Soldiers in the field rely on a wide range of weapons and equipment to support them in achieving their objectives. Dismounted soldier systems (DSS), which combine all equipment and clothing a soldier either wears or carries during a mission, have become an integral part of expanding both mobility and capability.

Forces worldwide use a variety of approaches to ensure soldiers and their equipment operate efficiently and in tandem. The days of rifles, helmets and army fatigues being developed as stand-alone items of equipment are over. More and more countries, including the UK and the US, are using rapidly evolving technologies to improve integration between DSS components to boost the performance of both the soldier and equipment.

The Bundeswehr, Germany’s united armed forces, is at the forefront of developing this new wave of DSS operability. The Bundeswehr say their version, the Infanterist der Zukunft (IdZ) or ‘Infantrymen of the future’, is designed to achieve a number of key objectives, including maximising lethality and survivability, while at the same time enhancing command and control capability, and sustainability.

The system requirements aim to combine the highest standards of protection with sophisticated weapons and sensors, reliable communications and up-to-date situation reporting for each individual soldier. The Bundeswehr’s original system – the IdZ-BS, or ‘basic’ system – was commissioned by the German government in 2004 and developed by EADS Defence Electronics. To fast-track development, the IdZ-BS was built using components that were already available on the market and adapted to local requirements. Some 1,600 of these IdZ-BS units were delivered between 2006 and 2007. That initial system has since been the focus of an upgraded or ‘extended’ system version, the IdZ-ES, a project delivered by a consortium led by the German defence contractor Rheinmetall’s Bremen operation. Unlike its predecessor, the core of IdZ-ES has been fully customised and built for the Bundeswehr. In addition, it delivers further modifications to cover shortfalls identified after initial deployment in Afghanistan. Soldiers in that theatre reported that the system’s vest-style backpack was too heavy and lacking in capabilities. That backpack, which houses the core system, has since been redesigned, with a new, lighter IdZ-ES vest set-up rolled out.

While the main focus of the next-generation IdZ is to reduce the physical and psychological burden for the soldier, there are additional goals that target improvement and optimisation. These include the integration of a new general purpose radio system, an enhanced detection range for night vision devices and an improvement in the ability to deliver precise target positions.

System design

A key development for IdZ-ES – and a trend for DSS systems generally – is the move to modular and flexible open system architecture designs. Military procurement agencies around the world are trying to maximise the use of architectures that use openly available and common standards, designs and interfaces to minimise the need for costly and lengthy bespoke engineering programmes. The use of open system architecture means that a larger number of subsystems can be more easily integrated with the DSS at a reduced cost.

There are no dedicated design standards for the development of dismounted soldier systems in Germany. Even so, Nato standardisation agreements (STANAGS) and other national and international standards have been observed throughout development. While the IdZ-ES core system consisting of a computer, radio and related software has been custom-designed, most subsystems used – including batteries, weapons, sensors and clothing – are essentially ‘plug and play’, commercial-off-theshelf (COTS) and modified off-the-shelf (MOTS) products, with adapted interfaces that allow the Bundeswehr to exploit open architectures.

The Bundeswehr team say the standardisation of interfaces – even internationally – is crucial to future interoperability. They stress the importance of defining interfaces as early as possible because integration into legacy vehicles and other platforms can be complicated, expensive and time-consuming.

DSS in the field

The weight of one of the two lithium batteries in the vest backpack powering the IdZ-ES core system. Bundeswehr

The development of a DSS is not simply about increasing the capability of an individual – it must form part of a holistic approach to operations. Under the IdZ-ES system, the computer and radio that each soldier carries contributes to a layered network in an organised communication model. This helps to ensure that accurate real-time communications are maintained throughout the command structure, allowing commanders to understand the situation on the ground and to issue orders more efficiently.

Open-source Bluetooth is used for data transfer between the core system and handheld DSS equipment such as target locators and aiming devices. Data transfer between soldiers, vehicles and command centres remains centred on UHF and VHF radios – a protocol that is capable of safely handling confidential data in conjunction with tactical safeguards.

In terms of security, all transmitted data is protected by certified security hardware and software. While soldiers remain detectable when radio and other EMItransmitting devices are on, tactical decisions are taken when required to maximise radio silence and protect positions.

Each soldier has a helmet-mounted display that shows data generated by the battlefield management system (BMS). During night engagement, this data is transmitted on to a display in their night vision goggles.

“[The Bundeswehr team] stress the importance of defining interfaces as early as possible because integration into legacy vehicles and other platforms can be complicated, expensive and time-consuming.”

All information on the tactical situation is available via this platform, including the position of the soldier’s own forces and the overall status of the mission. Video signals from external sources such as thermal weapon sights, thermal imagers and video visors can also be accessed in real time. This technology provides obvious benefits in terms of conveying information to soldiers and sharing real-time vision and data with commanders. However, it also presents problems, making it an area of focus for IdZ-ES systems developers. For example, there is a need to achieve a balance between providing enough relevant data tailored to combat conditions without overloading, distracting or endangering the soldier or the mission.

IdZ-BS units were delivered to the German government in 2006–07.

The future of DSS development

It is clear that the integration of more electronic devices into DSS provides scope for tactical improvement, but it brings with it other challenges in terms of power management. How can a system provide enough power for all essential functions while at the same time reduce the burden of carrying and charging batteries?

“There is a need to achieve a balance between providing enough relevant data tailored to combat conditions without overloading, distracting or endangering the soldier or the mission.”

Two lithium batteries are integrated into the vest backpack powering the IdZ-ES core system. Each battery weighs around 440g and produces approximately 70W/h. Each subsystem then has its own energy supply, usually based on AA or CR123 batteries. Other technologies – such as fuel cells, solar panels and mechanical generators – have been reviewed and tested; however, none have so far impressed IdZ-ES developers enough to justify integration. That could change in the future as these technologies evolve. Across the defence sphere, silicon anodes are another technology ripe for exploration. These batteries replace graphite anodes and can, in theory, hold ten times the charge. This would significantly increase DSS energy capacity. The technology is still being refined – for example, the car-manufacturing industry is addressing issues of material durability – but silicon anodes could provide interesting benefits for DSS in the future. Likewise, advances in cabling could see traditional round cables replaced with flat options that are lighter and can be routed more comfortably. This would pave the way for more easily incorporating cables into harnesses and clothing as part of the trend towards using electronic fabrics or so-called e-textiles.

The Bundeswehr’s improved IdZ-ES system has a heavy focus on the optimisation of the Combat Clothing Individual Equipment and Protection (CCIEP) subsystem. Cutting-edge materials combine with electronic technologies to provide protection against optical reconnaissance and bad weather conditions, as well as protecting the soldier against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons (NBCs), and ballistic weapons.

This focus on integrating technology into textiles is not, however, unique to Germany. In the UK, the Ministry of Defence’s Future Soldier programme includes a helmet-as-a-platform (HAAP) design that combines software and e-textiles to produce a dataenabled helmet. Other wearable tech concepts under review in the UK include the integration of sensors into body armour and clothing, as well as so-called ‘smart’ glasses and watches based on sensor and camera technology.

Away from textiles, drone interfaces and other technology that can enhance the use of unmanned equipment are also likely to be incorporated into future DSS programmes.

Innovation will continue to dominate DSS evolution. However, technology and gadgetry will always be redundant if they are not aligned with a soldier’s comfort and agility – two critical factors in maximising success and survivability in the field.