I think it’s analogous to the situation with Intelligence gathering, analysis and reporting. Technological advances create vast amounts of unrelated information, and we are drowning in too much information without sufficient, effective tools to screen, sift, piece together, and otherwise build the puzzles we confront.

Decision-makers make the classic mistake all the time. To avoid unwanted errors, they strive for ever more information. In situations where information will never be complete, not even close, decisions are improved most of all by increasing the effectiveness of intangibles in the decision making process, not more data. What do we really need? What are the few really important questions that, if we knew the answers, would give us the best shot at the right decision?

I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that more information always means more questions and by extrapolation, fewer answers, not more.

Now it may be that the data screening and scrubbing systems, the automation of the Land Warrior system will eventually evolve to simplify the data and sensory picture presented to the soldier, so that the soldier isn’t burdened by the technology, but made more effective. That will require an orders of magnitude improvement in artificial intelligence, for certain.

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