Nett gains: Nett Warrior's future role in combat

15 December 2016

Four years after its first deployment, the US Army’s smartphone-sized communications system, Nett Warrior, is more widely used than ever. Around 10,000 systems have been equipped to date, and the technology is continuing to evolve; Defence & Security Systems International takes a look at the software and explores the role such mobile devices may play in the future of combat.

When Nett Warrior was first deployed in 2012, a long-held goal was finally realised. Dreamed up more than a decade earlier, the system allowed the US Army to accomplish something unprecedented: equipping troops with a new data network accessible through a smartphone-sized device.

For the first time, soldiers on the ground were able to send data to one another across a war zone, providing a real-time, digital map visible to the entire chain of command. They were be able to identify fellow soldiers, along with insurgents, civilians and bombs.

“This is a capability we have never, ever been able to provide,” Brigadier General John Morrison proclaimed.

While ostensibly a simple concept, Nett Warrior was in fact the culmination of years of research, development and hard graft. In 1989, General Electric began work on the Land Warrior programme, which was intended to provide tactical information to infantry through wearable computer technology. Over the next decade, a number of companies redesigned the system and rewrote the software. In 2000, around 100 proof-of-concept units were demonstrated.

Land Warrior gradually acquired more features – greater information security and combat identification capabilities, to name but two – and by 2006, soldiers in the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment were training with and evaluating the system. They were the first to use Land Warrior on the battlefield when they were deployed to Iraq the following year.

Weighty issue

However, with funding temporarily suspended, the programme’s future remained in doubt. The army had been forced to make a trade-off – ensuring the electronics were suitably robust on one hand, and that the system was wearable on the other.

As a result, Land Warrior had the air of an uneasy compromise. Cumbersome and unwieldy, it comprised a bundle of different pieces of hardware that weighed over a dozen pounds.

In 2010, the programme changed tack. In its new incarnation as Nett Warrior (named in honour of Medal of Honor recipient Robert Nett), the much-lambasted equipment was rejigged to become lighter and more durable.

Ultimately, these efforts paid off – Nett Warrior has been extensively used in combat since 2012. This year, it has been fielded to three brigade combat teams.

Today, four years after its first deployment in Afghanistan, the system is an integral part of army communications. As Jason Regnier, deputy product manager at the US Army’s Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier explains, it has been designed using an open architecture so that new features can be integrated quickly and the device itself can be upgraded.

“Nett Warrior implements a rapid acquisition process where technologies are integrated by the government into Nett Warrior, assessed by leaders at the Network Integration Evaluation and used to inform the production decision for the following year’s buy of equipment,” he says. “The US Government is the integrator for the NW system, and Nett Warrior has equipped more than 10,000 systems to date.”

Rather than expecting the defence industry to develop new tech from scratch,which would quickly become archaic, Net Warrior is based upon existing, off-the-shelf technologies. This means that battlefield devices will evolve in step with civilian smartphones.

“The technologies being leveraged are commercial smartphones [i.e. EUD] for computer processing and display, military radios for comms, hardened cables and cases, and power sources,” says Regnier. “SA/C2, data and imagery are generated and processed on the EUD and securely transferred through a tethered radio into the larger army network.”

Of course, Nett Warrior differs from a smartphone in several key respects. For starters, it doesn’t have 3G/4G or Wi-Fi capabilities, or the ability to make calls – this much is a matter of basic data security. What it has instead is tactical applications, networked through tactical radios, to provide dismounted soldiers with greater situational awareness during combat operations.

The radio component – currently a Rifleman Radio – sends packets of heavily encrypted information across the entire infantry using high-bandwidth frequencies.

Regnier describes Nett Warrior as a “system-of-systems approach”. It optimises and integrates different systems and capabilities while reducing the soldier’s combat load and logistical footprint.

“One of the main combat purposes of putting computing power on dismounted leaders is to provide a means for digital, networked situational awareness, command, and control that goes beyond simple voiceover radios,” Regnier says. “With advanced navigation and information-sharing capabilities, soldiers are able to avoid fratricide, and are more effective and more lethal in the execution of their combat missions.”

Scanning for threats

Situational awareness has long been understood as a crucial part of military strategy, with roots stretching as far back as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. In 2007, Major Brad Dostal defined it as “the ability to maintain a constant, clear mental picture of relevant information and the tactical situation, including friendly and threat situations, as well as terrain”.

Dostal defined situational understanding as “the product of applying analysis and judgment to the unit’s situational awareness, to determine the relationship of the factors present and form logical conclusions”.

Nett Warrior gives soldiers these abilities in abundance, permitting faster and more accurate decisions during the tactical fight.

“Nett Warrior-equipped units are directly enhancing the army’s combat power in two essential tasks,” says Regnier. “The Nett Warrior will enhance small-unit combat power and will enable commanders to more effectively combine the elements of combat power. It will also improve situational understanding to limit friendly casualties and swiftly end tactical engagements.”

Their devices display a moving digital map, which has icons to show where the other users are on the battlefield. It also marks enemy forces, IED locations, targets and surrounding terrain. Everyone sees the same picture, meaning nobody is working at cross-purposes, and if soldiers want to highlight a particular location, they can flag it up on the map.

They can also message one another across the battlefield. As Nett Warrior develops, this messaging feature is likely to enable quick translation between languages.

Of course, a technology this ambitious is not without challenges. One of the hard parts, as Regnier explains, was integrating and developing compliant software for the end-user device. Nett Warrior responded by creating a software development kit to bring down integration timelines for third-party developers.

There was also some concern, when the system was first rolled out, that the technology, while effective during testing, might not withstand the harsh conditions of warfare. So far, this concern has proved unfounded.

Ever-widening net

As Nett Warrior is more widely deployed, the technology evolves. Additional applications, such as the inclusion of field artillery information, are expected in the future. Colonel Richard Price, discussing the issue in 2015, said that while the hardware itself had reached the appropriate level of battle-readiness, the software would continue to improve for a long time.

“As we continue to develop apps, it will give you the capability to display information from the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System, unit data, war plans, operations orders and other things on the screen,” he said.

Then there are changes to the hardware itself. In July, it was reported that the US Army Special Operations command would be ditching Android smartphones (the previous basis for Nett Warrior technology) in favour of the iPhone. So far, this report has not been substantiated.

In September, army officials announced that the Rifleman radio will soon be phased out. While it is a single-channel device, which needs to be backed up by another like it when soldiers want to talk to one another, its eventual replacement will have two channels. This means soldiers will only need to carry one unit with double the capability, lightening their load by around 3lb.

If all goes to plan, the competition will be launched early next year, and the proposed radios tested into 2018. The vendor having been selected, fielding should begin in 2020.

Colonel James Ross, who runs Project Manager Tactical Radios, told “We know that the industry can meet our requirements… We know that it’s achievable.”

Changing the game

Whatever changes come in the years ahead, and whatever new apps end up being installed, it is clear that Nett Warrior departs from previous forms of battlefield communication.

Army colonels and generals heralded its arrival as a game changer. The results have shown that the initially hyperbolic language was justified.

The size of a commercial smartphone, the Nett Warrior equips the US Army with high-tech communication capabilities.
Nett Warrior provides essential situational awareness to troops allowing them to categorise friends and threats.

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