The digitized battlefield
Rugged computing devices bring the network to the soldier
- By Kevin Fogarty
- Aug 11, 2008
If survivability is the major goal of any system designed to be carried by soldiers into combat, the Army’s Land Warrior system has demonstrated its qualifications. Nearly killed twice and chopped completely from the Army’s 2008 budget, Land Warrior survived by adapting to changes in available commercial technology and being stripped down to adapt to the needs of fighters in the field.
The system as originally developed by Raytheon was 40 pounds of custom-designed hardware housed under a hard turtleback shell that soldiers would wear. The Army declared it to be a heavy, impractical, inflexible, expensive, underperforming failure after more than $500 million and a decade’s worth of development. Despite a major revamping and redevelopment by General Dynamics’ C4 Systems division, the program was completely cut from the Army’s budget for fiscal 2008.
Despite the cut, the Army allowed a Stryker Brigade Combat Team — the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, which had been training with the system at Fort Lewis, Wash. — to take it on a 15-month deployment to Iraq. The result was a combined combat/systems-development process that slashed the weight of Land Warrior by two-thirds, reduced the number of components by more than half and eliminated the need for many troops to carry the system at all.
As originally deployed with that brigade, Land Warrior consisted of four boxes clipped to a soldier’s back: a battery pack with a 12- hour life, a CPU to run the system, a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver/transmitter to create maps and identify a soldier’s location, and a multiband IP-based radio for voice and data links. It also included a helmet-mounted display that could be moved aside, a small control unit clipped to the chest, and a digital imaging/ targeting unit attached to a modified M-4 carbine.
The system was eventually judged good enough that the Army found money to fund a second deployment. Another brigade will carry the next iteration of Land Warrior to Iraq in 2009 and handle the upcoming launch of the Ground Soldier System. That system will succeed Land Warrior as the program responsible for providing smart, light technology that helps troops operate more effectively and safely in the field.
“We had elements of the [4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment] do three or four rotations where they were with the unit in Iraq, take the lessons learned about the system in the field, then go back to the lab and talk to the engineers to build those lessons into the next version of the system,” said Lt. Col. Brian Cummings, product manager of the Land Warrior and Ground Soldier systems.
Even before the regiment deployed, General Dynamics started reducing weight on the 17-pound Land Warrior system and reduced the number of components troops would have to carry from five to three, and eventually to two, Cummings said. The system’s weight came down to less than 10 pounds. By the time the next combat team is deployed with Land Warrior in 2009, the weight will be down to about 7.2 pounds, Cummings said.
The regiment “came back with some very positive things to say about the usability and capability of the systems,” said Mark Showah, director of General Dynamics’ Integrated Systems Group. “But we didn’t get there by getting it right the first time.”
The first major recast of Land Warrior came with the decision to switch from Raytheon to General Dynamics and from custom-designed hardware to repackaged commercial hardware, Cummings and Showah said.
“That kind of design process — where it took five years to design anything, and everything had to be custom — meant nothing was ever up-to-date, the systems were obsolete before they were even deployed,” said Trey Hodgkins, vice president of federal government programs at the Information Technology Association of America’s Public Sector Group.
“You can’t use pure commercial technologies; they’re unique to the military,” Hodgkins said. “But you still face Moore’s Law. Prices get cut in half and capabilities get doubled every 18 months. The problem is, those old processes rarely, if ever, worked within 18 months.”
General Dynamics relies on Intel and other commercial vendors for electronics components, which it then repackages according to military specifications to control heat, dust, vibration and other elements.
That increases the cost and reduces the flexibility compared with commercial form factors, many of which include wireless networking, e-mail, text messaging, word processing, image processing and other technologies in an enclosure the size of a card deck, Showah said.
But there’s no way to build in the ruggedness, security and usability functions in the development timescale or form factor of commercial technology, let alone supporting special-function military software.
For example, the wireless network on which Land Warrior is based relies on IP, as commercial Wi-Fi does, Showah said. But it’s not W-Fi; it doesn’t use hub-and-spoke or mesh networking models, as even the most secure commercial Wi-Fi networking devices do.
The network instead uses a unique waveform and radio hardware that allows each radio to either receive or retransmit data as required, so an encrypted packet of data containing a sliver of voice traffic for one soldier can be passed from radio to radio until it arrives at its proper destination. The radios manage this with built-in routing capabilities supported by few, if any, commercial products.
In 2003, Raytheon conducted a crash program to convert the system to commercial hardware, However, the Army handed Land Warrior off to General Dynamics to harden the resulting gear according to military specifications and to redesign it. By 2007, the company had reduced the number of unit components to five and the weight to 17 pounds, which commanders and troops still considered too heavy and the Army decided was too low-functioning for continued funding.
“It’s just a bunch of stuff we don’t use, taking the place of useful stuff like guns,” Sgt. James Young, M-240 machine gun team leader with Company A, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, told a reporter for a Popular Mechanics article in May 2007. “It makes you a slower, heavier target.”
General Dynamics and the Army responded by reducing the number of troops that would carry the units. Rather than give the full system to every rifleman, only team leaders and those with higher ranks would carry it.
“During training at Fort Lewis, we gave it to everyone, but we found not everyone needed to carry the weight,” Cummings said. “Team leaders were usually in visual contact with others, and not everyone needed that level of situational awareness.”
Team leaders carried only the components they felt they needed most of the time, adapting even those as needed.
For example, the elaborate digital video system designed to let soldiers shoot from around corners and from behind other cover by broadcasting a magnified targeting view from the camera to the soldier’s helmet display was usually left behind.
“That hasn’t been used that much because of the operating environments,” Showah said of the 9th Infantry Regiment’s deployment. “They were knocking on doors, searching houses and other things. So they didn’t need it as much.”
Meanwhile, the focus wasn’t on testing Land Warrior. The regiment deployed to Camp Taji in the Tarmiya area of Iraq adjacent to the Diyala Province in April 2007 as part of the surge tactic to suppress insurgent activity in Baghdad and nearby provinces.
During combat with insurgents, security patrols, and attacks by snipers and improvised explosive devices, soldiers used Land Warrior to help keep track of one another and their surroundings.
Ideally, using the helmet-mounted displays, soldiers would be able to see maps of their own locations in addition to virtual chemical lights that identified all their team members, to help avoid fratricide between ground troops and when calling in air support, Cummings said.
“Our guys would go into a different environment every day,” he said. “They’d go into a village and would normally have to spend a lot of time to just maintain their own command and control and know where the enemy is.”
“Or they’d go into a village late at night, often without having been there before, and [using Land Warrior] would know where they were, and what road they were on and be able to clear the village a lot more effectively,” Cummings said.
“Being able to find yourself on a map and get into position quickly lets you get into your enemy’s decision cycle,” he added. “Right now, you can send out a team and say we think the enemy is in Building Four. You put it on the map, and everyone goes to Building Four. But it turns out there’s no one there, and you think the enemy’s in a different building — one without even a number you’ve set on your map. If I know where you are, I can drop a [virtual] chem light on your location and move your guys to the new location by pointing out the new building without having to spend a long time explaining over the radio and trying to get a team leader to identify a building that’s not named on his map.”
However, the most effective use of the system was in the integration General Dynamics built with the Boomerang component that was built into the brigade’s Strykers. Boomerang is an acoustic analysis system designed to record the sound of a shot and identify its source, Cummings said.
“A guy could snipe at a soldier and rather than spend a lot of time trying to figure out where the shot came from, with the Boomerang system integrated with Land Warrior, it would instantaneously give you a direction and a distance to where the sniper was and everyone could maneuver on him,” he said.
RUGGEDNESS AND RELIABILITY
Oddly, the reliability of the supposedly delicate electronics was among the least of Cummings’ worries about Land Warrior.
“Putting 240 systems outside the wire every day for 15 months, you’d think there would be more problems; you’d think the helmet displays would give you a lot of problems,” he said. “In fact, the systems were incredibly reliable; it was the cables and connectors that needed a lot of attention.”
Many of the problems were caused by wear and tear, or from the range of human factors involved. One tall lieutenant kept pulling the connections on his system loose when he stood in the Stryker. Turning the component upside-down shortened the reach and eliminated the problem, Cummings said.
Also, GPS antennas and other connectors had to be modified and ruggedized to keep them from wearing out or breaking in normal use.
Usually you try to make those connections soldier-proof, so they can’t break them plugging them in, or just moving around,” Showah said. “The problem is that when you put a system on a vehicle, you build it inside a Stryker or other armored vehicle.
With this, the platform you’re building it on is the soldier; you’re putting it on the outside of the platform and every time the soldier flops down on the ground, he’s falling on the connectors. We spent a lot of time changing and repositioning and hardening the cables and connectors. That turned out to be the most consistent challenge.”
“In the original design you basically had a computer box, a nav box, power source and a radio that fit on a small plastic panel on the soldier’s backplate, with cables that connected across the body armor,” Cummings said. “In the final design, the cables and connectors were in a semi-rigid box on the backs of the troops, where it couldn’t get in the way.”
In addition to reducing and redesigning the cabling and connections, General Dynamics modified the radio and systems controls during the 9th Infantry Regiment’s deployment. The company shrank the control pad and added a keyboard to let soldiers send text messages in situations in which talking was difficult or in environments where text could get through but data couldn’t, he said.
General Dynamics further simplified the control unit, added a 911 call-for-help function and reduced the weight as a way to give even nonteam leaders access to some of the system’s functions.
Whether the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT), 2nd Infantry Division, which will deploy with the updated version of Land Warrior next year, will get a version light enough for all the troops to carry depends on whether the Army decides to fund that function, Showah said.
The 2nd Infantry Division will get a much lighter version partly because of feedback from the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Division and partly because of improved technology. “Originally, we sent out the systems with two batteries to increase the runtime,” Showah said. “The feedback we got was that the operations they were running didn’t require that. They’d bring one battery and recharge in between operations. In the next generation system, there’s also one battery rather than two, which saved us 2 pounds right there, but there’s a higher energy density to the batteries now than there was then, there are fewer boxes to power, and they use 30 percent less power. So you get almost the same runtime with one battery as we originally [specified] with two.”
At press time, General Dynamics had not delivered the latest version of Land Warrior to the 5th SBCT, 2nd Infantry but was on schedule to do so long before it deploys, Showah said. In the meantime, the soldiers are training with equipment borrowed from the 9th Infantry, and Cummings is working primarily on the upcoming competition for the Ground Soldier System.
“We’re hoping to increase competition among the vendors for a system that’s lower-cost and increases capabilities,” Cummings said. “I want to be able to see all my buddies and all the leaders above me, operational graphics of the mission set and see everyone’s images moving and communicate verbally and with messages back and forth.”
“The problem is that the platform is the soldier, the human being,” Cummings said. “The weight and human real estate you occupy in what the boxes take up is limited. Those are the two things we’re most concerned about — how do you keep the network flowing and keep the soldier’s load to a minimum?”