High Tech Warrior versus New Ships

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 2 months ago

The U.S. Military establishment needs to find a compromise position between dollars for new boots-on-the-ground programs, training and equipment, keeping the Battleships operational, and new Destroyers for the Navy.  We should do some of all of it rather than a lot of one of them.

In my post Squad Rushes and War Gaming, I argue that the money spent towards the U.S. Joint Forces Command program “Urban Resolve” is wise money.  I promised in that post to give you an example of unwise money.  But before I get to that, let me give you one more example of smart money.  The quote below is long, but worth the read.  The Stategy Page is reporting:

The U.S. Army currently has a battalion of infantry testing the “Land Warrior” gear. Many of the troops involved are combat veterans, and their opinions will carry a lot of weight. The army wants to get this stuff to Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as possible, but only if it passes muster with the troops. So far, there have been some communications problems. This is not unusual, but the “Land Warrior” system depends on continuous communications to provide accurate position information for all the wired troops, and their commanders.

What the field tests are trying to prove is whether the usual imperfect communications, which have long been common in combat, before and after radio was introduced, render “Land Warrior” not- worth- the- effort. This is where using combat veterans is so important. Troops who have not been in combat have to guess if certain test conditions would result in a battlefield disaster, or just an annoyance, especially in light of the potential advantages from using “Land Warrior.”

Indications are that the new gear will pass the test. That’s because similar equipment (Blue Force Tracker and the wired Stryker) have already proved worthwhile, despite commo and reliability problems common with this kind of equipment.

It was the use of the new Stryker wheeled armored vehicle in Iraq that accelerated the development of the Land Warrior equipment. The Strykers were using a partial set of the “Mounted Warrior” equipment, a version of Land Warrior for the crews of armored vehicles. The troops liked all their new electronic gadgets a lot, just as commanders took to Blue Force Tracker in 2003.

While the current Land Warrior gear includes a wearable computer/GPS/radio combination, plus improvements in body armor and uniform design, the original, 1990s, Land Warrior concept was a lot more ambitious. But this version had a science fiction air about it, and was not expected to appear for two decades or more. The brass eventually got more realistic, especially since September 11, 2001. That, plus the unexpectedly rapid appearance of new computer and communications technology, caused them to reduce the number of items included in the initial Land Warrior release. At the same time, this all made it possible for the first version of Land Warrior to undergo field testing right now and, if that’s successful, appear next year in combat.

In effect, the first beta of Mounted Warrior was installed in the Stryker vehicles headed for Iraq last year. That gear worked well, and the troops were enthusiastic about using a vehicle that was booted, rather than simply started. The main idea with this new gear was to provide the troops with superior “situational awareness.” That’s a fancy term for having a good sense of where you are. The Stryker troops always knew where they were, by looking at a computer screen. There, a GPS placed the vehicle on a detailed map of the area.

Over half a century of studies have revealed some key information on what an infantryman needs to be more effective. They need to know where they are, quickly. Having a poor idea of where you are proved to be one of the main shortcomings of armored vehicles. The crews are even more easily disoriented, with most of them inside the vehicle. When the shooting starts, even the commander, instead of standing up with his head outside the turret, ducks back inside to stay alive. Infantry aren’t much better off. Although they can see their surroundings, they are often crouching behind something. When getting shot at, standing up to look around is not much of an option.

So Land Warrior gives the infantryman a wearable computer, using an eyepiece as a display (attached to the helmet, and flips down for use), and a small keypad to control the thing. GPS puts the soldiers location on the map shown in the eyepiece. Tests so far have shown that this works. More extensive tests are taking place now.

Even in Iraq, infantry officers and NCOs, equipped with PDAs, have found the map/GPS combo a tremendous aid to getting around, and getting the job done. Land Warrior will also provide a wireless networking capability, so troops not only see where they are in their eyepiece, but can receive new maps and other information. Land Warrior troops can also use a vidcam  to transmit images to headquarters, their immediate commander, or simply to the other guys in their squad. Perhaps most importantly, the Land Warrior gear will provide the same capability as the 2003 “Blue Force Tracker”, and show each grunt, via his eyepiece, where all the other guys in his unit are. When fighting inside a building, this can be a life saver.

There are several other issues that need to be worked out. The battlefield wi-fi system takes about ten seconds to update everyones position. That will eventually get down to a third of that, but real-time updates may be a decade away. The troops can work around that. For the moment, just knowing where everyone is before you move out (or into a building) is useful. The troops are providing lots of feedback, and the changes to the equipment are being made quickly. For example, the troops want a keypad, at least similar to a cell phone, so they can more easily send text messages (like many of them do now with their cell phones.) The small vidcam mounted on the end of everyones rifle will, in a few months, have the ability to send still pictures to anywhere.

If Land Warrior 1.0 proves durable and reliable enough to work in combat, it will change the way troops fight. Everyone will be able to move around more quickly, confidently and effectively. This model has already been demonstrated with the Stryker units. Captured enemy gunmen often complained of how the Strykers came out of nowhere, and skillfully maneuvered to surround and destroy their targets. This was often done at night, with no lights (using night vision gear.) When you have infantry using Land Warrior gear to do the same thing on foot, you demoralize the enemy. Hostile Iraqis already attribute all manner of science fiction type capabilities to American troops. But with Land Warrior, the bar will have to be raised on what’s science fiction, and what is just regular issue gear. This is typical of what happens in wartime, where the demand for better weapons and equipment, and a realistic place to test it, greatly accelerates the development and deployment of the new stuff.

I am the self-appointed protagonist of the grunt.  So in what may be the surprise of the century, I will go on record saying that the program described above is a good idea.  It is well worth the money beng spent on it.  The only problem with this type of program is that it tends to take too long to validate, quality assure, field test and implement in the U.S. forces.  My bet is that it will not be available for years.  Because of the line of work I am in, I am qualified to say that the tendency is to make systems perfectly functional 100% of the time and in all circumstances, to perform failure mode and effects analyses, to quality validate and verify the input data and assumptions forever, and evalute and assess performance test results forever before putting a system into service.  It is how engineers do business.  The military and defense contractors need to put someone other than engineers in charge.  The system needs to be functional sooner rather than later.  And 95% is good enough.

Finally, to the unwise money.  Small Wars Journal has had a discussion thread based on Robert Novak’s column at Townhall, Marines vs. the military-industrial complex.  The Navy wants to retire the USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin in favor of building and commissioning new destroyers.  Novak says:

“The Navy wants shiny new equipment,” Bartlett told me. That desire comports with intimate ties between defense contractors and senior naval officers, who may be looking forward to retirement jobs. The Navy brass’s antipathy toward battleships dates back to destruction of the big ships by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Over objections by the admirals, battleships have served effectively in the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars.

Regardless of the less rational reasons for or against retirement of the battleships, the history of the engineering and construction of these huge ships, and indeed, the very nature of engineering and construction, argues for the continuing viability of these vessels and against wholesale replacement.  This is true regardless of whether destroyers are constructed and commissioned.

Whether it is a bridge, large building, hydroelectric project (such as the Hoover Dam), nuclear power plant, or large sea-going vessel, these things end up being once-in-a-lifetime, unparalleled projects that can never be precisely duplicated.  First of all there is the so-called “tribal knowledge,” or things that are not writtten down, codified, or even necessarily passed on to successors, that contributes to huge projects.  This tribal knowledge has to be re-created and re-learned with each new project, especially with projects that are separated in time 50+ years.

Second, there is the well-known demise of the steel and shipbuilding industry in the U.S.  Many large steel components, including ships, are now constructed in the Rotterdam Shipyard.  Battleships literally could not be constructed in the U.S. today (at least, not without re-training, re-tooling and significant changes and modifications).

Retirement of Battleships is profoundly unwise, but here we need to hedge a bit in how we aim at the future.  The shipbuilding industry in the U.S. is not only in a dire condition, it may not survive without the infusion of defense dollars to — yes, you guessed it — build things like new destroyers.

We are in the unenviable position of saying that we need to find middle ground.  The Battleships should not be mothballed, but defense dollars should be found for newer, well-armed destroyers, even if not in the numbers that the Navy has requested.

Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”


You are currently reading "High Tech Warrior versus New Ships", entry #279 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Weapons and Tactics and was published September 15th, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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