FIST to give soldiers a fighting chance

A UK research programme called FIST focuses on improving technologies used in the battlefield while reducing the weight of equipment carried by soldiers. Jon Excell and Stuart Nathan report

Picture a medieval warrior, the archetypal knight in armour, covered head-to-toe in steel and armed with bulky, clumsy weapons. You might think that today’s troops are unencumbered by comparison. But a suit of armour and a sword weigh barely half of the equipment a soldier on foot is expected to carry while on patrol and in a battle zone.

Streamlining the equipment a dismounted soldier — away from his or her support vehicle and other bases — needs to carry is the main point of FIST, the UK’s Future Integrated Soldier Technology programme, one of several soldier modernisation programmes underway within NATO and around the world. Aimed at the situations that soldiers are facing — extended patrols on complex terrains, at temperatures that can vary from -10°C to 65°C, and facing guerrilla tactics in rural and urban settings — FIST has to strike a delicate balance. It has to give soldiers more information and data to allow them to do their jobs, and to tell their commanders where they are and where they are going, but without adding to, and preferably reducing, the amount of equipment and the weight they have to carry.

Rather than equipping an individual soldier, FIST aims to equip a team. The concept is aimed around a four-person group, the smallest operational team in British Army tactics, referred to as a ‘fire team’. This consists of a group commander, a grenadier (armed with a rifle equipped with a grenade launcher below the barrel), a gunner with a light machine gun, and a marksman, carrying a lightweight, high-accuracy rifle. Each member would be equipped with the devices appropriate to their role, but designed not to be overwhelming, both in terms of their weight and bulk, and in the amount of information they provide.

Under the first ‘increment’ of FIST, which is intended to provide soldiers with enhanced equipment for their situational awareness and targeting, the commander of the team will have the most equipment: a ‘target locator’ — a range-finder equipped with thermal imaging that spots and designates enemy vehicles and emplacements; daytime, thermal imaging and close-quarters sights; a ruggedised digital camera, and a periscope to allow him or her to view a battlefield from cover. The other members of the team will carry the appropriate sighting systems for their weapons.

The first stage of FIST also includes helmet-mounted displays that will include image intensifiers and a link to the weapon sight, which will allow soldiers to shoot around corners or without raising their heads.

In addition, the first increment of FIST includes communications and data-handling systems known as C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence). Again, each soldier will carry equipment tailored to their specific role. While the commander’s radio will communicate with the forward operating base, for example, other team members’ systems will only communicate via line-of-sight short range, to keep size and power consumption down and to avoid overwhelming the soldier with too much chatter. Each soldier will carry a GPS device, so other members of the team and forward command can locate them easily, combined with a digital compass for navigation. As the imaging system will also allow troops to call up maps and other graphics, this equipment should let troops follow a pre-planned route by day or night, while remaining in touch with the rest of the unit.

While the first increment is expected to be in the field by 2012, the full FIST suite won’t be in use until around 2017. This will include integration of the C4I system with Bowman, the radio networking system that links units with the forward base and command centre.

Some of these functions are tailored specifically for British tactics, according to Paul Wathen of Thales’s FIST Management Office — the company is the prime contractor for the assessment phase of the programme, whose first increment is now drawing to a close. ‘In the British Army, there has always been a very strong emphasis on the individual soldier operating independently, both within the unit and away from it,’ Wathen told The Engineer. ‘In other armies, they assume that soldiers will never be very far from their support vehicle, for example, which affects the type and quantity of equipment they carry.’

The assessment, Wathen said, aims to narrow down the proposed equipment and its manufacturers, looking at equipment functionality, cost and effectiveness, via a series of field trials that have been carried out over the past three years. ‘We’re looking at equipment that is fully developed and ready for manufacture, in most cases, as this reduces the risk of overruns because equipment isn’t ready,’ said Wathen.

Speaking at WB Research’s recent Soldier Technology conference in London, Brigadier Carew Wilks, head of the Individual Capability Group of the MoD’s Defence Equipment and Support department, said that one of the major goals of FIST was to reduce ‘both the weight and the cognitive burden’ on dismounted troops, but to keep the emphasis on ‘fightability’. ‘Soldiers are putting their lives at risk every day, and we have to make sure that everything we give them is as simple and intuitive to use as possible,’ added Wilks.

Although a greater reliance on technology and the ability to assess and act on different sources of information may change the type of person the army aims for in its recruitment, and is definitely changing the way they are trained, Wilks is still insistent on a level of simplicity. ‘Even if we recruit smarter individuals, we don’t want them to be distracted by their equipment; we want them to be enhanced by it,’ he said.

Although FIST was originally conceived around five areas of ‘capability enhancement’ — C4I, lethality (weapons and sights), mobility (navigation, size and weight of equipment); survivability (body armour, clothing, stealth) and sustainability in terms of logistics and supply, the clothing and load-carrying aspects are being handled under different programmes, leaving the Thales team and its subcontractors looking at the C4I and surveillance and targeting aspects. However, a great deal of work in FIST and in other countries’ future soldier programmes is aimed at reducing the weight that troops have to carry — and a great deal of that is composed of batteries.

Much of the equipment carried by modern soldiers runs off battery power, and under soldier modernisation programmes such as FIST, even more battery systems are likely to be used. But already, troops are carrying fistfuls of batteries. Ed Andrukaitis of Defence Research and Development Canada told the Soldier Technology conference that a Canadian army rifleman will have 15 non-rechargeable batteries and one rechargeable in use on a standard patrol, and will have to carry twice that as spares.

According to Wathen, part of the problem is that governments want to encourage competition by their suppliers, and therefore tend not to specify a single power source or system, Wathen said. But several options are under study. As well as systems such as fuel cells, thermoelectrics and harvesting power from soldiers’ movement, Andrukaitis pinpointed the development of flexible lithium-ion cells comprising gel-polymer pouches, which can be integrated into clothing; trials are also under way of cells with a higher lithium content, which boosts their power density.

But the MoD is also looking beyond FIST. Under one of its ‘capability visions’ — a series of research programmes announced earlier this year — researchers are investigating and developing a range of technologies that could dramatically lighten the burden on the modern infantryman.

The MoD’s science and technology chief Paul Stein explained: ‘Our soldiers in theatre today have to carry an enormous load — up to 70kg — so effectively you’d be carrying your own weight around on your back into combat, and then they have to fight when they get there. We’re looking at reducing it to 20-30kg.’

As well as looking at reducing the weight of weapons and ammunition, a significant amount of research is going into the development of new lightweight body armour, added Stein. ‘The Osprey system that we have today is a world-class armour system — it can stop the 7.62 high-velocity round — but it’s also heavy, and what you gain in survivability you lose in agility. The dream ticket is to have an armour that has the same stopping power as Osprey but is flexible and half the weight. We’re asking material scientists and other inventors if they can think of some novel material — perhaps something coming out of nanotechnology?’

In fact, nanotech armour is under active consideration through an EPSRC-funded research project at Cambridge University. Alan Windle’s team in the department of materials science and metallurgy has been looking at the physical properties of carbon nanotubes for some time, spurred on by the tensile strength of nanotube strands.

The crucial property for a fibre in armour, Windle explained, is the maximum speed of projectile it can stop without breaking, which is related to the density and elastic stiffness of the material. ‘The factors of overwhelming importance are high strength and low density,’ he added; these are combined to give a value known as the ballistic figure of merit. A single carbon nanotube has a ballistic figure of merit over four times higher than that for kevlar, Windle said.

The problem is to find some way of making nanotubes into a fibre or yarn that has the same properties of an individual fibre, and can then be woven into fabric or used in a rope or cable. Windle’s team has developed a method using an iron catalyst to make an elastic ‘aerogel’ of nanotubes — somewhere between a smoke and a solid — that can be spun into a fibre directly from the reactor that forms it. The ballistic figure of merit for these is, at best, a little over half that of an individual nanotube, but is still around twice as high as that of kevlar, Windle said, and is much lighter. The technique is now ready for scale up to produce larger amounts of the fibre for testing, he added.

Even more intriguing is the development of robotic mule systems that could move alongside soldiers and carry their heavy equipment for them. While it might sound like science-fiction, Stein insists that it’s less far-fetched than it sounds. Engineers in the US have already demonstrated a prototype four-legged robot for exactly this purpose (see below).

Stein expects other elements of the ‘dismounted soldier’ capability vision to bear fruit sooner rather than later. Indeed, some of the technologies under development may even overtake elements of the FIST programme.

‘We’ve got proposals coming in and we’re in the midst of the process of letting the contracts: they’re all highly accelerated programmes. We don’t want an answer in five years time when the technology has moved on, these are all moving very, very rapidly. We hope to be able to demonstrate some elements of the technology within the next two years,’ said Stein.