On a bright, sunny day in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Sergeant Joseph Mata of the 101st airborne division was handed a contused US Army helmetby an official from Program Executive Officer (PEO) Soldier,in front of his friends and comrades-in-arms.

Traditionally, the role of the agency was confined to prototyping the equipment issued to soldiers in the field, but for many years, it has worked to recover the remains of the helmets, weapons or body armour that saved infantrymen in unusual circumstances. After conducting ballistics tests on the equipment to ascertain its operational effectiveness, the agency then hands back whatever is left to the soldier in a short formal ceremony.

“I saw the helmet a day or two after the incident, and I was in disbelief,” recalled Mata, interviewed by Soldiers magazine after the service. “I just couldn’t believe that I was still here.” The publication went on to report that the sergeant had survived the event because his helmet had protected him from the full force of a 75lb improvised explosive device (IED) that had been tripped nearby.

Mata had been inside an MRAP armoured vehicle when the explosion took place, along with three members of his squad and an Afghan interpreter who had accompanied them on patrol that day. The squad had driven over the device, which blew off the truck’s rear axle, propelling the vehicle five yards before it skidded to a halt. Mata’s squad was bounced around inside the steel chassis like nuts in a can. The interpreter was killed.

“The only thing I remember was waking up,” Mata said. “I was in a lot of pain all down my right side, but I knew exactly what had happened, because I have been through IED attacks before.” This time, the helmet later returned to him in Fort Campbell had saved his life, shielding his skull from the beating the rest of his body had taken during the explosion. After the incident, Mata would be treated for underlying brain trauma before calling his mother in Kewanee, Illinois. The crash marked the fifth time he had survived an IED blast.

The equipment that had saved him – the Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH) – was brought into the field by PEO Soldier to replace the Kevlar-based Personal Armour System for Ground Troops, worn by US infantrymen in the early years of the Iraq War. This, in turn, had succeeded the M1, which was worn by combat soldiers throughout the Vietnam War and the Second World War. These older helmet variants derived from a procurement culture within the US military that, while largely producing iconic and reliable materiel for one of the world’s most advanced armed forces, comprised too many strands to survive the pressures of the post-9/11 national security situation. It took the founding of PEO Soldier in 2002 to bring all of these disparate lines of communication under one roof.

Future Soldier

The first video encountered on PEO Soldier’s official YouTube channel provides an effective 70-second overview of the agency’s work and ambitions. Stock footage and official schematics stitched together with punchy edits and a thumping, warlike din, the clip showcases some of the leading innovations of PEO Soldier, from the organisation’s smart-rounds programme to the Generation III Extended Cold Weather Clothing System.

Visitors would be forgiven for thinking that most of the agency’s portfolio was derived from in-house research or close collaboration with leading US arms manufacturers, but this is not so. One of PEO Soldier’s leading initiatives is the Soldier Enhancement Program (SEP), established in 1990 to “move at the speed of industry” by identifying the potential uses of commercially available equipment or devices in combat. With a little tweaking, an item that could be plucked off the shelf at a local store could conceivably save a soldier’s life.

To receive approval from the governing SEP Council, a product or proposal must be a commercially available, off-the-shelf item that is currently being bought by soldiers to enhance life in the field, and that has been “worn, carried or consumed by individuals in a tactical environment”. If the product meets this criteria, the proposal will be passed on to the US Army Training and Doctrine Command schools, where it will be tailored to more appropriately fit the circumstances in which it will be deployed.

Under these parameters, the programme has been enormously successful, producing almost 40% of PEO Soldier’s total equipment portfolio. This has included everything from the Modular Airborne Weapons Case to an entire family of metal detectors.

“With a little tweaking, an item that could be plucked off the shelf at a local store could conceivably save a soldier’s life.”

One of the latest products set to be acquired by SEP is the pocket-sized Soldier Borne Sensor (SBS): micro drones intended to be used as tiny robotic scouts by infantrymen on patrol. At a media roundtable in late March, SBS assistant product manager, Lt Col Timothy Fuller, stated that the programme that had made such procurement possible was “an extremely cost-effective way to test new technologies”.

Shedding loads

As one might expect from products sculpted by the basic demands of marketability, the equipment turned out by SEP tends to be practicably compact and easy to use. These are features in keeping with PEO Soldier’s general goal of sourcing new equipment that not only enhances the effectiveness of the infantryman in the field, but also lightens their overall carry load. In short, a fine balance has to be struck between basic protection and manoeuvrability.

In alleviating this burden, PEO Soldier has often surveyed infantrymen and other US Army personnel to ascertain precisely what constraints they operate under and where cuts in weight might be made.

Some of the results have been striking. In head protection, PEO Soldier has recently showcased the experimental properties of the Generation II Lightweight ACH, which the agency boasts is “a pound lighter while offering the same ballistic protection”. The Soldier Protection System is another example, wherein body armour relying on new technologies is able to retain its essential levels of protection while shedding weight. And by developing a firing mechanism for the experimental Precision Sniper Rifle that can fire three different kinds of bullets, PEO Soldier has radically optimised the ammunition loads of future snipers for many years to come.

Achieving these goals is more difficult when the agency wishes to reach beyond simply chipping away at existing equipment: the real game-changing technologies require battery power. The XM25, a grenade launcher whose ammunition can be timed to explode by the user, potentially does away with the idea of ‘cover’ as we know it. Nevertheless, it requires batteries that will eventually need to be replaced for the weapon to function as intended – a feature increasingly found in a number of products produced by PEO Soldier.

The future in action

To get a glimpse of what the agency’s idea of what combat will look like in a decade’s time, one only requires a games console and the latest edition of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The series heavily draws upon concepts that are eerily similar to development projects that PEO Soldier is championing as the future of modern combat, including the XM25 and a portfolio of new sensors and surveillance tools.

Chief among these is the Tactical Communication and Protective System (TCAPS.) This communications kit protects a soldier’s hearing while providing situational awareness, filtering out exterior noise to allow the infantryman to effectively use their tactical radios even in the loudest of combat zones. Another proposal in 2013, the Helmet Electronics and Display System-Upgradeable Protection, took this further by introducing a HUD inside the confines of the helmet. After press releases depicting test subjects wearing the new equipment were released, media outlets quickly compared the new headgear to that donned by infantrymen in the Halo franchise.

Such prototypes, while undoubtedly at the cutting edge of military technology, potentially incur greater loads on infantrymen, who already carry nearly 17lb of battery packs for every 100lb they take on patrol.

“We’ve got the warfighter transitioning from a single-shot rifle to [being] globally connected to the tactical network,” said deputy director for expeditionary operations Steve Mapes, interviewed by National Defense Magazine. “With that increased capability comes a phenomenal power burden that the warfighter never had before.”

To remedy this, researchers have started to look at smarter, lighter battery technologies. One up for active consideration as an alternative to the current lithium ion battery packs is betavoltaics. Using the same technology found in the earliest pacemakers, betavoltaic batteries produce electricity from radioactive materials. They can be compact and long-lasting – betavoltaics containing tritium have a half-life of up to 12.3 years – but only two major manufacturers exist in the US, and any leakage would naturally pose elevated health risks to the user.

Researchers are also working on wearable power-generation technology, like small generators implanted in backpacks that convert the kinetic energy produced by the soldier’s torso or knees into electricity. Labs are “aggressively working on it”, said Mapes, but “there’s an understanding that the return on that investment may be years away and there has to be expectation management”.

Forward thinking

All of the research and investment devoted to power management is, however, being made with a long-term view in mind. Presently, the majority of PEO Soldier’s most successful innovations have sprung from the lessons learned in the heat and dust of Iraq and Afghanistan. Analysts predict that the next threats to US security and interests will be met in the Asia-Pacific region. With this in mind, PEO Soldier is currently analysing the properties of certain textiles with a focus on what Army Times termed “breathability, comfort, and durability”.

This is just another example of the researchers at PEO Soldier working hard to anticipate and protect against the dangers of combat, present and future. Yet the agency’s remit is limited to deploying equipment a soldier can carry, and since infantrymen no longer march in formation to the battlefield, much of the work it does in protecting individual infantrymen remains hostage to factors like the thickness of a vehicle’s armour plating, or the cunning of the enemy.

Certainly, Mata’s crew could not have anticipated the location of the IED prior to the blast; nor could he have personally prevented the MRAP from rolling. In the end, Mata survived because he was wearing his regulation uniform within the vehicle. The ACH – however unexpectedly – had done its job.