Soldiers put new high-tech weapons to the test in Afghanistan

It's early morning, and a squad of U.S. soldiers is on patrol. As the GIs quietly move through a village believed to harbor terrorists, they methodically search buildings, roads, cars, trash cans, bushes, and everything else, step by careful step. Suddenly gunfire erupts--the U.S. point man has stumbled upon a small but unknown number of combatants cornered in a dead-end alley, firing their AK-47s at anything that moves. The soldiers scramble into position. The squad could attack the opposing fighters by hurling a few grenades, or by stunning them with bright lights or flash-and-smoke bombs and then charging, but such tactics are extremely dangerous in close quarters, especially when the enemy's strength is unknown. Instead, one crouching soldier wearing Kevlar gloves slowly eases his M-4 rifle around the corner of the wall that is protecting him, drawing close but relatively inaccurate fire from the cornered enemy. Pieces of the ricocheting wall do not damage the tiny, shockproof video camera mounted on the stock of his M-4, a downsized version of the familiar M-16. With the rifle's camera peering around the corner, and the soldier facing the side of his M-4, he then squints into a monocle attached to his helmet that flips down over his left eye. In the monocle is a small video screen wired to the rifle-mounted camera poking around the corner. The videocam enables the soldier to not only see around the corner and count the adversaries, its zoom lens allows him to aim and shoot--without exposing himself to deadly fire. Such a firefight, with soldiers using the Army's rifle-mounted daylight video system, is the type of close combat that Pentagon planners spent the 1990s envisioning for the 21st century. They call these new digitized gadgets and tactics "Land Warrior," a revolutionary system of systems not officially due out until 2004 but now quietly making its impromptu debut in Afghanistan (and possibly elsewhere). Military officials are not yet releasing details of the firefights U.S. ground troops have been involved in during early stages of the war on terrorism, but they are acknowledging that initial elements of the Land Warrior system--including the videocams, thermal optics that can sight an enemy by detecting body heat, and key satellite-linked components--are now in the hands of U.S. Special Forces scouring caves and villages for Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda fighters. Hence, the era of the futuristic Land Warrior has commenced, albeit in a partial, almost infant form. "It's being used in Afghanistan quite a bit," declares a Marine colonel who asked not to be named but who personally tested an early version of Land Warrior when his troops trained with it last summer. An Army spokeswoman, Capt. Amy Hannah, wouldn't say exactly where such equipment might be used, but she did say, "There are parts of the Land Warrior system ... that are in the inventory and being used by soldiers now." The U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., isn't saying much: "I can't confirm the obvious; I wish I could," says George Grimes, spokesman for the command. "There's basically a moratorium on all information coming from our command." But Pentagon confirmation is hardly needed. A wire photo splashed across the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and papers across the globe on November 16 depicts a U.S. Air Force Special Operations trooper patrolling an Afghan road, with tribal villagers gawking at him. A close look reveals the Land Warrior's helmet-mounted monocle and an M-4 topped with either a video camera or a new thermal sight, both of which are part of the Land Warrior system. "That picture was not approved for release," remarks Lt. Jeff Roberts, spokesman for the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command. Why Pentagon officials want to shield the advent of even the most basic elements of Land Warrior is understandable. Now that a shooting war is under way, they don't want to give away any advantages over the enemy. Before September 11, however, the Pentagon and a cadre of small, relatively unknown contractors boasted Web sites detailing the Land Warrior concept--sites that have since been shut down. "This site is currently under reconstruction," they innocuously say. But enemies of the United States probably already know what military advantages it possesses, including the videocams and thermal sights. America's dominance, after all, is why they resorted to acts of terrorism rather than using traditional combat. By allowing soldiers to accurately fire over their heads or around corners, without a direct line of sight, the video system promises to alter the age-old art of aiming. And the thermal scopes--which through darkness, smoke, fog, and even thin walls show the body heat of a live target, hopefully an enemy--also seem destined to forever change the tactics of the battlefield. "This is a leap ahead for the soldier," says Maj. Brian Cummings, assistant project manager for the Army's Land Warrior program office at Fort Belvoir, Va. "We're giving him capabilities never seen before. He's going to fight differently." But not everyone within the military is so rah-rah about Land Warrior. "The idea that that camera is going to help someone in a firefight is complete bullshit," bellows Chuck Spinney, a maverick analyst who has worked in the Defense Department for 30 years. Comparing the view in the video monocle to "looking through a soda straw," he said: "In a firefight, the last thing you want is to have to think about operating your equipment. The response would have to be intuitive, instinctive, and quick." Indeed, the field of view for the M-4 mounted videocam is unlikely to be much more than it is for a home video camera, which is about six degrees. That means that an enemy's darting movements could be difficult for a soldier to track through the video sight. Just ask any parent who has tried to videotape young children scurrying through the living room. Regardless, the Land Warrior capabilities envisioned by Army brass are a far step beyond the simple gun sights, Global Positioning Systems, and computers being used by Special Forces today. Thus far, the Pentagon has pumped about $1.8 billion into the Land Warrior program, which emerged after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when commanders found much of their gear ill-suited for the deserts of the region. The program picked up steam in 1993 after the bungled commando raid in Somalia. Today, it costs about $10,000 to field a soldier or Marine with the complete gear, the kinks of which are still furiously being worked out. The Land Warrior concept combines many systems-high-tech weapons, computers, and gear intended to make each soldier as lethal and indestructible as possible. What makes Land Warrior so unique is its stunning array of computer hookups, satellite links, and GPS maps that give each infantry soldier a digital overview of the battlefield and its combatants--and live, instant contact with peers in the field and commanders back at base. All the high-tech gizmos are intended to give U.S. soldiers greater "battlefield awareness," so that GIs know where their enemy is, at the same time the enemy is rendered clueless about where the Americans are. In this same way, U.S. M1-A1 Abrams tanks in the Gulf War used advanced sights and battlefield awareness to shoot up Iraqi tanks from 2.5 miles away without the terrified Iraqi crews ever knowing where the Americans were firing from. And with Land Warrior, soldiers can keep in touch with others via channel-bouncing radios that use tiny microphones and earpieces, and computers that employ a chest-based mouse and credit-card-sized disks with simple software. Some experts think the system will make soldiers too dependent on the decisions made at their headquarters. "[Land Warrior] should give more autonomy to the units, but it's going to be the opposite," complains Army Maj. Don Vandergriff, a reconnaissance scout and the author of two books on military culture. "Technology should actually decentralize things and create independent units, but these types of technology actually centralize everything." And will all these tools work, especially in the confusion of close infantry combat, a world apart from tank battles on an open desert? What if the computers and other high-tech devices are shot up or damaged-or just simply crash? "If all else fails, they can fall back on their other training, firing by using their regular sights on the weapon," Cummings says. The Land Warrior system, explains the unnamed Marine colonel, "is something that gives you a bit of an advantage. If it fails, then you do what you always do--the best computer in the world is your brain ... and you always have grenades." Such fallbacks may work for veteran soldiers experienced in the traditional methods of combat and survival, but a young soldier trained mostly to fire using video cameras and thermal sights, and taught to navigate only with GPS, not with a compass, may have a problem. Nevertheless, the Army is determined to press forward with the new technology. "Even the older generation is having to catch on or be left out," declares Cummings. "The older soldiers had better get used to Land Warrior-it's the wave of the future." Greg Seigle is a writer for Global Security Newswire.