Building smarter soldier sensor systems

A new generation of sensors, high-capacity data networks and integrated digital technologies have finally begun to deliver on the promise of putting critical information about enemy location and intent in the hands of warfighters.

Increasingly urbanized warfare requires information that warfighters can use to take advantage of often fleeting opportunities to detect, identify and engage enemies, which makes getting information to the warfighter faster a critical need.

No longer business as usual

The way the Ground Soldier Ensemble program is being run presents challenges, and the whole process could become the model for future military technology acquisition programs.

Using three companies — General Dynamics C4 Systems, Raytheon and Rockwell Collins — in competition breaks with the traditional way of deciding procurements based on bids that vendors submit after they review a request for proposals. That’s a result of a 2007 policy laid down by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which called for two or more competing teams to produce prototypes of the system through Milestone B, the system development and demonstration phase, with the goal of reducing risk and ensuring that the prototypes fulfill all requirements.

Competition typically starts only at the production phase of a program.

The first to follow the new policy was the Army and Marine Corps’s Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, which awarded contracts in October 2008. GSE was the second.

The problem for the GSE program office is that it needs to strictly isolate the work of the three companies to maintain as competitive an environment as possible, said Jason Regnier, deputy program manager for GSE at the Program Executive Office-Soldier.

“The challenge is that you do have to manage three separate efforts, three sets of tests and so on,” he said. “However, that’s what we feel is needed to drive life cycle costs lower, to bring competition in at the beginning rather than just in the production phase.”

It’s likely that all new acquisitions that resemble the GSE program will follow this new approach to competition in collecting prototypes, he said.

The military has made many attempts to shorten the sensor-to-shooter cycle, though until recently, most of those efforts have had limited success. But a new generation of sensors, high-capacity data networks and integrated digital technologies has finally begun to deliver on the promise.

For example, one much-publicized resource is unmanned aerial vehicles. Predators fly the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan, collecting and delivering intelligence and shooting missiles at enemy targets, while warfighters carry mini-UAVs that they can use to give them a broad view of their local piece of the battlefield.

It’s no surprise that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for UAVs to be a much bigger part of U.S. planning for conflicts.

Likewise, the military services have a critical need to provision dynamic IP networks to deliver digital voice, video and data to and from command centers and the battlefield. An example of a system that seeks to satisfy that need is the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, a high-speed, high-capacity backbone network that will link warfighters in the field with commanders through the Global Information Grid.

WIN-T technology for stationary applications is already in use, and more advanced technology for on-the-move applications could start to be deployed to Army combat brigades as early as fiscal 2012.

Another critical technology is the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) suite of software-defined radios that the Army, Air Force and Navy will use to transmit and receive voice and data signals. Existing hardware-based radios lack the interoperability that JTRS radios provide and can’t handle most video and data needs.

Ground soldier priorities

However, those and all other technologies the military is developing for the network-centric battlefield are useless if dismounted warfighters can’t receive and make use of the data. Making sure they can is the goal of the Ground Soldier System program.

GSS is a follow-on of sorts to the Land Warrior program, which was developing a similar system to extend all communications that could be received by vehicle-borne systems to the individual soldier. Because of the meshed networks the system created, leaders would also know the location of troops and vehicles on the battlefield.

Land Warrior was intended to be the core networked hub of the Future Combat System (FCS), but the Army canceled the 15-year, $500 million program in 2007 because of cost concerns and competing priorities. The 16-pound system was also considered too much weight to add to what already overburdened warfighters must carry.

Nevertheless, Land Warrior tests and limited field experience convinced Army leaders that the concept was worth pursuing. The first increment of the GSS program, called the Ground Soldier Ensemble (GSE), aims to significantly improve battle command communications and enhance situational awareness for warfighters on the battlefield.

Soldier of the future

The Ground Soldier System program is a result of two philosophies the Defense Department has laid down as the basis for building future fighting forces.

Soldier as a System describes a process that first sets up minimum capabilities that warfighters need to perform basic tasks and battle drills. It builds on those to establish the capabilities required by warfighters on the ground, in the air and in mounted vehicles.

That is then used to develop systems that the individual warfighter needs to provide “superior capability to accomplish both individual and collective soldier tasks and missions,” according to the Army Posture Statement.

Every Soldier is a Sensor describes how all warfighters can be trained to be observers. The trick is finding a way to collect and transmit the information and data to analysts and decision-makers.

Warfighters often are the first to learn about enemy troop movements and tactics, but they rarely have had a convenient way of sending that information from the front lines.

With the digital communications provided by the Ground Soldier Ensemble and other GSS systems, the warfighter will finally have the ability to send and receive timely information.

Whereas Land Warrior was intended for vehicle-based Stryker Brigade Combat Teams, GSE will be for Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs), whose focus is dismounted warfighters.

The operational requirements of GSE mirror Land Warrior's, said Lt. Col. Roland Gaddy, product manager for GSE at the Program Executive Office-Soldier (PEO Soldier). The program will aim for less size, weight and power than the Land Warrior devices.

“With an IBCT, you have guys on foot with rucksacks who are moving through mountains in complex terrain,” he said. “In terms of system operation, however, nothing changes.”

Some elements of GSE come directly from Land Warrior. The headsets, batteries and radios worked well, so they’ll be part of the initial development of GSE.

The batteries are one of the most important elements for weight considerations. GSE can use LI-145, at 2.25 lbs each, or LI-80 high-capacity rechargeable lithium-ion military batteries, depending on mission requirements. The LI-80s weigh about half as much as the LI-145 but don’t last as long. Ultralife makes both batteries.

IBCT team leaders and riflemen will initially carry the PRC-154 Rifleman Radio, which is part of the JTRS suite of radios, while team leaders will also carry an Enhanced Position Location Reporting System RT-1922 radio.

Another JTRS radio, the Small Form Factor B, will enter the mix when it becomes available. As a two-channel radio, it will replace the PRC-154 and RT-1922 units carried by team leaders, reducing the overall weight of their GSE systems.

The main development goal of the program focuses on GSE's electronic guts, those components that follow Moore’s Law, such as the computer, navigation systems and the hands-free, helmet-mounted display, said Jason Regnier, PEO Soldier deputy program manager for GSE.

“And then there’s also perhaps the most important part: the soldier-controlled unit, which is how everything else interfaces with the

soldier himself,” he said. “The mouse and keyboard [of the system], so to speak.”

Refined systems

Three development contracts worth about $5 million each were awarded in April to General Dynamics C4 Systems, Raytheon and Rockwell Collins. They will each get another $7 million when they deliver 10 prototypes of their respective GSE systems by the end of the year.

According to the contract, the three companies will each deliver 60 refined systems for user testing in March, with the selection of the winning system due by early 2011. The Army said it wants to buy more than 11,000 GSE systems by 2015.

The goal is to start fielding the system in fiscal 2012 with two brigades, Gaddy said, with an acquisition objective of supplying a total of 18 IBCTs.

The companies must meet various metrics, which PEO Soldier is not making public. Besides those requirements, the companies can figure out how to meet the performance needs while also sticking to the size, weight and power constraints. PEO Soldier's only other requirement is that the companies must use low-risk, mature technologies.

“There aren’t any areas [of development] that are that much more difficult than others,” said David Treichler, Raytheon’s GSE program manager. “The challenge is how far you can push things within the time frame the Army has set for this, given that they’ve said they want innovation in our approach as well as mature technologies."

In addition to reductions in size, weight and power, PEO Soldier will also look for an increase in the mission life of the systems and lower costs, Treichler said.

GSE is not just about the electronics. It will be a system that is worn by soldiers, so form will matter as much as function. Soldiers must be comfortable with the equipment so they can wear it and work with it on missions, while also managing the equipment throughout its life cycle.

“That leads to the idea of modularity and tailorability,” said Mark Showah, director of integrated systems at General Dynamics C4. “In Land Warrior, the systems were worn on the side of the soldier and on the belt. The feedback from the soldiers was that they wanted to move most of the equipment to the back, so we’ve redesigned the components so they can put them where they like.”

Modularity — or conformability, as Gaddy prefers to call it — is also a part of the technology design. The goal is to allow soldiers to easily modify GSE to suit the need of the mission. For example, they can adjust the display to represent the elements of any attack mission, and they can add components as needed.

One option is to add a navigation subsystem to the computer so that soldiers can operate in an environment that does not have Global Positioning Satellite information. They don’t need that subsystem in a GPS-enabled environment, which exists 99 percent of the time, Gaddy said. But for those locations, such as some mountainous area of Afghanistan, where GPS is unavailable, the option is good to have.

Invaluable asset

If feedback from soldiers who used the Land Warrior system in Iraq is a good indicator, the GSE system should be a quick hit with IBCT troops.

The Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry regiment was the first to use the system, beginning in April 2007. Master Sgt. Marcus Griffith was B Company’s first sergeant during that deployment.

“We had initial difficulties adapting to the form factors that Land Warrior brought, [but] we moved around the individual components to meet our specific needs,” he said. In the end, they found the system to be extremely useful. “The situational awareness it provided was invaluable.”

One way Land Warrior improved situational awareness was in providing a digital equivalent of a tactical chemical light, or fluorescent sticks that soldiers use to tell others whether a building has been cleared, whether there are hazards inside, and similar critical information.

The Land Warrior displays could show digital chemical lights as soldiers moved through a village or segment of a town, and the lights changed according to which operations other soldiers had performed in that area.

The system also allows soldiers to download and display the most up-to-date maps of an area, including buildings that have been damaged or destroyed.

Griffith said he found that “from a fightability standpoint,” the two most important benefits of the system were its display and his ability to manipulate the system using the control unit.

“The important thing is that I could see [the display], and it was in a good point, that it provided me with the right information and that the user interface was good,” he said. “Beyond that, I needed the ability to manipulate [the system] to use the radio and send messages and basically see to the fight we were in.”

The 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division recently deployed to Afghanistan, the first Stryker unit to go there. It has a better, more capable Land Warrior system that has improvements based on feedback from troops in combat and from the lessons learned by the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry, Regnier said. Lessons learned from that Stryker deployment will likewise help improve future GSE and GSS developments.

Future plans

Future increments of GSS will operate more like separate programs, Regnier said, which will facilitate the deployment of new capabilities in an organized manner. Increment 2 will likely include more complex technologies, such as unmanned systems control and perhaps multispectral imagery and language translation.

Increment 2 will need requirements that are separate from GSE, and it will need to work its way through the acquisition system. That makes it tough to speculate on a time frame for its completion, Gaddy said, adding that nothing has been planned yet.

“I don’t see this as an open-ended program, because there are only so many brigades out there,” Regnier said. “But the idea is to field the most important capabilities now and add others as and when they are ready.”