Land Warrior wearable war-smartphone survives Iraq baptism
Txt-happy grunts in virtual-keyboard iPhone bitchslap
The world's first unit of digitally networked foot soldiers returns from combat in Iraq this week. Reports have it that the American troops' controversial "Land Warrior" wearable-node technology has changed in both role and configuration during its 15-month baptism of fire. Indications are that the equipment - slated for disposal by army chiefs just last year - has done well enough that it will now live on.
Land Warrior in many ways resembles the latest generation of high-end smartphones. It has GPS satnav, voice and data radios, a camera and an ARM processor. As with many handset satnav apps, you can hook up a group of buddies on the net so that each can see where the others are. Records can be kept of where everyone has been. You can even use Land Warrior to send text messages to teammates or HQ. And, just as in the smartphone world, there has been intense debate among Land Warrior designers and users as to the desirability of real versus virtual keyboards.
Unlike the latest iPhone, Nokia and HTC offerings, however, Land Warrior's camera had 12x zoom and was mounted on the barrel of a 5.56mm M4 carbine - supposedly "making every soldier a marksman" and allowing him to shoot or look round corners, too*. The display is a monocle rig attached to the user's helmet. And - unacceptably to unburdened smartphone users, let alone combat troops encumbered with body armour, water, weapons and ammo - a complete Land Warrior rig initially weighed fully 15 pounds. Furthermore, development has now cost the Pentagon half a billion bucks.
Early last year, the latest iteration of Land Warrior had been issued to an American combat unit - the 4th Battalion, 9th US Infantry, aka "the Manchus". Initially the 4th of the 9th were unimpressed with the gear, and in February 2007 the Pentagon decided to cut its losses and ditch Land Warrior. But then the 4/9th were scrambled to Iraq as part of the US troop "surge", and there was no time to retrain and re-equip with ordinary radios etc. So Land Warrior got an outing in Iraq despite being axed.
Once in the field, the Manchus - aided as far as possible by contractors from General Dynamics, makers of Land Warrior - began modifying Land Warrior to make it more to their liking. For a start, many of them got rid of it altogether. Only the leader of each four-man "fire team" - the basic infantry unit - and higher-ups kept their net hookup.
Next, the 4/9th team leaders began throwing stuff away. As General Dynamics exec Mark Showah told Defense Technology International yesterday:
“Essentially we took all the equipment, laid it on the counter, disconnected it all, said ‘here’s some [body armour], go ahead and put the equipment where you want it and we’ll figure out how to make it a more permanent solution’… and they came back with a design that was much better than we could have ever produced.”
One of the first things to go was the always rather laughable gun-cam, according to earlier reports from the 4/9th last year. The soldiers' brisk field redesign slimmed Land Warrior down to 10lb, and further efforts by General Dynamics got it down to 7lb as of now.
It turns out that one of the most popular aspects of Land Warrior was text messaging. Rather than this being a matter of kids today being born2txt, this was because the radio net could get text traffic through even when voice comms were down. Unreliable voice comms have been the bane of infantry operations time out of mind - especially in urban warfare - and it seems that this feature saved a number of missions from being aborted.
Still, apparently soldiers - or anyway, Manchus - aren't natural iPhone lovers. Text-happy patrol leaders on the mean streets of Iraq wouldn't have anything to do with the original virtual-keyboard Land Warrior setup, and insisted on hardware buttons. Admittedly, the original Land Warrior didn't use a touchscreen, but a more cumbersome process where a chest controller moved a mouse across keys on the monocle display.
“They liked one that was similar to a BlackBerry style keyboard, about the same size, that had a USB interface that plugged right into the system," Showah told DTI. "Now not only does he have a mouse, but he can flip open a small cover and have a keyboard.”
Now the 4/9th are home after their long tour, all but the 37 of them who were killed (more than five per cent for a battalion at typical strength, and that doesn't include the wounded - it's always the infantry that takes the strain).
Meanwhile, Senators in Washington overruled the Army chiefs and kept Land Warrior funded; and a new unit, the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, has requested 1000 sets of the new leaner and meaner Land Warrior. It would seem that the day of the digital soldier is upon us at last. ®
*Apparently there was never any intention to have compulsory gun-cam recordings whenever a soldier fired his weapon, though this is being mooted for US policemen at present.