High-Tech Soldier Suit, Crawling Back From the Dead

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Noah Shachtman notes that the Land Warrior program’s high-tech soldier suit is crawling back from the dead:

After 15 years and a half-billion dollars in development, the Army officially cancelled the Land Warrior program, and its collection of electronic maps, GPS beacons, digital radios, and next-gen rifle scopes for infantrymen. All kinds of configurations of the wearable electronics were tried. But the gear always wound up being too bulky to justify the seemingly-modest help it provided frontline soldiers, the Army decided.
Money had already been spent to equip a single Iraq-bound battalion with the gear, however. So, despite some pretty horrendous reviews from the troops, the Army let the 4/9th Infantry take Land Warrior with them to war.

And then, something rather odd and unexpected happened. The 4/9 — known since the early 1900′s as the “Manchus,” for their fighting in China — stripped Land Warrior down, made the gear more functional, and discovered the equipment could actually be pretty useful in combat.

By consolidating parts, a 16-pound ensemble was whittled down to a little more than 10. The digital gun scope was abandoned — too cumbersome and too slow for urban fights. And not every soldier in the 4/9 was ordered to lug around Land Warrior. Only team leaders and above were equipped.

The Manchus suggested new features to Land Warrior’s software, too. Like “digital chem lights,” which let buildings, escape routes, and enemies be marked in green on every soldier’s electronic map. During air assaults on Baquba, for instance, troops were regularly dropped a quarter or half-kilometer from their original objective; the chem lights allowed them to converge on the spot where they were supposed to go. In the middle of one mission, a trail of green lights was used to mark a new objective — and show the easiest way to get to the place.

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