Changing gear

Objective Force Warrior Web site

In what represents a new way of integrating soldiers into its evolving battlefield strategy, the Army will soon give them a lighter load to carry, thanks to a program designed to make the service an agile, lethal force.

Under the Army's Objective Force Warrior program, the service plans to develop and demonstrate lighter equipment that will enable Army soldiers to do more and carry less. The goal is to reduce the weight of the combat soldier's load from 100 pounds to less than 50 pounds by 2008.

For the first time, the soldiers themselves will be considered part of a larger, integrated system.

"It's the treatment of the soldier as a platform in an integrated systems approach," said Peter Wallace, Objective Force Warrior business manager at the Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command's Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass. "It's the first time we're not treating the soldier like a Christmas tree and just hanging things on them. It's integrating equipment for the soldier in a [complete] fighting system."

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, which monitors space and military programs, said the focus on infantry is deserved and long overdue.

"It is about time they are finally doing something for the infantry," Pike said. "The infantry has been given inadequate attention, I fear, in part because their kit consists of lots of small pieces that are not exciting market opportunities for major contractors."

Eagle Enterprise Inc. of Westminster, Md., a branch of Defense contracting giant General Dynamics Corp., and Exponent Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif., were both awarded $7.5 million agreements Aug. 29 for the Objective Force Warrior concept development phase.

Both awards fall under "Other Transaction Agreements for Prototype Projects," which gives the Army "a lot more leeway in reacting to the market space," said Andrew Taylor, Objective Force Warrior lead systems engineer.

"We can change something without a formalized process," he said, adding that awarding two agreements ensured that competition would speed development of the product.

There are challenges to this approach, however. Program managers must know what they want. "Is this person capable of handling the situation?" asked Anthony Tether, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, earlier this month at an Association of the U.S. Army conference. DARPA has partnered with the Army on developing the Objective Force and puts about 25 percent of its budget toward that project.

He added that the Army has done an excellent job of placing program managers who can take advantage of what the more flexible transaction agreements offer.

During an eight-month phase, the competing integrator teams will work with the Army to develop the concept design and "systems of systems" architecture. The two teams must present their concepts by April 2003.

In the second phase, the Army will select a single lead technology integrator that will complete preliminary and detailed designs and then integrate component technologies.

The Army's goal is to have the first Objective Force unit equipped by 2008, but if a promising technology emerges before then, such as an energy device or power source, "we will get it into the hands of the soldier as soon as possible," Taylor said.

The competing vendor teams are expected to incorporate all of the technologies and not prioritize any because the "synergistic effect will make the system," Wallace said.

"The communications piece is critical because it links everybody together," he said. "But they also need to focus on individual survivability...integrating chemical and biological protection and medical sensing into a uniform."

Based on private industry's success in producing improved gear for athletes and others, lightening a soldier's load should be feasible, Pike said.

"The main benefit is that the soldiers will not be worn out by simply carrying their own gear, and that they will not be forced to improvise a lighter load while on the battlefield," Pike said. "If you look at all the new and improved products they sell for bikers and other athletes, surely industry can come up with better kit for the infantry."

Christopher J. Dorobek contributed to this story.

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Lightening the load

The Army's Objective Force Warrior program seeks to demonstrate technologies for lightweight gear for Army soldiers, including:

* Integrated, multifunction sensors.

* Networked communications.

* Collaborative situational awareness.

* Enhanced positioning navigation.

* Medical status monitoring.

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