The continuing controversy over the efficacy of the SA-80 assault rifle has focused attention on the quality of the soldier's military technology.
Public opinion swung against the government when it emerged that vital equipment was not up to the task. However, new military technologies are becoming much more sophisticated. In July, the MoD published its New Chapter to the 1997 Strategic Defence Review. Over the next three years it will release £3.45bn of extra cash to transform the armed forces. In Parliament, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon stressed that modernisation and emerging technologies will be crucial.
He said: 'We must be able to get the right forces quickly to where we need them, make better use of intelligence to identify the threat, decide how to deal with it and then strike - decisively.' About 40 per cent of the extra money is therefore assigned to building up 'network-centric capability', currently being developed.
The MoD defines network-centric as the networking of intelligence-gathering sensors, decision makers and precision attacks. This means the rapid dissemination of information from sensor to shooter 'to detect, decide and destroy' will exploit technology 'to achieve disproportionate power'.
This technology gives the commander on the ground freedom and flexibility so that he no longer has to wait for information and orders to get up and down the chain of command: it should all be there in front of him straight away.
Network-centric warfare concepts aren't restricted to officers or intelligence staff. According to one of its leading US exponents, vice-admiral Arthur Cebrowski, network-centric computing is governed by Metcalfe's Law. This states that the power of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes in the network. So every soldier has a part to play as a node in the digital web.
An example of this trend is the Future Integrated Soldier Technology (FIST) programme - perhaps the most radical technological investment in the British infantry since World War II. The technology is designed to provide an integrated fighting system that enhances the effectiveness of individuals committed to close combat, which means almost turning the average soldier into a hi-tech cyborg.
On 14 August the MoD selected two competitors - from an original field of four - to proceed further with their bids for the program. The two, BAE Systems and Thales, are now planning their assessment phase proposals for submission at the end of the year. these will include the finer details regarding the technological requirements.The intention is to enhance capability rather than replace specific pieces of equipment, and the programme is likely to break down into five main areas:
<UL><LI>voice and data communications - already in swing under the long-awaited Bowman digital battlefield programme.<LI>all-weather surveillance and target acquisition, to include imaging and sensor equipment. <LI>lighter, longer-lasting power supplies for the above. <LI>improvements to weapon accuracy and range - which could mean either better ammunition or superior sighting and fire control systems.<LI>protection, such as armour and chemical suits.</UL>
In 2003, either BAE Systems or Thales will be selected as overall winner of the £15m assessment phase, and will go forward to the demonstration and manufacture phase. Eventually 29,000 soldiers will be using the kit, altogether worth around £1.6bn.
Requirements for overall improvements in weight, robustness and reliability signify a recognition that, unlike some items in the current army inventory, the hi-tech kit will have to survive in all conditions. In other words, it will have to be 'squaddie proof'.A typical rucksack today, full of food, ammunition, radios, sensors, batteries and so on, weighs 40kg or more. The whole essence of network-centrics will break down if it adds significantly to the soldier's burden. And that is one of the main technical challenges.
The final version is likely to be much less heavy and bulky than today's technology, but both bidders are reluctant to discuss their ideas in detail. The other challenge will be integrating the equipment into one system.
Equipment under consideration includes thermal weapon sights, night vision equipment and helmet-mounted head-up displays feeding information straight to the soldier. All this would be linked to a small central computer carried on the soldier's belt.
Broadband communications via the new Bowman internet-protocol radio system will enable information sensors to be fed to troops. On their head-up displays soldiers will be able to see images from cameras, weapon sights and other remote sensors. For example, instead of looking through their sights to fire their rifles troops would be able to see the image from the sight via a head-up display, and shoot remotely from behind cover.
Bowman is what the MoD calls 'a key enabler project' for the UK's network-centric initiative. It will replace the Clansman combat radio and the headquarters infrastructure element of Ptarmigan, the existing mobile telephone trunk system. Bowman is designed to provide tactical, secure voice communications, data messaging, location information and a number of other capabilitiesfor all three services - at least until 2026.
Worth around £2.4bn, the Bowman system also provides its share of video-game style technology. The GPS and command and control systems it includes will allow every user to download battlefield maps. They will also be able to see where their comrades are, and mark down enemy positions for others on the network.
Within Bowman comes a Combat Net Radio (CNR) for the infantry. Clansman generally only allows communications on set frequencies. Operating on either high frequency (HF) and VHF, Bowman radios will be able to search for free channels and hop across different frequencies during a transmission to make eavesdropping more difficult. They will have easy-to-use automatic link establishment to cope with the difficult business of bouncing long-distance communications off the ionosphere.
In addition to the voice radios, a 'user data service' will enable non-voice communications. Access will be via a range of data terminals, either stand-alone or mounted in vehicles.
Bowman's other main feature is Automatic Position Location Navigation and Reporting (APLNR). This should help prevent soldiers getting lost and decrease the risk of 'friendly fire.'
Crucially, Bowman and the hi-tech system together should allow the infantry to receive written orders and intelligence via e-mail as sources make their reports. This too could appear on the helmet display or on a PDA-style tablet. Platoon commanders should better understand what's going on at all times, and infantry commanders will be more equipped to get detailed information fed direct to their artillery and air support.
The next stage in the effort to replace ancient army systems with modern digital technology - Land Digitisation Stage 2 - is expected imminently.
This will build on Bowman to provide a complete battle management system. Approval by the MoD is anticipated to take this into the demonstration and manufacture phase.
It will put computer terminals, ancillary devices and office automation into field headquarters, aid the use of geographic and encyclopaedic information and enable allies to co-operate more easily.
More technology will be added to key armoured vehicles, such as the Challenger 2 tank, to enable them to be in constant touch with the battle, even when on the move. So far so good, but all this is several years away. If the UK is involved in any US-led attack on Iraq the army would have to make do with the old Clansman radio system.
It would also be stuck with the SA-80 rifle whose reliability was first called into question in the 1980s and then in the 1991 Gulf War - shortcomings which a new report is expected to blame on incorrect cleaning. A recent National Audit Office report confirmed that the vintage radio kit did not perform well during last year's Saif Sareea II exercise in Oman.
Bowman should really be in service already. Political, technological and industrial problems, however, led to the MoD effectively starting procurement again from scratch in late 2000.
Although the MoD defends Clansman - which it says continues to provide 'an acceptable level of performance and is as reliable as the specification against which it was procured' - it concedes it is 1970s technology.
A spokesperson says: 'Although it is possible that a simple radio replacement could probably have been procured earlier, this was not the requirement. The Bowman programme is intended to provide a much greater capability than a simple radio upgrade.'
Another contract for Bowman was finally awarded to General Dynamics UK in September 2001. In July the company said it had achieved the technical targets that will allow it to start installations in October.
Leading the Defence Procurement Agency Integrated Project Team charged with getting Bowman into service is Peter Worrall, who says: 'Impressive progress is being made against a challenging schedule. At the target in-service date of March 2004 a brigade headquarters and two mechanised battalions, together with artillery and engineer support, will be capable of conducting peace support operations.'
Bowman and land digitisation is a highly complex, software-based system, and there are non-trivial integration issues to be addressed to bring it into service. So there are real engineering challenges ahead. Worrall says that his team, along with General Dynamics UK, is fully committed to addressing these issues.
The MoD is also considering acceleration of the initial operational capability date from 2009.
Worrall is confident that Bowman will be able to match demanding requirements and be able to support the full range and spectrum of military operations. He says: 'These needs will be fully tested in a wide-ranging set of acceptance tests and field trials.'
The other possible danger is mental overload caused by commanders being unable to take quick decisions because they feel obliged to consider all the extra factors involved. Ultimately, network-centric technology must aim to reduce, rather than add to, the stress of battle.
Armed with information from his rifle sights, helmet camera, map database and commander, will a soldier be able to cope with the flow of network-centric data into his helmet display or will he simply flip it up and carry on fighting?