Future is now for Army tech

The Army began equipping some soldiers last month with mobile communications systems being developed as part of the long-term Land Warrior program.

Soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division, who had trained with the steel-encased handheld computers, specifically requested the systems for use in voice, video and data communications, even though the devices are not finished products.

The decision follows the service's new emphasis on winning the war on terrorism by putting soldiers first and giving them the latest technologies, even if not fully tested, Army and industry officials said.

"First is the soldier. Our soldiers are paramount," said Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the service's new chief of staff, speaking Oct. 7 at the Association of the U.S. Army's 2003 Annual Meeting. "We must continue to train and equip our soldiers with the very best money can buy."

Service officials shipped 140 commander's digital assistants to division troops deployed in Fallujah, Iraq. They also delivered 48 airborne versions of the digital assistants, called electronic data managers, to the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter crews stationed in Mosul, Iraq.

Army officials decided in September 2002 to give Land Warrior's most mature technologies to soldiers. Schoomaker reinforced that policy during a meeting last month at Fort Benning, Ga., home of the service's infantry school.

"The chief said take the mature technologies now in trials and use them to improve the capabilities soldiers have in the field," said Col. Ted Johnson, project manager for the Soldier Warrior program in the Program Executive Office-Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Va., in an Oct. 10 telephone interview.

Schoomaker backed up his words by earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars for soldier systems, Johnson said. The program office plans to order another 174 digital assistants with those funds, he said.

All Iraq-destined, brigade-sized units will get the latest technologies, said Johnson, who oversees the Land Warrior and Air Warrior programs. Land Warrior integrates communications, warfighting and protection systems into soldier uniforms. Air Warrior does the same for helicopter crews.

Land Warrior consists of five subsystems: computer/radio, which the digital assistants fall under; software; weapons; integrated helmet assembly; and protective clothing and individual equipment. The Army delayed the program twice because of system interoperability problems.

The service's September 2002 and 2003 decisions now push mature technologies to soldiers in combat. They include the handheld digital assistants and the kneeboard-strapped electronic data managers.

The digital assistant and electronic data managers are part radio, part digital assistant and part Global Positioning System, Johnson said. The handheld device facilitates mission planning and situational awareness, he said.

The digital assistant also will operate the Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade-and-Below system. FBCB2 lets soldiers know the locations of friendly troops and enemy forces around them on the battlefield.

The Army laid out an ambitious transformation plan, but it took too long. Giving Land Warrior capabilities to soldiers in Iraq proves the Army wants to make it happen faster, said Dan Goure, defense and land warfare analyst at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va. "This decision shows the Army's new 'do what it takes' attitude to empower troops in the field," Goure said.

The program office also fielded other Land Warrior information-processing systems to soldiers in Iraq. They include the multifunctional laser, a range and direction-finding device mounted on rifles. The light bulb-shaped illuminator can pass data to a flip-down eyepiece mounted on the helmet that shows soldiers visual information and gives them access to the computer database in the software subsystem.

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