Soldiers aren't yet fans of the new Land Warrior gear that Raytheon has been developing for 15 years.
There's a half-billion dollars invested in the gear hanging off the heads, chests and backs of the soldiers of Alpha company. Digital maps displayed on helmet-mounted eyepieces show the position of all the men in the unit as they surround a block of concrete buildings and launch their attacks. Instead of relying on the hand signals and shouted orders that most infantrymen use, Alpha company communicates via advanced, encrypted radio transmissions with a range of up to a kilometer. It's more information than any soldiers have ever had about their comrades and their surroundings.
But as Alpha kicks in doors, rounds up terror suspects and peals off automatic fire in deafening six-shot bursts, not one of the soldiers bothers to check his radio or look into the eyepiece to find his buddies on the electronic maps. "It's just a bunch of stuff we don't use, taking the place of useful stuff like guns," says Sgt. James Young, who leads a team of four M-240 machine-gunners perched on a balcony during this training exercise at Fort Lewis, Wash. "It makes you a slower, heavier target." ...
The hope is that Land Warrior will perform so well under fire that the Army's chiefs will have no choice but to keep funding the system. "It's kind of a Hail Mary pass," one Pentagon insider tells me. Give guys like Gelineau and Starks a few months with Land Warrior, the thinking goes, and they'll grow to love it, saving the 15-year effort.
So far, no dice. "Oh yeah, I can't wait!" an Alpha company soldier writes sarcastically in an e-mail months after I visit Fort Lewis and just before he's due for deployment to Iraq. "We still aren't fans."
That attitude could change â€” quickly â€” with a single good combat experience.
The older soldiers won't like it, but the younger ones and the future soldiers who are spending their teenage nights playing Halo will love this sort of system. Land Warrior may be too heavy, too cumbersome, and too buggy at the moment, but either it or some future replacement will fill the niche and connect our soldiers each individually to the net. It's inevitable, and I'm glad we're working on it now.