The race is on to develop technology to improve the capability of troops. From sophisticated communications systems to hi-tech weapons, Niall Firth reviews what the best-equipped soldier will be wearing in future.
Fifteen years from now, amid the rubble of a war-torn city in a distant land, a strange creature lurks in the dark. Encased in lightweight climate-controlled body armour, humming with electricity and bristling with sensors, this fighting man-machine is constantly updated with battlefield information via a glowing monocular display. Meet the soldier of the future. Several countries are pursuing this vision of a networked infantryman dripping with technology, and, while the US Army’s Integrated Future Force Warrior project leads the way in R&D investment and ambition, other nations are making significant headway with their own initiatives. Alongside Slovenia’s 21st Century Warrior, Australia’s Land 125, Portugal’s Soldado do Futuro, Felin in France and the Swedish Markus programme, almost every militarised nation is investigating the concept of the ‘future soldier’. All these systems have a common focus on five distinct areas where technology can be applied to improve the capability of soldiers. The most important, referred to as C4I, is command, control, communications, computers and intelligence. In practice C4I means a portable ruggedised computer unit that gives soldiers access to a bewildering array of communications and tactical information. The other four key components are lethality (weapons and sights), mobility (navigation, size and weight of equipment), survivability (clothing, stealth, body armour) and sustainability (logistics and battery power). Here in the UK, the Future Infantry Soldier Technology (FIST) project has just completed its second series of full equipment trials at the army’s training facilities on Salisbury Plain. Over the few years since the Thales-managed project began, the elements that make up the MoD’s vision of a soldier of the future have been refined and changed, and, with the three-year assessment phase about to end, a cohesive picture of the UK’s future soldier is finally beginning to emerge. The FIST concept involves equipping small, four-man teams with a suite of highly sophisticated weaponry, communications and navigation equipment. Each member of the team will have distinct responsibilities and skills. At the head will be the commander. Equipped with an integrated location device that uses GPS and other surveillance tools to allow him to map his team’s position a handheld PDA, the commander will carry the most equipment. Among his arsenal of hi-tech gadgetry will be a flip-down monocular helmet display screen and a handheld laser range-finding surveillance tool. He will also have access to the Bowman radio system for communicating with other troops outside his team. Once famously mocked by Jeremy Clarkson in The Sun as standing for Better Off With a Map and a Nokia, Bowman has had excellent results in recent trials in Afghanistan, according to a spokesman from its developer General Dynamics UK. Alongside the commander will be the grenadier, gunner and rifleman/ marksman, each carrying his own specialised set of electronic tools and weapons, as well as a core set of new equipment that includes improved body armour, data-enabled short-range radio and GPS system. At the moment, however, many aspects of the FIST programme are still up in the air, from the individual technologies that will be used right through to which companies will win the eventual contracts. And as it trundles along slowly but surely – it has a projected in-service date of around 2010 – it is other nations’ future soldier programmes that set the pace. As the European Defence Agency considers the development of a single 21st Century European Warrior for all EU troops from around 2015 onwards, it is likely that much of the preliminary work will be based on the great strides that the Infanterierst der Zukunft (Infantryman of the Future) programme has made in Germany. IdZ is nearing the date at which it will enter service, and, while it is also using commercial off-the-shelf technologies as part of its system, it is well ahead of any other European project in terms of maturity. Managed by European defence organisation EADS Defence Electronics, IdZ is currently under review by the Bundeswehr, with demonstrators expected to enter service by 2008. The German army carried out a five-month trial of some of the prototype IdZ systems in Kosovo in 2002, while more recently German troops stationed in Afghanistan have had the operational use of an early version of the system. The initial feedback from these soldiers has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Dr Karl-Heinz Rippert. IdZ project manager for the BWB, the German federal office for defence technology and procurement. With a total of 938 individual technologies under review, IdZ is similar to the other future soldier projects in that the key to its success is the communications technology between the members of a small team when they are surrounded by buildings. ‘Using UHF radio in a small team in urban environments is a real problem,’ he said. ‘For this reason we need to develop a “self-healing” network, that can “self-sense”, and alter its bandwidth as a soldier moves. We need something like a mesh network that works between the soldiers.’ As well as having the new shortwave radio system, each soldier in the eventual IdZ will be equipped with a lightweight bullet-proof vest, nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) protection, night vision equipment, digital navigation, tactical speech and data communication and a new range of weapons. All the IdZ troops will also have a gamma dosimeter to monitor radiation levels, as well as goggles and hearing protectors. The equipment they will carry will include a close-combat weapon, grenade launcher and assault rifle, as well as thermal and night vision weapon sights. Depending on the soldier’s role within the squad and the individual mission, much as in FIST, soldiers will also carry night vision goggles and a telescope with in-built GPS and a laser rangefinder. They will also all have a sophisticated thermal sight, developed by German firm Zeiss Optronics, that can be fitted to any of the IdZ weapons and uses a cadmium mercury telluride detector array operating in the 3.4-4.2 micron waveband. The sight is easily and quickly mounted on a weapon without tools and is fitted with a thermo-electric cooler to help with the accuracy of the image. Another innovative system that IdZ is trialing is Combat ID. This interrogates a soldier up to 1.5km away using a coded laser beam that can determine whether he is friend or foe. The Combat ID system would be integrated with the thermal weapon sight which digitally processes all the information and passes it wirelessly to the C4I hub carried by the soldier. The technology is said to be able to operate on moving targets, through windows and in an urban environment, but the BWB is still undecided whether it will definitely be included in the final system. Designing a future soldier system for urban warfare is also driving other future soldier programmes. Outside Europe, one of the more advanced is Israel’s Advanced Infantry System programme (ANOG) which has been specifically designed for urban warfare. Aside from the US Army’s Future Force Warrior programme, ANOG is arguably more advanced than any other soldier programme in the world. At this month’s Soldier Technology Conference in London, Lt-Col Sasson Meshar, who is head of the Israeli initiative, spoke of the particular challenges that urban warfare imposes. ‘Recent conflicts have seen us have to move further away from conventional warfare, and think more about the demands of urban terrain. This means that we have found we need smaller teams with more responsibilities,’ he said. The C4I system that is being trialled was driven in its design by the constraints of urban warfare, specifically the problem of short-range communication without line of sight. When soldiers are operating in an urban environment such as a town or city one of the main problems they face is that the buildings can interfere with short-range radio signals, effectively cutting crucial communication lines. For the ANOG programme Israeli troops have been trialing a communications platform that can operate both indoors and outdoors, and does not rely on GPS for positioning information. In keeping with the focus on urban environments Israel has also been trialing some interesting technologies to provide soldiers with more situational information. One of these, which the IdZ programme has also been testing, is called Firefly. Developed by Israeli technology company Rafael Land Systems, the Firefly is a disposable ballistic camera that is fired from a grenade launcher to provide images of an area that are then beamed back to the soldier’s PDA. Firefly can be fired from a standard grenade launcher fitted to an assault rifle and is said to need minimal training to operate. After providing an image of the terrain over 600m during its eight seconds of flight the device explodes upon impact with the ground – making it impossible for the enemy to study. In a similar vein, the ANOG programme’s trial of the Smart Arrow promises to provide the soldier of the future with surveillance and information options that he has never had before. Developed by Israel firm ODF Optronics, Smart Arrow is a rifle-fired surveillance dart that is packed with sensors. It is fired into a wall where, once embedded, the body of the dart opens and deploys a small digital camera that provides real-time video for up to seven hours. The Smart Arrow also comes equipped with an explosive charge for the tip to allow it to embed into even hard surfaces, and the camera can be controlled via a remote-control unit some hundreds of metres away. But for all the wealth of gadgets, hi-tech equipment and unprecedented access to information that the future soldier will be given, how much of this is really necessary? Dissenting voices in the defence community have argued – perhaps with some justification – that future soldier programmes are liable to overload the average soldier with too much information, making it more difficult for him to perform his job effectively. Another more prosaic worry is the massive increase in power that future soldier systems will require. From power-hungry C4I systems through to surveillance tools, PDAs and infrared sights, all the increasingly sophisticated devices for the next-generation soldier demand power. The worry is that without a reliable, rechargeable power source the soldier could be left blind if his equipment fails during a mission. All the additional capabilities that technology is giving will be rendered useless unless a safe, durable and lightweight power source is found that will fuel these systems. This is a serious challenge and one that all the organisations involved in future soldier programmes are working on. As part of the SIREQ Technology Demonstrator project, the Canadian defence department’s investigation into the requirement for a future soldier system, engineers are looking at developing power-aware devices that use a system known as dynamic power management to share the energy load as and when it is needed across the soldier’s equipment. Development of more advanced military-standard batteries is ongoing, and the debate about the use of alternative power generation technologies continues. While fuel cells have been dismissed in the past as it is difficult to make them robust enough, the French Felin programme is investigating using lithium-ion batteries that can be recharged using a micro-fuel cell, while other programmes are still looking at the technology as a possible alternative to conventional batteries. Solar-power, although perfect for somewhere like Iraq, is simply not reliable enough in areas where it is overcast or in jungle conditions. Another idea that has been mooted has been the use of on-soldier charging systems such as piezoelectric devices to help top up battery power. However, a soldier will often need most power to his equipment when he is stationary and so a piezoelectric system would be made redundant on those occasions. Closely connected with the challenge of increased power demand is the serious problem of weight. Other than the US, which is looking at a ‘system of systems’ approach that includes vehicles, most future soldier systems are focused on only equipping the dismounted infantryman, adding to the equipment he already carries. However, with the average soldier already carrying around 30kg on his back on marches, the stated objective of generating more than 500KW of power per kilogram of battery is crucial to the success of these systems. IdZ’s Rippert said that this would have to be a consideration when deciding on the format of any future soldier system. ‘The main problem is the weight,’ he said. ‘As you increase capability, you add both power and weight problems and these are obstacles that we have still not found a way around, unfortunately.’ One solution is to reduce weight elsewhere for the soldier using new, lightweight materials for both clothing and body armour. Researchers around the world are currently looking at the ways in which nanotechnology can be exploited to produce extremely tough yet light armour plates and ballistic vests, while the sophisticated helmet, packed with cameras, head-up display and night vision could be made less of a burden using new materials. Advanced composites such as nanoclay, nanocrystalline or carbon nanotubes could considerably lighten the load for the future soldier according to Frank Simonis, head of the Future Technology Centre in Holland where much of this research is being carried out. However, in his opinion many of these advances are still five to 10 years away. Thales’ John Foley, technical director of the FIST programme, admitted that one of the hardest aspects of the assessment phase has been balancing all the different costs, be they power, weight, money or even life. This is a problem that all modernisation programmes have faced. In the end, the success of future soldier systems will depend on whether the technology makes the forces’ jobs easier. While it looks promising so far, it would appear there is a little way to go before the networked soldier, and the perfect synergy between man and machine on the battlefield, truly become a reality.