Soldiers question the utility of wearable computers during network exercise

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- The Army has to become a smarter technology consumer, which is why the service is putting 45 communications systems through a series of tests here with the ultimate end users -- 3,800 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division.

Col. Daniel Hughes, director of systems of systems integration, said, "the more commercial technology we can use, the better off we will be." Based on feedback from tests in June, when the Army conducted its first network integration exercise, the service has made dramatic changes to a tactical, wearable computer system.

In that earlier test, soldiers panned the Nett Warrior system, which featured a helmet-mounted eyepiece and a separate keyboard, finding them too cumbersome and, at 12 pounds, too heavy. Army leaders listened, and today the service is testing a new slimmed-down Nett Warrior system that uses an Android-based smartphone hooked into the Joint Tactical Radio System Rifleman Radio for battlefield communications.

Pfc. David Kramlich said he appreciates the lighter weight of the new Nett Warrior -- roughly 8 pounds with the Rifleman Radio -- but wondered whether grunts at the far end of the command chain needed all the situational awareness information displayed on the screen of their smartphones.

That display shows the location of all of the squad's members, derived from Global Positioning System receivers built into the Rifleman Radio, and a variety of map symbols that indicate whether buildings in a nearby village have been cleared and secured. Kramlich viewed this as information overload, and said he believed such information-rich displays should be issued to team leaders.

Kramlich added that if he spent too much time looking down at the smartphone display -- which nests in a Velcro pouch on the front of his uniform -- it would interfere with the situational awareness he acquires the old-fashioned way -- with his eyeballs.

Col. Thomas Olson, project manager for the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade Program, which manages Nett Warrior, said one purpose of this exercise is to determine the best fit for technology in the command chain, "and we will listen to what soldiers have to say."

Near the top of that battlefield command chain, battalion and brigade commanders need access to a range of information from both subordinate and superior units, something for which the Army uses a system called Warrior Information Network-Tactical. Until this exercise, WIN-T could not access satellite communications systems while on the move and had to stop to use them.

During this test, the Army decided to pilot satellite on-the-move systems developed under WIN-T Increment 2, deploying 10 vehicles equipped with that capability to various units operating within the 3,000-mile test area.

Spc. Allison Ferrone, a radio operator for the 2nd Brigade commander, said that based on her experience during the past month, the system still needs some work.

"Voice comms over satellite are broken up. We can hear people crystal clear, but they have a hard time hearing us," Ferrone said. She attributed the breakdown to a problem endemic to any satellite system -- latency, or the time delay a signal experiences as it makes a 50,000-mile round trip up to a satellite and back down to the ground.

The WIN-T Increment 2 system is installed in a mine-resistant command vehicle that also incorporates other radio and computer systems. Ferrone said from her perspective that vehicle should include a control console for the radio operator.

Hughes said soldier feedback will help the Army select the communications systems it will field, and help the service do it smartly and in an iterative fashion. No longer will the service use programs such as the decade-old JTRS to develop and field tens of thousands of radios, only to see them quickly outmoded by the fast pace of technology development. This network integration exercise, Hughes said, is an outdoor laboratory that will help the Army decide what systems to deploy more quickly and cheaply than in the past.

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