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Senate Frankensteins bid to revive dead wearable-tech gear

Land Warrior axed by Pentagon but may live again

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The US Army's controversial wearable-tech programme for foot soldiers, known as "Land Warrior," may not be dead after all.

Land Warrior was removed from the Army budget in February, which would normally means its imminent demise. However, the decision to cut off funds came just as the first American combat unit received the equipment - and just as President Bush ordered his "surge" in US troop numbers for Iraq.

As a result, the 4th battalion of the US 9th Infantry reportedly had no time to revert to standard equipment and deployed to Iraq with Land Warrior. There were suggestions at the time, however, that only unit leaders would use the full package.

Land Warrior is essentially a set of personal gadgetry, ruggedised for military use. It includes a 400MHz ARM processor, GPS sat-nav, voice and data radio, a camera - much the same sort of package you might expect in a modern high-end converged smartphone. Differences from a smartphone include the helmet-mounted monocle heads-up display, which can be seen in field use during this recent vid from the 4/9th in Iraq. (You'll need Flash and a YouTube-friendly firewall.)

Other differences between Land Warrior and civilian gear include the camera, which has 12x zoom and is mounted on the soldier's gunsight rather than the back of a phone. It can work with a laser designator, too.

These features allow Land Warrior-toting troops to mark targets for attention by higher-ups, perhaps sending an image or video clip to accompany the position info. The flip-down monocle screen can display maps with the locations of friendly troops, even down to the level of individual soldiers.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Land Warrior and a smartphone, however, is its weight. The military version adds a full 15lb to a soldier's load, as if he were carrying an additional pair of loaded M4 rifles. As the weary modern grunt is already heavily burdened with armour, water, ammo etc this is a serious issue. It may have contributed to Army chiefs' decision to axe the programme, along with grumbles that the situation maps updated too slowly and the gun-cam's performance was sluggish.

Now, however, GovExec.com reports that the Senate Armed Services Committee has signalled its intention to restore $80m of funding to Land Warrior next year, which would equip two more battalions alongside the 4/9th. This would allow it to be used at brigade level.

The Senators also want to spend $30m on further development and improvement. The idea here is that while Land Warrior may not be ideal, it would be quicker and cheaper to upgrade it than starting from scratch with a new system the way the Army brass would like to.

The Senators reportedly felt that Land Warrior was one of the relatively few military tech efforts directly targeted at helping ordinary foot-soldiers, who are tending to bear the brunt of the fighting in the current Iraqi and Afghan wars.

Some kind of Land Warrior type kit is probably inevitable during the next couple of decades. Other nations are pursuing it avidly, and there's no doubt that present or near-future tech could deliver a lighter, faster solution soon.

Even so, the future for Land Warrior itself is far from certain. There has been no Congressional support to match that from the Senate, and none from the Pentagon either. A decisive judgement from the soldiers of the 4/9th is probably a while away yet, they being only a few months into a long tour.

GovExec's report can be read here

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