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[infowar.de] Wired - Army Reboots GIs' Tired Fatigues
Army Reboots GIs' Tired Fatigues
By Noah Shachtman
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,63581,00.html
02:00 AM May. 25, 2004 PT
Ever since they tangled with the Red Coats, American generals have been
giving their grunts more and more and more gear to lug -- from rations to
radios, body armor to batteries. Now, for the first time, the Army has
decided to junk the old uniforms and start from scratch.
"We're stripping the soldier down to his skin, and building out from
there," said Jean-Louis "Dutch" DeGay, an equipment specialist at the
Army's Natick Soldier Systems Center, which is supervising the seven-year,
$250 million overhaul, dubbed Future Force Warrior, or FFW.
In their current get-ups, American soldiers often jump into battle
carrying more than 100 pounds of gear on their backs. Hauling the
equivalent of a small fridge probably isn't the best idea for troops under
any circumstances. But what makes today's equipment particularly maddening
is how clumsily all that gear fits together. Night-vision goggles sit on
top of the helmet so awkwardly that GIs have to take them off way more
often than they should, DeGay said. Body armor is clunky, which makes it
hard to duck and roll.
That won't work in the urban fights soldiers are now facing in Iraq -- and
are likely to face for years to come. In these battles, infantrymen need
as much mobility, and as much protection, as possible. And the equipment
needs to be, to use a buzzword, integrated. That couldn't be done with a
piecemeal upgrade. It needs a complete system wipe, like FFW.
Caught in street-to-street fighting across Iraq, U.S. troops can't get
these upgrades soon enough, said John Pike, director of
"Once you're in an urban environment, it strips out a lot of (America's)
technology advantages," he said. "It puts you in a fair fight. And you
don't want to be in a fair fight." Radios don't work as well in concrete
canyons. Spy planes can't see as well. And big guns are often too
indiscriminate. By making American troops "more lethal, more survivable,"
Pike said, FFW "restores to our infantry the same technological
superiority that the rest of our military has."
The Army has tried to tweak its uniforms before. There's a clunky upgrade
that has been stuck in the Pentagon's bureaucratic muck for years. And
let's not even discuss the Power Ranger-motocross-ninja thing that the
Defense Department trots out for TV cameras now and then. But FFW is
supposed to be ready for full-scale deployment in 2010. And, if the war in
Iraq doesn't suck up the Pentagon's last dollar, the project has a decent
chance of hitting its deadline, Army insiders and independent analysts
Guys like Dutch DeGay are one reason why. He's in a team of 20 Natick
specialists working on FFW, and riding herd over 26 contractors --
including a funky Brooklyn design shop. An 11th-generation infantryman,
DeGay's ancestors have been carrying guns for the United States since the
American Revolution. Before that, he said, they were Scottish highlanders.
"We have a warring disposition," growled DeGay, a former Ranger, infantry
officer and armored platoon leader. "All we do is soldier."
He's making sure Natick's geeks and engineers keep the grunt in mind. But
he's not the only one. Infantrymen and paratroopers at Fort Benning,
Georgia, and at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland have already
rolled around in the mud wearing FFW prototypes.
The tests have produced a series of small, but needed, changes over what
soldiers now wear. For one thing, the new uniforms are now unisex. The
zipper has been extended, and the uniform's butt flap has been expanded,
so GI Janes aren't literally caught with their pants down if they have to
pee. A bag has been attached to the inner thigh, for an easier time going
The body armor is probably the biggest improvement, however. It sits on a
series of foam pads around the rib cage, so there's a 2.5-inch gap between
the harness and the body. It keeps the GI cool. And it's almost
imperceptibly light -- unlike today's bulletproof vests, many of which are
about as comfortable as that lead apron the dentist makes you wear during
X-rays. But the scarab-like shell can take five to seven direct hits from
a machine gun, and it doubles as a holster for ammunition and grenades.
DeGay and his fellow Future Force Warriors call it a "load-bearing
It also protects the computer that future infantrymen are expected to rely
on. Instead of the bulky cables that ordinarily connect the computer to a
PDA or a helmet-mounted display, FFW is supposed to use "e-textiles" --
durable cloth, with wires woven in. The helmet will integrate night vision
into a built-in, half-inch monocle, and bone-conduction microphones will
replace radio headsets.
At first, the sensors were metal. But tests showed that "some people's
heads were literally too thick for that to work," DeGay said. Now, the
metal has been replaced with a gel-based sensor that's sensitive enough to
transmit pulse and breathing rates back to base, too.
There's still a slight whiff of vaporware in the air at Natick. Powering
all these doodads, for instance, won't be easy. The Army wants to keep the
total "power budget" for FFW down to 15 watts or so -- a quarter of what a
typical light bulb takes. "We don't even know where to begin," sighed
Kalish Shukla, FFW's power-management chief.
They have at least one idea, though. "Avoid the use of Microsoft Windows
operating systems," a recent memo on the subject directed. FFW is going
open source. Cleaner software needs less energy to run.
To cut a soldier's load back to 50 pounds, FFW designers plan to dump a
whole bunch onto a robotic "mule," yet to be designed. Even if this
robo-Sherpa isn't ready by the 2010 deadline (and it's looking
increasingly likely that it won't), the FFW crew intends to push ahead.
"If we had to push all this out the door right now, the soldier would
still have a system that didn't feel like he was lugging all this gear,"
DeGay said. "He doesn't have to waste brain matter moving from this rock
to that one. And that's going to make him fight better, in the end."
That is, if the Pentagon will let it happen. Stretched thin by commitments
in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department withheld some of FFW's
money for the current fiscal year, Army sources said. Some goals set for
2006 have been pushed back to 2007, although the 2010 deployment date for
Future Force Warrior is still intact. For now.
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