Posted by: lrrp | April 26, 2007

Reinventing the Foot Soldier

The American military wants to bring a vast range of battlefield knowledge down to the grunts on the ground
By Adam Piore

June 7-14 issue – Iraqi soldiers had a name for America’s fleet of M1 Abrams tanks—they called them “whispering death.” That’s because the M1 can obliterate the kind of Soviet-era tanks employed by the former Iraqi Army before a crew even knows it’s coming. It’s not just that these 63-ton killing machines have heat-sensitive thermal imaging that allows U.S. soldiers to see tanks hiding behind sand dunes at night in any weather, or that its weapons have a 1,000-meter advantage in range. The M1’s superiority has as much to do with a revolution in wireless technology that’s transformed the way U.S. forces manage their operations on the battlefield. Using GPS navigation, American tanks roam the desert without fear of getting lost. Low-flying drones transmit real-time video from the battlefield back to headquarters, where commanders help tank crews prepare for what lies ahead. This technological advantage is one reason why the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq was so quick and deadly.

It also helps explain why American forces have had such trouble fighting the ensuing insurgency, when soldiers have had to get out of their tanks and go after enemy fighters on foot. That’s raised one of the most pressing problems facing the U.S. military: how to bring the benefits of the wireless revolution down to the individual foot soldier. The Pentagon has scores of new projects in testing and development aimed at doing just that. Their goal is to endow the grunt with the ability to see enemy soldiers before he emerges from the protection of his armored vehicle. On the streets, he’ll have access to real-time video of what lies ahead, controlling perspective and location with a joystick that can manipulate a “virtual” image of himself across a portable video screen attached to his helmet. “Think about what you could do differently if you knew that an adversary was waiting around a corner,” Jeffrey Paul, of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), told a crowd of scientists and defense contractors recently. “You could decide whether to prepare for combat, signal others to surprise him or choose a different route. That advance knowledge is what we must give our war fighters.”

To do this, the military will need to continue making significant strides in the amount of real-time, actionable data it can collect from the battlefield. In the second gulf war Americans used a crude new tracking system that allowed tank commanders to identify one another by locating them on a real-time graphical display of the battlefield. The advance cut down significantly on friendly fire incidents. But the ultimate goal is much more ambitious. Pentagon planners see a day when they can blanket battlefields with so many wireless sensors that even the smallest targets in the most complex urban or jungle environments will be unable to change position without being observed. “This means there will always be an appropriate sensor staring in our opponent’s face no matter where they move,” explained Paul.

Some promising projects are already in testing. DARPA recently demonstrated the ability to pick out vehicles parked behind a dense tree line, using advanced radar. Eventually a new kind of radar that employs lasers to produce real-time 3-D holograms will be added to the system. The sensors could be attached to wireless drones, which would prowl battlefields sending images from alleyways, the streets, even through windows. Finding ways to track enemies into underground facilities and buildings is tougher—but not impossible. In the wake of Tora Bora, the U.S. military began pouring money into sensors that are ultrasensitive to sound, seismic vibrations caused by activity underground and electromagnetic impulses.

Processing all this new data presents challenges of its own. Already, supercomputers are capable of combining information from satellite, radar data and drones into a unified image. Doing so with the specificity a foot soldier would require, though, is another thing altogether. “If you have a lot of sensor data on a ship, you end up with a lot of people doing that processing,” says Larry Jackel, a DARPA program manager. “If the poor guy is a dismount, he’s got to do it all. You got your hands full dodging bullets. You don’t want to have your headgear feed you all sorts of data… unless it’s going to tell you a lot about exactly what’s on the other side of that hill.” Jackel and his staff are developing computer programs that use artificial-intelligence systems to filter out unnecessary data. But he is years away from a finished product.

For now, there isn’t nearly enough bandwidth to transmit the data to American foot soldiers anyway. DARPA wants to develop a huge blimp with an internal antenna the length of the Statue of Liberty that would hover 21,000 meters above a battlefield, collecting and beaming data among sensors, soldiers and headquarters. Researchers have only begun to study the most basic questions, like how to dramatically reduce antenna weight and how to keep the myriad electronic components calibrated to one another over time.

Power supply also remains an issue. The average soldier already carries about 22 batteries. Purush Chalilpoyil, a former manager of research at Duracell, estimates that battery capacity has tripled in the past decade. But future hopes rest on fuel-cell technologies that are lightweight but still in development.

Many other challenges remain. Iraq was able to obtain Russian-made radar jamming equipment capable of disrupting American signals; DARPA is experimenting with ways to divert such devices with decoy signals. Still, the four pillars of knowledge every soldier needs haven’t changed—where he is, where his buddies are, where the enemy is and what the commander wants him to do. Any advances in the technology used to deliver that kind of information are sure to revolutionize the way war is fought.

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