Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Land Warrior in Iraq

Major props go to Noah Schachtman, who took time out of a busy schedule of alternatively living in Ba'athist palaces and sleeping in fetid kitchens to look in on how the tech demonstrators from the now-cancelled Land Warrior are doing:

Captain Jack Moore, the commander of the 4/9's "Blowtorch" company, peers into his Land Warrior monocle. Inside is a digital map of Tarmiyah, a filthy little town about 25 kilometers north of Baghdad that's become a haven for Islamists. Blue icons show two of his platoons sweeping through the western half of the town. Two other icons represent Blowtorch soldiers who have teamed up with special forces and Iraqi Army units to raid local mosques with insurgent ties.

A red dot suddenly pops up on Moore's monocle screen: 3rd platoon has found a pair of improvised bombs -- black boxes, filled with homemade explosives. Other troops will circumvent the scene.

As the other platoons move south to north, green lights blink on Moore's map. Each of these "digital chem lights" represents a house checked and cleared. It keeps different groups of soldiers from kicking down the same set of doors twice.

A year ago, these chem lights weren't even part of the Land Warrior code. But after a suggestion from a Manchu soldier, the digital markers were added -- and quickly became the system's most popular feature. During air assaults on Baquba, to the northeast, troops were regularly dropped a quarter or half-kilometer from their original objective; the chem lights allowed them to converge on the spot where they were supposed to go. In the middle of one mission, a trail of green lights was used to mark a new objective -- and show the easiest way to get to the place.


[Capt. Aaron] Miller is still not happy with how much the system weighs. "Look, I need this like I need a 10th arm," he sighs. And all this stuff (Land Warrior does), my cell phone basically does the same at home." But Miller is committed to soldiers being networked. So he's willing to be the digital guinea pig. "It's got to start with someone."

The system has become more palatable to the Manchus because it's been pared down, in all sorts of ways. By consolidating parts, a 16-pound ensemble is now down to a little more than 10. A new, digital gun scope has been largely abandoned by the troops -- the system was too cumbersome and too slow to be effective. And now, not every soldier in the 4/9 has to lug around Land Warrior. Only team leaders and above are so equipped.

Frankly, I'm a little surprised how accurately my concerns about the Land Warrior played out on the battlefield. The blue force tracking and land navigation functions are very popular, while the computing and scope pieces were largely relegated to the rubbish bin.

Complaints that the system would better if it were only a quarter of its current weight also indicate that either the underlying technology is not mature enough or that the designers crammed it with superfluous features. I'm going to bet that the latter is a far more likely culprit than the latter -- especially considering how many weapons systems in the pipe feel disconnected from current needs.

The most ironic bit of Capt. Miller's comment about how his cellphone back at home does many of the same functions as the Land Warrior. That sounds a lot like the result of this JASONS report issued two years ago, which theorized that adapting commercial communications platforms to military use might be a better method of improving situational awareness at the lowest levels.

This brings us to something I have been thing about since I read this Defense News piece on how the DoD is effectively hiring a lead system integrator to support their counternaroctics efforts. If there is little evidence that DoD bureaucrats can successfully plan and develop successful weapons platforms for the U.S. military, why shouldn't we be outsourcing large chunks of the acquisition process?

You can at least terminate contractors when it is clear they cannot deliver on the terms of their contract. The same cannot be said about the thousands of 'acquisition professionals' who are barely doing their job right now.


J. said...

"You can at least terminate contractors when it is clear they cannot deliver on the terms of their contract. The same cannot be said about the thousands of 'acquisition professionals' who are barely doing their job right now."

Ouch. I guess I don't have to tell you any stories about the DOD science and technology effort... doubt you would be surprised or shocked.

Robot Economist said...

J -

I started working on Army S&T projects -- Dr. Killion is a former boss -- so I'm familiar with the snail's pace of that community. Army scientists aren't exactly earning Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry, but they get the job done. Its too bad they are constantly weighed down by the ineffectual leadership of the Army Material Command and Research, Development and Engineering Command.

I only hope you don't have to deal with the Army S&T community too frequently. Prolonged exposure can be hazardous to your health.

Galrahn said...

"why shouldn't we be outsourcing large chunks of the acquisition process?"

I tend to agree, it would probably increase accountability on acquisition. Actually I think the way to do it is to contract them as consultants, instead of outsource them as external players.

The distinguishing factor there is that you get to be picky regarding the individual people hired, as opposed to the business hired. Picky is good for that, because the quality of potential candidates will be higher.

Consulting as opposed to outsourcing also adds a layer of oversight.

Robot Economist said...

Galrahn -

I think you've outlined what is the key point of failure in the defense acquisition community, the civil service employment system. It is simply not flexible enough to pull in talent and reward performance.

The National Security Personnel System was supposed to look more like the human resource systems of the private sector. Unfortunately, NSPS is dead in the water, so we'll never know what its impact would have been.