In 1989, the US Army began to explore the use of advanced technology for the soldier on the battlefield with the birth of the Soldier Integrated Protective Ensemble (SIPE) programme.

The key objectives were to boost a soldier’s survivability along with his or her ‘lethality’ by increasing situational awareness. The first pieces of digital kit that arrived were night-vision devices; however, in the last 25 years, the scope and sophistication of the equipment available to the fighting solider has grown at a rapid pace.

Although retired for five years, Colonel Richard Hansen Jr, former project manager for Soldier Warrior at the US Army Defense Acquisition University’s Program Executive Office Soldier, has kept a close eye on the latest developments. His long experience of the Land Warrior and Nett Warrior programmes enables him to take an informed view of the progress of the digitised soldier, as well as the twists and turns along the development road.

"All material development is a nexus; a convergence of technology, familiarisation, training and acceptance," he explains." That was also very true with the digitisation of the soldier."

The bumpy road to acceptance

Acceptance of the equipment, Hansen says, was all about weight and bulk, and problems arose because of the state of the technology. "There wasn’t anything like a Toshiba Toughbook back in 1995," he says. "What there was, though, was referred to, maybe not so lovingly, as the ‘Turtleback’ – a Raytheon computing capability that was the Land Warrior of the time. It was the best computing capability that the private industry had to offer.

"The problem was that the dismounted soldier didn’t like the weight, size and clumsiness of the Turtleback. So, cue the first bump in the road brought on by technology – a lack of miniaturisation that impacted on soldier acceptance."

For Hansen, the second bump came with the use of generally available hardware.

"The mechanics of command and control benefitted tremendously from digitisation because of the immediate transmission of graphics and paragraphs of operations."

"Enter the Silicon Valley consortia," he says. "All these computers coming out of California are smaller and faster. But when you get that kind of commercial off-the-shelf capability and you put it on a soldier, enter bump number two: it’s not reliable enough. It doesn’t survive in the mud, the dust, and all the bumping and shoving the soldier can put it through."

The third bump was the cost. If all the systems that were being developed were bought for every solider in a 250,000-strong army, it would cost too much; however, it was realised that not every solider needed situational awareness at this time. Therefore, the US Army is only currently equipping a few brigades with SIPE equipment. Moreover, says Hansen, the weight and bulk of the equipment can be distributed between squad and team leaders.

"We demonstrated this back with Land Warrior," he explains. "If you are talking about incoming fire, all you need is that
one sensor and the computing power determines where that is, then sends that across the network. It should be automatic. All the soldiers get the flashing red light on their computer. It is a good example of one person having the capability, but the power of the network means that it is shared with everyone else."

According to Hansen, the resistance to SIPE came from old soldiers "who would say that all this digital stuff is great, but when the shooting starts, the computers will be turned off and everyone will start shouting at each other and pulling triggers. In the real heat of an attack, nobody will be looking at a screen".

Change of view

The turning point for the acceptance of SIPE probably came with the 9th Infantry Regiment – ‘The Manchus’ in Iraq. He references at least two Manchu operations there: an air assault and a vehicle-mounted arrest operation where the technology, then still known as Land Warrior, proved to be an outstanding success.

When the Manchus were initially introduced to SIPE at Fort Lewis, Tacoma in Washington, US, there was some reluctance. "But once they got to an unknown area where the maps all of a sudden became important, and they learned how to text each other rather than getting on the radio to communicate, attitudes changed; they saw the value," says Hansen.

"There is a significant hazard to the digitised battlefield – information assurance and security have been tough nuts to crack."

This was particularly true of the more senior, non-commissioned officers, whose embracing of the technology persuaded soldiers in their units of the merits of SIPE. Hansen recalls that after their first engagements using Land Warrior, soldiers were eager to sit down with technicians to find out what else they could do with the technology.

He notes with obvious pleasure: "The Manchus were still executing the battle with digital traffic. This gave the lie to those who said: ‘All this stuff is good for planning, but when the shooting starts, we are not going to use it’. Well, that’s not true."

The arrival of the digitised battlefield, however, gave rise to concerns that senior commanders at brigade level would seek to micromanage the movements of small units during engagements.

"You need to tease this concern apart a little bit more," explains Hansen. "Just think about the mechanics of command and control – writing orders, distributing orders, proliferating orders and giving the process enough time. All of this benefitted tremendously from digitisation because you weren’t making copies, driving them around to people and handing them out. It was an immediate transmission of graphics and paragraphs of operations."

SIPE capabilities

Hansen maintains that in the execution phase of a battle, SIPE technology becomes extremely helpful.

"This is because of the speed with which you can text or send messages and fragmentary orders. Moreover, it’s not just voice now; everything is augmented by pictures as well as words, and this makes it very powerful for command and control."

Although Hansen is uncertain as to whether senior commanders will seek to micromanage the battlefield, he maintains that the technology gives higher command levels an accurate awareness of what is going on. This, he is sure, will help them to influence the battle from their command positions with whatever interventions are most helpful.

Slightly less important is the ability to use the captured digital record of actual engagements, not only for debriefing, but also as a training aid. Soldiers passing through training establishments such as Fort Lewis are able to see the power and utility of SIPE technology.

There is a significant hazard to the digitised battlefield and the digitised solider fighting on it, however. Information assurance and security have been tough nuts to crack.

"All of these digital systems are a portal into the big network," explains Hansen. "Governments can currently gain access remotely to what we’re doing on our computers. We need to be vigilant to ensure that the system that is not hacked into because, once you’re in the system, you have access to anything you want. There are, however, some technologies and approaches available that limit that kind of exposure, with just simple one-way diodes that won’t let anyone from the outside get any further into the network."

There is also the concern that SIPE technology produces signals that can be pinpointed by the enemy.

"A heat signature can be picked up," explains Hansen. "A few years ago when I was working on another system, there was a fear that the GPS signal would be jammed and all these inexpensive jammers would hit the battlefield. That might happen, but it takes a lot of effort on the enemy’s side. If they get a big enough jammer and radio signal interceptor, we are able to find and sensor them, then they can’t listen in anymore.

"Any technology you use can also be used against you. With transmission capability comes an equal and opposing opportunity for threat or discovery – but, then again, that can also happen at night if you light up a cigarette."