By Henry Kenyon
As U.S. forces become increasingly network-centric, one of the most difficult challenges has been to connect individual soldiers to battlefield communications and sensor networks. In a series of announcements last week, the Army launched initiatives to provide soldiers with lightweight handheld electronics. However, this only represents the latest stage in a decades-long process to link individual troops to networks.
The effort began more than 20 years ago with Land Warrior, which, after decades of development, finally fielded equipment in battle in Iraq in 2007. Solider feedback led to further work to cut the system’s weight from 16 pounds to eight pounds and to simplify some of the software and command and control applications with an emphasis on hands-free controls, reported Wired Magazine’s Danger Room blog.
The latest iteration of this system is Nett Warrior, originally known as the Ground Soldier System. Nett Warrior resembles its predecessors, consisting of a wearable computer, navigation system, control unit, radio, microphone, headphones and an eyepiece that provides the wearer with the illusion that they are viewing a 17-inch monitor.
Unlike Land Warrior or the GSS, which were intended to equip every soldier in a squad, Nett Warrior is only for squad or section leaders. The system is designed to interoperate with other equipment in the development pipeline, such as the Joint Tactical Radio System’s Rifleman Radio that will link every individual soldier into the network.
Prototype Nett Warrior equipment is undergoing operational exercises at Fort Riley, Kan. The Army has awarded contracts to three firms: General Dynamics, Raytheon and Rockwell Collins. All three companies were also involved in the development of Land Warrior.
National Defense Magazine reports that the Army is scheduled to make a final contract decision in March or April 2011 to determine which contractor or combination of contractors will produce the final version of Nett Warrior. If the program rolls out according to plan, the Army will begin fielding the gear within two years with the goal of issuing up to 20,000 systems to 30 infantry brigade combat teams by 2016.
But while the Army continues to develop lightweight battlefield electronics for its troops, some of its leaders are growing impatient with the slow pace of progress. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, has championed issuing variants of commercially available smart handheld devices such as iPhones to every soldier. The service is already moving forward with tactical field tests of smart phones at Fort Bliss, Texas and the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
In an interview with NextGov, Chiarelli said that the ease and flexibility of handheld devices such as smart phones and tablet computers make them essential tools for all soldiers. Because it is easy to write applications for these devices, recently demonstrated in the recent Apps for the Army project, developers and sometimes even the combat troops themselves can quickly create a variety of applications for these devices. According to Chiarelli, this programming flexibility, combined with the economies of scale that an Army-wide procurement would have would provide troops with valuable new capabilities to do their jobs more efficiently or to conduct business such as communicating with medical or mental health personnel.
Other parts of the Defense Department are already taking steps to provide warfighters with smart handheld devices. U.S. Special Operations Command has issued a request for proposals for technologies to keep Special Forces troops connected. Known as the Tactical Situational Awareness program, it seeks to develop a suite of software applications to provide reliable and standardized peer to peer data networking between handheld devices over mobile ad hoc wireless networks without centralized servers.
SOCOM plans to use commercial equipment, specifically smart phones using the Android operating system. Potential vendors must be able to provide mapping functions, chat applications, multicast file transfer, multitouch whiteboarding, and the ability to display H.264/MGPEG 4 video streams individually and simultaneously. The deadline for TactSA submission is December 15.