Fighters of the Future

Soldiers are increasingly being sent into the battlefield wearing combat technologies once only dreamed of. Huw Kidwell takes a look at this growing area of army technology which is gaining increasing attention around the world and investigates how our armies are using future soldier system concepts.


Good intelligence and the ability to make decisions based on changing information are key to the success of discrete military operations, but not all decisions can be made from the top.

Around the world, armies are recognising the importance of equipping soldiers with technologies to allow them better insight to their surroundings, while giving those back at base a real-time view of just what is happening on the battleground.

Many NATO countries are now developing future soldier system technologies. These are electronic systems to bring positional, mapping and information systems to each soldier along with enhanced sighting, targeting, closed-circuit communication, range finding and night vision. Most systems will also incorporate new materials for clothing and lightweight body armour systems.

As a result, there is a range of different companies vying for a piece of the 'future combat' pie. Systems under development include FIST (Future Integrated Soldier Technology) for the British, Félin (Fantassin à Équipement et Liaisons Intégrées; Integrated Equipment and Communications Soldier) for the French, Land 125 for the Australians, IdZ (Infanterist der Zukunft) for the German Bundeswehr, IMESS (Integrated and Modular Engagement System) for the Swiss and Land Warrior for the Americans.

BEHIND THE FUTURE SOLDIER

The basic principle of future soldier systems is to increase the efficiency of the soldier in terms of positioning and navigation, targeting and fire power, as well as providing added protection to give the soldier advantages in surviving engagements and returning to base unscathed.

For FIST, which is being developed by Thales, the focus has been interoperability in the UK environment. Paul Wathan, a manager in the FIST programme conducted by Thales, says: "There are now many countries developing systems which might have to work in a coalition environment but the situation with interoperability is far from clear. NATO is working to develop the standard with several providers."

"Sophisticated microclimate subsystems heat or cool the soldier and also monitor physiological status."

FIST is now in the second assessment phase and has shown impressive capability to enhance the combat ability of teams in the field.

EADS of Germany has a contract to supply the Bundeswehr with its IdZ system and has been supplying the systems since 2004; it now has moved into the development of its next-generation future soldier system, Warrior 21. An important step in this direction for EADS has already been taken with the development of the 'Combatiente del Futuro' (COMFUT) system for the Spanish infantry.

THE FALLEN LAND WARRIOR

The Land Warrior system developed by the US Army and General Dynamics C4 Systems had most of its funding cancelled in 2007 after over ten years of testing ($500,000 had already been invested).

Land Warrior is a wearable integrated system including a compact radio for voice and text communication; a helmet-mounted display with computer screen for viewing digital maps, reading text messages and target identification, a global positioning system for precise navigation and weapons optics for enhancement in engaging the enemy.

All of the components of the Land Warrior system are hard wired to a computer processor through a series of cables in the soldiers clothing. Lt Gen David Melcher, deputy chief of staff for Army G-8, says during a Pentagon press briefing: "We have pretty much removed most of the funding for the Land Warrior program. The system has taken too long to perfect and along the way, it really had some problems, such as the weight, which is currently 17lb."

Despite this, the US Army 4th Stryker brigade combat team (4th battalion, 9th infantry regiment, 2nd infantry division) was deployed to Iraq in April 2007 equipped with the system. Lt Gen Melcher says: "Army budget officials said the army will continue to support 4-9's deployment with Land Warrior since the unit has devoted most of its predeployment training to becoming proficient with Land Warrior."

"Many NATO countries are now developing future soldier system technologies."

OPTIONS FOR THE FUTURE

Although the Land Warrior programme in the US has been severely hampered by the cutting of funding, there are other future weaponry initiatives in the US and one of these is the Future Force Warrior programme. The project aims to create a lightweight, fully integrated, network-centric infantryman combat system.

The concept is slightly futuristic in that it will use largely unproven technologies such as nanotechnology, artificial powered exoskeletons and magneto-rheological fluid-based body armour. The magneto-rheological body armour will use a liquid which becomes solid in less than one-thousandth of a second when a magnetic field is applied it to provide protection from enemy small arms ordinance.

Another concept for body armour is a 'shear-thickening liquid' produced from a mixture of polyethylene glycol and nanobits of silica, or purified sand. This stiffens instantly into a shield when struck and then reverts to a liquid state immediately after the energy from the projectile dissipates.

The system will have a whole range of futuristic technology including a power subsystem using a 2W to 20W micro turbine running from a liquid hydrocarbon fuel cell (10floz of fuel would last six days) and also polymer nanofibre power cells incorporated into the uniform as power backup.

The system may also have a sophisticated microclimate subsystem to heat or cool the soldier and also physiological status monitoring systems to give important medical data such as the body core temperature, skin temperature, heart rate and position.

Concept equipment and uniforms are currently being developed for use in trials. The first phase will involve a development of the technologies to reduce the soldier's fighting load and power requirements and improve the soldier's protection, lethality, and environmental and situational awareness. This first phase will be deployed in 2010 with the final program to be released in 2020.

FUTURE INTEGRATED SOLDIER TECHNOLOGY (FIST)

FIST is a well-integrated system which is now into its second phase of trials. Thales has demonstrated integration with well over 130 items of equipment currently in use in UK forces including personal equipment, vehicles and aircraft. Paul Wathan commented: "It is important for use that FIST operates with standards allowing the soldier to use and interact with the systems in vehicles and equipment across the UK forces."

"Armies are recognising the importance of equipping the soldier with better technologies."

The system comprises electronic systems (a range of weapon sights and image intensifiers, laser rangefinder (laser-light module) and target locators and mapping, satellite navigation, communication and information systems), clothing, helmet (protection and information system) and personal armour and enhanced weapons systems (SA80 under-slung 40mm grenade launcher). The surveillance, targeting and acquisition trials (STA) were held earlier in 2007 and the data collected is now being analysed.

FIST has been designed to enhance C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence), lethality, mobility, survivability and sustainability. With so much electronic equipment power supply is always going to be a big issue. The factors here are weight, charging time, battery life and whether the system will run off a single cell or separate cells.

Paul Wathan says: "For the last couple of years we [Thales] have been moving away from the concept of a single integrated central power supply. Most of the electronic items in the system will require their own power supply and there may be more than one battery in the system. The technology and development of lithium power cells is moving so fast we can easily obtain the latest power cells, which are excellent for FIST systems straight off the shelf."

FUTURE OF FIST

The future of FIST is likely to centre on the development of the four-man unit. Each soldier in the unit will be equipped with a core targeting and surveillance system but each with slightly different weaponry and the commander will have more sophisticated communication, positioning and navigation equipment.

FIST will now introduce command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) tools at the section level. Systems such as situational awareness are not expected to be available to all section members, but mainly to the commanders and leaders.

At present, the section elements will include commander, grenadier, gunner and marksman – each role will be provided for by a slight variation according to operational requirements of the FIST design.

"The future of FIST is likely to centre on the development of the four-man unit."

FIST will retain the current SA-80 A2 assault rifle although there would be weapon variation for different purposes. The commander will use the standard SA-80 with optical sight; the grenadier will have an SA-80 with 40mm grenade launcher; the gunner might well be equipped with the Minimi light machine gun; and the marksman with a long-barrel version of the SA-80 (light support weapon) with enhanced sighting.

FIST will retain the standard UK Forces weapons configurations throughout the programme and develop the system according to these standards. According to Paul Wathan: "The trend in the industry now is for every soldier to have a screen display from an operational computer, this would obviously have to have low light spill to avoid detection at night and of course the information provided would vary – only the commander would have full target location capability and situational awareness with the other members of the section having simpler units designed for their operational tasks."

IDZ AND WARRIOR 21

Warrior 21 is set to be the next phase in the development of the EADS future soldier system. The IdZ system was developed by EADS and is currently in use by the Bundeswehr in Germany. The system is similar to FIST and actually uses some Thales components for the C4I portion of the system.

Further components, such as 'sniper location' or 'health monitoring' can also be integrated into the system. The IdZ system has network-centric operations capability, which is achieved using electronic equipment largely integrated in the clothing. The core element is a personal digital assistant (PDA) that allows interaction with the system.

With the aid of the PDA and its digital card and GPS receiver, soldiers are able to determine their own position and reach their mission zone. A digital UHF radio module enables the soldiers to form a stable, wireless network via which they can communicate among themselves, while the PDA is able to forward data such as reports, positions, and even pictures and video sequences, which can help in the mission.

Equipment also includes weapons, optronics and protective elements, and is supplemented with special items of equipment for the commanding officer and specialist troops.

"Future soldier systems are designed to provide the soldier with on-the-spot up-to-date information."

Warrior 21 is now the next-generation system in development by EADS. This will be a modular system which will use, and be compatible with, technology from other EADS weapons programmes such as the FAUST command and control systems, FIS Heer (future information system, information management similar to SIMACET used in Spain), SatComBW (Bundeswehr satellite communications system), camp protection system, A400M (new Euro airlift common standard aircraft), NH90 (NH Industries medium-sized multipurpose military helicopter) and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).

Warrior 21 can be adapted according to the individual needs of the armed force involved but will be based in the first instance on IdZ.

TECHNOLOGY AND OPERATIONS

Future soldier systems are designed to provide the soldier with on-the-spot up-to-date information with no delay via electronic PDA or digital radio and also complete situational and positional awareness. Systems in general give orientation, navigation, communication, daylight-independent reconnaissance and visual sighting capabilities that provide an operational advantage even in low visibility or at night.

Good intelligence and the ability to make decisions based on changing information are key to the success of discrete military operations, and future soldier technology will be able to provide this.