28 September 2007
Soldier of the Future Gets His Gear On
By Noah Shachtman
September 26, 2007 | 2:01:00 AM
TARMIYAH, Iraq -- They were supposed to be wearing the high-tech soldier suits of the future. But when the grunts of the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment first started running around with a pile of gadgets on their backs and their helmets, they absolutely hated the gear.
Oh, maybe the Land Warrior gizmo suite -- complete with digital maps, wearable computers and new radios -- might do the bosses some good, the troops told me. And yeah, the equipment was about as close as troops today were going to get to the kind of tricked-out, sci-fi ensemble you might see worn by Halo's Master Chief. But at 16 pounds, on top of an already crushing 60-plus-pound load for grunts, the gear just wasn't worth the weight. The Army brass wasn't exactly thrilled with Land Warrior, either -- it yanked every last dime to fund the get-ups. The half-billion-dollar, 15-year project looked dead.
Cash was on hand to send the 4/9 into battle with Land Warrior, though. And their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Bill Prior, was a big fan. So, this spring, Land Warrior went off to Iraq.
I've just spent a week with Prior and the 4/9 (known as the "Manchus" since their assaults on China in 1901). And much to my surprise, a bunch of the soldiers in the unit are warming up to Land Warrior, especially now that the gizmo ensemble has been pared down and made more tactically relevant. So now the question is: can this once-doomed soldier-of-the-future ensemble spring back to life?
Over the last decade, the military has connected nearly all its command posts and all its vehicles into a kind of internet for battle. That allowed them to, at the very least, see each other's locations and better coordinate attacks.
Individual soldiers, however, still remain largely off the grid -- only now, more than four years into the Iraq war, are many troop teams getting radios of their own. That's a problem because counterinsurgency fights, like the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, are almost wholly dependent on small groups of soldiers like these. Land Warrior was supposed to be the way to plug them in.
Captain Jack Moore, the commander of the 4/9's "Blowtorch" company, peers into his Land Warrior monocle. Inside is a digital map of Tarmiyah, a filthy little town about 25 kilometers north of Baghdad that's become a haven for Islamists. Blue icons show two of his platoons sweeping through the western half of the town. Two other icons represent Blowtorch soldiers who have teamed up with special forces and Iraqi Army units to raid local mosques with insurgent ties.
A red dot suddenly pops up on Moore's monocle screen: 3rd platoon has found a pair of improvised bombs -- black boxes, filled with homemade explosives. Other troops will circumvent the scene.
As the other platoons move south to north, green lights blink on Moore's map. Each of these "digital chem lights" represents a house checked and cleared. It keeps different groups of soldiers from kicking down the same set of doors twice.
A year ago, these chem lights weren't even part of the Land Warrior code. But after a suggestion from a Manchu soldier, the digital markers were added -- and quickly became the system's most popular feature. During air assaults on Baquba, to the northeast, troops were regularly dropped a quarter or half-kilometer from their original objective; the chem lights allowed them to converge on the spot where they were supposed to go. In the middle of one mission, a trail of green lights was used to mark a new objective -- and show the easiest way to get to the place.
Later, a five-man "small kill team" or SKT, was set up about 10 kilometers north of Tarmiyah to ambush an insurgent crew. But that crew turned out to be larger than expected, and the SKT was suddenly being attacked by 10 Iraqis. Almost instantly, Captain Aaron Miller, stationed two kilometers to the south, was able to respond.
"They didn't have to tell us their location -- we knew it right away. So they could focus on the fight," Miller says.
Miller is still not happy with how much the system weighs. "Look, I need this like I need a 10th arm," he sighs. And all this stuff (Land Warrior does), my cell phone basically does the same at home." But Miller is committed to soldiers being networked. So he's willing to be the digital guinea pig. "It's got to start with someone."
The system has become more palatable to the Manchus because it's been pared down, in all sorts of ways. By consolidating parts, a 16-pound ensemble is now down to a little more than 10. A new, digital gun scope has been largely abandoned by the troops -- the system was too cumbersome and too slow to be effective. And now, not every soldier in the 4/9 has to lug around Land Warrior. Only team leaders and above are so equipped.
"It helped morale a lot," says Lt. Col. Prior. "Leaders need it to track where you're going next, and when to use the right route. But for Joe (average soldier) -- pulling security, climbing through a window -- it was too much."
It still is, for some members of the Manchus.
"If it were five pounds, it'd be money," says Sergeant First Class Benjamin Mulkey. "But right now, it's not worth the weight."
Sam Lee, another sergeant stationed in Tarmiyah, drives back and forth over a stretch of unpaved road. His Land Warrior system has frozen up, and tells him he's a few hundred meters away from his actual location. When he gets out, his fellow soldiers can talk fine over their radios. His Land Warrior model is dead.
And of course, everybody has to be plugged into the system in order for it to be worth a damn. At the end of an exhausting night's worth of house-to-house searches, Lieutenant Michael Bennett loses track of half of his platoon. They aren't very far away -- just a few blocks. But because no one is up on Land Warrior, it takes an hour of bleary-eyed scrambling for the platoon to be reunited.
But while some troops struggle with Land Warrior's basics, new features are being added to the system. Video feeds from small ground robots, pictures from flying drones and data from sniper-detecting sensors should all be available in the Manchus' monocles before their tour is over next fall.
The question is whether the 4/9 will be the last unit to wear the Land Warrior gear. Right now, there is no money in the Defense Department budget to similarly equip another set of soldiers. But the 2nd Infantry Division's 5th Brigade Combat Team is in the process of officially asking for the gear. And Land Warrior allies are also pushing Congress to include $60 to $80 million to give more troops the get-ups.
Neither effort has been successful, so far. So the future of the soldier-of-the-future still remains very much in doubt.