PEO Soldier takes the lead on soldier situational awareness
BG(P) Camille Nichols was appointed to lead the Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier (PEO Soldier) in March 2011. However, she will be moving on shortly as she was selected in early February for her next assignment as commanding general of Army Contracting Command at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., a position she will assume in May.
She spoke with Defense Systems Editor-in-Chief Barry Rosenberg about the drive to reduce size, weight and power in soldier systems, as well as Nett Warrior, a handheld-type system being developed for dismounted leaders to provide situational awareness.
DS: The reduction in size, weight and power (SWaP) requirements is always a top priority for PEO Soldier. Do you ever communicate with other organizations such as the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), for example, to discuss SWaP issues related to radios?
Nichols: We actually are in the process of finalizing a more formal MOA (Memorandum of Agreement) with JTRS (Joint Tactical Radio System). We wish in some ways you could treat the soldier like a true platform and say, “this is your power load and this is where you’ve got to go.” I’ve worked on the Abrams and Bradley programs and I was very controlled in the size, weight and power allocations given to me. We haven’t quite gotten to that sophisticated level on soldier equipment from a manned standpoint ... the human dimension of the load he’s able to take.
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That’s because you can tailor the individual soldier based on his mission, as well as his role in a squad. For example, the medic will carry certain things and the radioman will carry different things, so in their individual ensembles we’ve been trying to reduce the load. But to answer specifically to your question we are definitely in those type of engagements, and in the role that we’re getting with responsibility for the mobile computing environment as part of the common operating environment, we’re going to be leveraging power, speed, interfaces and operating system control from a macro level for others that are going to be running in the mobile handheld space.
We’re also going to be responsible for helping guide the hardware solution for mobile handheld, not necessarily making them all, but being in charge of facilitating, synchronizing and coordinating. So specifically in JTRS case we are working with a version of the Rifleman radio that would help facilitate getting rid of a leader radio. Most leaders have two radios on them. We’re working with them from power, space, weight and concept to try to get that down to one radio. They are appreciative of the interaction we have with them in trying to understand how we can move forward on that.
DS: Please bring me up to date on Nett Warrior.
Nichols: I like to view the Nett Warrior program as a microcomputer that’s available for tactical operations. In that sense, we have really gone hard after the Nett Warrior program. Because of its land-war configuration it was sort of like the anti-SWaP. It was heavy, had its own chip and drained a lot of power. There were a lot of battery requirements, and they were unique batteries. And so there have been a confluence of things that have allowed us to refine the Nett Warrior program to a much more simple and elegant version that is 70 percent lighter, 65 percent cheaper and is going to be a commercially based solution. So we’re very excited about that program, and that is our major milestone program that is coming up. As you know, that program has been restructured. This will be the third major restructure, but we really think we are on the path for success now.
DS: What’s the timeline for Nett Warrior?
Nichols: Milestone C will be in March. The Nett Warrior program and some specific soldier power equipment will be at every NIE (Network Integration Evaluation), basically. And we will have the next version of the end-user devices in the next NIE. And our hope then would be fielding to the first three units of Capability Set 13 late this calendar year.
DS: Though Nett Warrior is heading to Milestone C and much of the development is done, what key technical challenges remain?
Nichols: At the last NIE we had several versions of basically commercial items that we’ve put into hard cases. It’s getting that fine balance between the tactical field readiness of a commercial device and trying to leverage the best of breed from commercial. The dilemma is making sure we have an operating system that can pass NSA standards, that we’re able to functionally get that onto a network where we’re able to move data. The government is going to be the integrator of the things we buy and package into the Nett Warrior ensemble. All that coordination and synchronization is one piece. And then there’s staying abreast and being aligned with NSA and the companies as they make data-at-rest standards, as well as working in the secret arena having either hardware or software solutions that allow us to be in line so that we’re able to get the full complement of capability that is required to run the Nett Warrior program.
DS: PEO Soldier is involved in a number of soldier sensor programs, such as gunshot detection. Please bring me up to date in this area.
Nichols: We love working on sensors. We take care of the soldier’s basic ensemble, and then we give them these tunable devices that help them do some of the other things, especially unique things that we’ve found ourselves in the sniper environment. So the Individual Gunshot Detector is working pretty well. It’s in its second variant, and we have a lot of them out in the field. We’re trying to ensure we have a robust training team so that the units understand what it can and cannot do. The great thing I’ll say is that the sniper activity is down so we’re getting less feedback on our device. It’s going to be a permanent program of record…what more evolution can we do with it, and what else needs to be done and we’re working with the maneuver center on that now.
Another system is Sense Through The Wall, which is based on pretty old ideas. Police departments have used this and homeland defense has worked this type of device to scan the walls of a building to see who is in there before you move in to determine friend or foe situation or how many people might be in the building before you engage in interaction with the occupants. So it is basically an urgent need. It has some challenges — not all buildings are nice and pristine like ours here. So we’re working through some trials to fine tune the electronics because you don’t want to have a lot of false alarms, nor do you want it so insensitive that you can’t pick up everything. It’s a fine balance. The trials are the first couple of weeks in March, and we will have two vendors out there working on their sensor sensitivity.
DS: What’s new in the area of night vision?
Nichols: The next logical iteration of our standard I-squared (image intensifier) night vision system is combining that with thermal and the ENVG (Enhanced Night Vision Goggle). We have almost 5,000 ENVGs in the field. The program is going well, and it is the natural migration of taking individual, independent sensors and trying to align and combine them. We’re going to look at that quite a bit in the future as we go forward by trying to leverage the investment in the thousands of devices we have. Micro technologies allow us (to do that), and computer power is so different now then when some of these programs started 10 or 15 years ago. Can we leverage the form and combine sensors? The ENVG is the first round of that. The thermal weapons sight family might be the next migration.
And we’re trying to combine two different types of technologies for target acquisition to see if we can’t bundle it together a little more robustly. So those are the kinds of things from a sensor standpoint that we’re working toward in order to take things to the next logical migration, as well as being very conscious that one guy in a squad can’t have these four devices, so we want to see if we can combine sensor technologies by leveraging the current form factor without having to start totally from scratch.
DS: A quick comment on your new position at Army Contracting Command.
Nichols: Contracting command started in early 2008, and it helps facilitate contracts for services and equipment…almost two-thirds of every dollar the Army gets for supplied services and running its operations. Only part of the contracting command supports the acquisition of products and product development. The other part of the command does base camp station infrastructure. And then, there are generic services that the army is providing, as well as the expeditionary contracting element, so it’s quite wide. The only thing we don’t contract for is major construction. That is left to the corps.
DS: Any other thoughts?
Nichols: When a lot of people think about soldier gear they don’t think about it as being high-tech or very sophisticated. And I would say that from some of the things we talked about today such as state of-the-art sensor technology and computing power that we actually have some very sophisticated devices. Nett Warrior is going to be a change agent in a way that the small, tactical unit actually gets connected all the way up and through the GIG (Global Information Grid). The empowerment of situational awareness down to the lowest level and their ability to facilitate and utilize all the other sensors in the combat zone around them is going to actually create an environment where they are going to be empowered and able to bring to bear not only their own weaponry and lethality, but to facilitate better safety and better mission planning.