An Introduction to Soldier Technology and Modernisation

Outside of niche publications and the defence trade press you don’t often come across much information about systems technology and modernisation programs for combat arms soldiers – its not as “sexy” as nuclear missile submarines, advanced stealth aircraft or attack helicopters – but its every bit as important (if not even more so these days).

So, I was delighted to get the opportunity last week to attend the 9th annual Soldier Modernisation & Technology conference and exhibition in London, organised by WBR Ltd. (www.soldiertechnology.com).  The images below show some of the programs covered at this year’s event (click to enlarge):

In a nutshell, Soldier Technology 2009 involved more than 550 attendees, 55+ in-depth presentations, 2 interactive workshops and 35+ exhibitors.  So, I’m going to just provide a summary of my overall experience and impressions in this piece, and then over the next few weeks I’ll run a series of articles about the products and systems that I had a chance to learn about in more detail.

The packed agenda of presentations and workshops covered a comprehensive range of topic areas – including; C4I, soldier-vehicle interface, lethality, power and human-factors – which reflects the operational reality of forces engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan:

  • There was an emphasis “soldier-vehicle interface” – i.e.; driving, riding, and getting in and out of vehicles while wearing all your combat gear
  • Power” (i.e.; electricity) has become a key concern as more and more troops are using more and more battery-powered devices on operations
  • Lethality” – i.e.; how to make the sharp end of the spear even sharper, more decisive and with reduced collateral damage and “friendly fire” incidents
  • Human Factors” – this is in my view one of the most important considerations in the design and deployment of new kit.  There was a lot of discussion of such things as differently shaped body armour and shorter rifle stocks to accommodate female soldiers; of the need for kit to be simple and easy to use (especially under stressful conditions); of the need for kit to be comfortable, lightweight, ergonomic and mission-appropriate (for example, can a soldier still climb over a wall and/or pass through a doorway while wearing this kit?); and finally, that ultimately the soldiers have to like the kit enough to want to be trained on the kit and to use it most effectively

Topics discussed at Soldier Technology 2009 included:

  • How to effectively interoperate dismounted and mounted systems to network ground forces of the future
  • NATO Land Capability Group 1 standardisation recommendations to ensure coalition interoperability
  • Assessing the future capabilities of the UK dismounted soldier
  • IdZ: Development Results and Core Focus in Future
  • Integration of IdZ to the German Battlefield Management System
  • Soldier Modernisation and Vehicle Interoperability; The Australian Perspective
  • Evaluating The 2009 Trials Of The French Advanced Soldier System
  • Fielding the Infrastructure For The Dismounted Soldier System: The ISSP
  • Integrating New Navigation Capabilities To Improve Effective Operation During Urban Indoor Missions
  • A First Maturation Step For The IMESS Prototypes In Preparation For Series Production
  • Common C2 Trial on DSS Between Norway and Sweden
  • Optimising Survivability For The Canadian Warfighter
  • A View on the Dutch Soldier System; VOSS
  • The Singapore Advanced Combat Man System – The next Phase in Solider Digitisation and Modernisation
  • Land 125 and The Challenges of Integration
  • NATO Weapons & Sensors Group – Increasing Lethality For The Future Soldier
  • Networking the Dismounted and Mounted Soldier Into The Digital Battlespace
  • Extending the Range of Situational Awareness with Unattended Ground Sensors Network

I think it was back in the early 90s when somebody coined the phrase “revolution in military affairs” – digitisation of the battlefield at a macro-level of command-and-control.  That approach certainly seemed to make sense at the time, given that we were still mostly structured and planning for a large-scale NATO vs. Warsaw Pact (i.e., WWIII), and also seemed to have been totally validated by the success of the First Gulf War.  Remember some of the “proof that technology wins wars” statements, presentations and advertising that we saw through-out the ‘90’s?

Well, things have become a lot more interesting – and demanding – in the years since, when we’ve been primarily engaged in more fluid, less predictable, and in many ways more demanding, asymmetric and counter-insurgency warfare – where the “fog of war” is even thicker.  To counter this kind of threat you need “smart soldiers” as well as “smart bombs”.

So this is where the REAL revolution in military affairs is happening now – at the micro-level, the small unit and individual soldier level.  The days of the “cannon fodder” or “ground-pounder and bullet-catcher” may be coming to an end.  These days, the simple “poor bloody infantry” has to be fighters, policemen, humanitarians and inter-cultural ambassadors – often all in the same day, or within the space of 3 city blocks as USMC Gen. Krulak described it.  To perform well within these parameters the individual soldier’s situational awareness and tactical judgement has to be as decisive, accurate and error-free as possible – for example, is that an innocent civilian there, or the guy who just launched an RPG at your mates on the next block?

This is what soldier modernisation programmes are all about.  This is the space where man and machine are starting to combine in order to transform each soldier into a sensor (as one US program manager describes it).  Or, if you want to get a bit creative with your analogy, this is the birth of the first cyber-warriors.  And that is a truly revolutionary change in one of the most basic elements of military forces.

But what is it that’s so revolutionary, what is it that’s really changing the life and experience of the soldiers at the sharp end?  Fundamentally, soldier modernisation programmes are about fixing the basic problems that small unit leaders, and individual soldiers, have had to contend with since the first time that a bunch of cave men banded together and went and raided another clan’s cave.

  • Where am I – and where are my team-mates?
  • Where are you – and where’s our support?
  • Where is the enemy – how many of them are there, and what’s their disposition?
  • How are we doing – have we accomplished our objectives, have we taken casualties?

If you think about it, everything at the combat unit level – from navigation, to communications, intelligence, tactics, IFF, individual and unit firepower, artillery and air support, logistics, supply and casualty treatment – revolves around addressing those 4 basic questions.  But addressing them comprehensively, effectively and simply is harder than you might think – after all, its taken us several thousand years of tactical and technical developments to get us even as close as we are today.

All in all, this is a fascinating and exciting process to be a part of and I look forward to continuing to keep you as informed about further developments as and when I can.

Strike-Hold!

Lawrence.



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