Captain J. Dow Covey and Staff Sergeant Justin Evaristo rely on the Land Warrior system in Mushahidah, Iraq.

U.S. Army, Program Executive Office Soldier

Can high-tech military gadgets improve safety for soldiers and civilians in combat?

The men and women who serve in the armed forces face many challenges. Not least among those is the distinct possibility of entering a dangerous combat situation. Battles tend to be chaotic. Conditions can change unpredictably with dramatic consequences. Soldiers must rely on a combination of their training, their fellow soldiers and their equipment to get in and out of combat situations safely.

While nothing will ever replace a soldier's native capabilities and training, there are several military gadgets meant to improve safety even under battle conditions. And in the modern era of combat, some battles are fought not on a field or in trenches but inside towns and cities, so soldiers must also consider the safety of civilians.

Many of the gadgets some soldiers carry are related to gathering and analyzing information. Using a combination of sensors, cameras, transmitters and displays, soldiers have more information at their fingertips now than they've ever had. But does that equipment improve soldier and civilian safety?

Surprisingly, the answer isn't a simple one. Despite investing more than half a billion dollars in a digital equipment package known as the Land Warrior project, the United States Army has seen only limited success in incorporating high-tech communications systems with gadgets meant for the average soldier.

 

Robots and UAVs

While we may still be years away from seeing high-tech personal gear for the typical soldier, the military has plenty of other cutting-edge technologies. Robots and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) help soldiers get a look at situations too dangerous or remote for humans to explore safely.

The Land Warrior Program

The Land Warrior project was ambitious from the start. It consisted of an encrypted communications system made up of radios and sensors. Soldiers wearing the Land Warrior gear would have access to the latest battleground conditions using a wearable computer system. Soldiers could look at a small computer monitor through one eye and see the location of other friendly forces. Radio transmissions could keep troop movements secret in hostile situations.

But after more than 10 years of development and $500 million invested in the project, the Army cut funding to Land Warrior in 2007. The cut was just one of several budget cutbacks across the United States military. Why cut a program that could keep soldiers safe in dangerous and unpredictable environments?

Part of the problem was that soldiers were slow to use the technology during tests. Some soldiers claimed that the added weight of the gear made them larger and slower targets [source: Popular Mechanics]. Without early support from the soldiers who would use this equipment in combat, the Army found it difficult to justify the program's funding.

While the new technology meant soldiers would have to carry more equipment -- something that usually doesn't provoke cheers from soldiers -- many of its functions could contribute to safety. A flip-down eyepiece could serve as a computer monitor. The monitor could display electronic maps with friendly positions marked clearly. It could also link to the rifle's digital sight, allowing soldiers to hold a gun around a corner and get a glimpse of what's beyond without presenting their heads as targets. The sight and monitor could also serve as a powerful scope, providing up to 12 times magnification.

Another factor that may have contributed to the Army's decision to eliminate the program was the cost. It cost the Army approximately $30,000 to outfit just one soldier with the Land Warrior gear [source: Popular Mechanics]. The ultimate goal for the project was to create a system that could, in theory, roll out to every soldier in the Army.

The Army and other branches of the U.S. military are still trying to ensure soldiers have access to the gear and information they need on the battleground. While the Land Warrior project ultimately failed, other projects based on a similar philosophy -- informed soldiers are safe soldiers -- still receive funding. There seems to be no doubt that the right high-tech gear could improve soldier and civilian safety. The only question is how to design and implement the gear to make it as user-friendly and practical as possible.

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Lots More Information

Sources

  • Cox, Matthew. "Army drops Land Warrior program." ArmyTimes. Feb. 8, 2007. (Dec. 18, 2009) http://www.armytimes.com/news/2007/02/ATLWcut070206/
  • Shachtman, Noah. "The Army's New Land Warrior Gear: Why Soldiers Don't Like It." Popular Mechanics. May 2007. (Dec. 18, 2009) http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/military_law/4215715.html