Land Warrior: Soldier-based tech gets a test run

With head-mounted displays, text messaging and constant voice comms, soldiers are not quite Borg drones but the system is getting usable.

On Star Trek, the Borg were a cybernetic race in which technology was deeply integrated with flesh and blood humanoids. We're not quite there yet, but with the Army's new Land Warrior system, currently getting a dry run at Fort Lewis, Wash., soldiers and technology are getting closer than ever.

As reported in The Olympian newspaper, the Land Warrior get-up includes:

a helmet-mounted computer display [that] fits over one eye and allows a soldier to see a map of the area and the exact location of friendly forces for coordinated reconnaissance or assault missions. With the weapon-mounted camera, soldiers can survey rooms without exposing their bodies to enemy fire.

Soldiers are in constant voice communication with their units (more shades of Trek) and can send text-messages that are displayed on the helmet-mounted screen.

"This will change the way we fight," said Col. Ernest Forrest, system manager for the Army's Training and Doctrine Command.

It's all way cool but the program has been plagued by problems. When Land Warrior is deployed for real next year, it will have been 13 years in the making. The original prototype developed by Raytheon was so heavy soldiers couldn't lift heads and fire from a prone positon. After a number of false starts - the first project reduced soldiers' mobility - the Fort Lewis project is showing hope. In June, the Army awarded General Dynamics C4 Systems a $30 million contract for up to 500 Land Warrior systems and kits so Stryker soldiers and their vehicles can be linked. But the cost is rising rapidly - R&D costs topped $1 billion in 2004 and it will cost billions more to deploy. Good news for GD, but is it worth it?

Col. Forrest reported that both field testing and weapons firing tests resulted in better-than-expected shooting accuracy and battery life than the system now being used by the 4th Battalion.

Maj. Keith Markham, the battalion's executive officer, praised the situational awareness of the system, which works so well that unit commanders learned to unplug from the network because infantrymen always knew when they were coming.

It's still not a no-brainer. The system cuts out in heavily forested areas and weighs in at 17 pounds, lighter than earlier prototypes but still "signficant," Markham said.

Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, said during a visit to Fort Lewis: "We see it as a plus, but we also know that we've got to lighten the load on the soldier."