Arming soldiers for the 21st century

There was a time, not so long ago, when the most advanced bit of equipment an infantry soldier carried into battle was his rifle. Over the years that has slowly changed as soldiers have been equipped with more technology such as personal radios, night vision equipment and GPS devices.

Personal protection, in the form of helmets and body armour, has also seen significant progress, allowing more troops to survive on the battlefield.

Revision TALOS

Revision Military’s futuristic vision of a Special Ops soldier (Photo: Revision)

Today, armies around the world are looking to further boost their dismounted soldiers’ capabilities through ongoing modernisation programmes. Some of these programmes can be quite ambitious. Take for example US Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM) Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, a five-year effort to improve protection, mobility and situational awareness for SF operators who are responsible for breaching buildings.

TALOS has inspired some pretty impressive prototype suits that look like they’ve come straight from the wardrobe department of a Hollywood film (in fact, one Hollywood special effects company has actually taken part in developing an exoskeleton for TALOS!).

US Special Forces ‘Iron Man’ suit

US protection specialists Revision Military turned heads at this year’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) when it unveiled its Kinetic Operations Suit (KOS) as a potential option for TALOS.

KOS includes a fully-enclosed helmet with cut-outs for a panoramic four-tube night vision system – similar to the equipment used by US Navy Seals during the Osama Bin Laden raid. Other features of the system include body armour (that can cover up to 60% of the body), a lower-body exoskeleton, a rigid spine that supports the weight of the helmet and armour, a cooling vest and an integrated power pack.

As ever, power remains one of the biggest issues for so-called ‘Iron Man suits’ such as TALOS and soldier modernisation in general. Some estimates suggest that the exoskeleton alone would require three to five kilowatts of power to operate for a typical 10-12 hour patrol, which is not possible with the current generation of man-portable power packs.

Reducing the soldier’s battery burden still remains at the top of the list for future soldier systems.

smart_vest_cropped

The Dutch MoD has recently awarded contracts for its Smart Vest programme (Photo: Elbit Systems)

The increase in electronic equipment carried by soldiers over the last few decades, and particularly since Iraq and Afghanistan, has bumped up the number of spare batteries. The last thing you want on a patrol is for the batteries in your radio, weapon sight or laser designator to stop working. That can cost lives.

That means troop now have to carry in the region of 30lbs (13.6kg) of spare batteries.

One Dutch company, Fokker Aerospace, might have come up with a solution to the age-old soldier power question. It has developed the E-Lighter, a 1.8kg diesel-fuelled power source that can be worn by the soldier on his chest rig or webbing. It can be powered by ordinary diesel or JP-8 jet fuel, and can provide 15W of power and, according to Fokker, a 50% weight reduction compared to standard batteries.

The Dutch Army is in its final phases of testing the E-Lighter and is expected to order several thousand units for its VOSS modernisation programme.

In addition to the E-Lighter, the Dutch MoD is also acquiring ‘Smart Vests’ as part of VOSS, which will significantly enhance infantry soldiers’ capabilities with the acquisition of new C2 capabilities such as a handheld computer for commanders, as well as C4I systems.

Modernisation dogged by technical and budgetary issues

It’s not all plain sailing, however, and many soldier modernisation programmes have been hit by either technical hitches or budgetary problems.

US Army rifleman radio

The US Army has experienced problems with its new generation of radios (Photo: US DoD)

The US military has had issues acquiring a new-generation of software-defined radios with both the Rifleman Radio and Manpack radio struggling to meet requirements during testing. According to the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation’s FY14 annual report, the Rifleman Radio suffered from excessive battery temperatures that could cause first-degree burns and the Manpack radio was heavier and had less range than legacy radios.

Other modernisation efforts have progressed at a snail’s pace, including in Britain where the MoD has only just completed delivery of the first increment of the FIST programme, which mainly includes upgraded weapon sights.

The next increment could include more advanced technology such as helmet-mounted displays to improve C2 for commanders, though no timeline has been set. Modernisation in countries such as Germany (Gladius), Spain (ComFut) and Canada (ISSP) has also lacked any developments for some time.

Despite this lack of progress, there’s still no doubt that an infantryman is much better equipped today than he was at the beginning of the century. British soldiers, for instance, are almost unrecognisable from their pre-Iraq War counterparts with new camouflage, body armour and weapon attachments.

But there is still progress to be made and expect to see more soldier modernisation announcements in the near future.

For more on Soldier Modernisation, see the July/August edition of Digital Battlespace  

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