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Land Warrior 15lb soldier-smartphone kit lives on

'Hello! What? Map mashup? Jeez Larry, I'm in a firefight'

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The US Army's wearable-tech rig for foot soldiers, known as Land Warrior, was officially cancelled by the Pentagon last year. Nonetheless, a single US infantry battalion took the kit to war in Iraq, and Land Warrior has some strong backing on Capitol Hill. Now, reports have it that the programme has won some further funding and a small new lease of life.

According to trade mag Inside Defense (subscription only) the US Army's 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team has requested 1,000 sets of Land Warrior, and this has been granted. Until now, the only American combat unit with Land Warrior has been the 4th battalion, 9th US Infantry.

The 4th of the 9th had been issued with Land Warrior and trained up on it when the project was cancelled, in large part due to some fairly damning reviews from 4/9th soldiers. But then the battalion got sent to Iraq at short notice as part of America's troop "surge" before the kit could be withdrawn.

A full set of Land Warrior includes a helmet-mounted monocle display and combat-harness human-interface device linked to a central computer based on a 400MHz ARM processor. It has GPS, and a camera with 12x zoom mounted on the barrel of the soldier's M4 carbine. This has been said by programme officials to "make every soldier a marksman" and also to be very handy for shooting (or just looking) around corners.

Most significantly of all, Land Warrior soldiers are linked up by a voice and data radio network. This lets their bosses know where they are, and can help a lot with avoiding friendly-fire incidents and suchlike. There is said to be a noticeable time lag before the map updates, however, so an individual soldier doesn't usually find it useful for such jobs as knowing if his squadmates are on the other side of a wall. It's more in the "is it safe to fire artillery into that grid reference" or "are there friendlies in that city block" league.

The other big difference between Land Warrior and (say) a modern converged smartphone with most of the same capabilities built around a similar processor, is that the military gear is about 50 times heavier. A full Land Warrior rig weighs 15lb, which is pretty much unacceptable to a soldier laden with weapons, ammo, water and body armour.

But, according to Wired magazine's defence editor Noah Shachtman, who visited the 4/9th in Iraq last year, the American soldiers have managed to find uses for Land Warrior, and some of them have become fans. The apparently entirely useless gun-cam has been discarded, and normally the rest of the gear is carried only by leaders of each four-man team.

The 4/9th have found Land Warrior useful for virtually marking buildings as searched, so that effort isn't wasted and locations don't get missed in house-to-house sweeps. They've also found it handy for marking objectives and routes, sometimes on the fly in mid-operation.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington last year effectively overruled the Army's cancellation order, saying that Land Warrior should still get $80m of funding. The senators seemed to feel that the Army wasn't really serious about buying kit which might help ordinary soldiers fighing real wars. (It is true, most big armies prefer to regard counterinsurgency work as some kind of aberration, not what they should really train and equip themselves for.)

In any case, it would appear that the 4/9th have found parts of Land Warrior useful enough to keep. Now one of the US Army's new and trendy Stryker brigades will try it out. There may be life in the new dog yet.

Meanwhile, the UK's very similar FIST project grinds almost silently on, quietly pouring out some £2bn to reinvent various American (or civilian smartphone) wheels here in Blighty. Perhaps by 2015, our £14k-salary infantrymen - themselves nowadays increasingly produced in South Africa, Nepal, Fiji and other places overseas - may be wearing £70,000 UK-made Land Warrior lookalikes. ®

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