Networking the dismounted soldier

When Jonathan Herbert first encountered the forerunner of the Integrated Soldier System Project (ISSP) he was a skeptic. At the time in the early 2000s, he was a platoon commander leading his team through an exercise in the McKenna MOUT (military operations in urban terrain) site at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

Although his platoon received new communications gear, the defence scientists conducting the exercise were less interested in how well the technology worked then in how the soldiers processed information.

“We were naysayers,” Major Herbert confesses. “They gave us some rudimentary personal radios for short-range transmission and rudimentary PDAs with GPS embedded, which gave us blue force tracking. But at the end of the four weeks, when the scientists tried to take them back, we didn’t want to give them up. We were so much better with them. To a man, we all said, when is this coming to the army?”

That Soldier Information Requirements Technology Demonstration (SIREQ TD) project, which spanned five years and involved laboratory and field studies, simulation, and over 70 scientific studies at the McKenna site, laid the foundation for the ISSP.

Herbert, who now serves as ISSP project director within the Directorate of Land Requirements – “I was offered this two years ago and jumped at it” – says the program is intended to provide an integrated suite of equipment to network the dismounted soldier.

“We have networked vehicles and operations centres and command posts, but the dismounted solider, once they are out of a vehicle, they are limited to a personal role radio,” he said. “The key is a solution that is truly integrated, however many form factors or boxes that may be. They must truly work together and be driven off a single backbone, a computer that can provide that network for dismounted soldiers.”

Like many allies, Canada has been researching its future solider systems for over a decade. But while the army and Defence R&D Canada drew from the experiences of the U.S., U.K., Australia, Germany, France and other NATO partners, they also adopted a unique approach through the SIREQ TD, essentially ensuring that the utility of new technology was empirically validated.

While many nations focused on the integration of technological capability, human factors research played a critical role in SIREQ TD, particularly the ability to take in and process information. (Human Systems Inc. of Guelph, Ont., which has worked extensively with the U.S. Marine Corps, was involved with the project from its inception.) The emphasis was not on hardware per se, but on performance parameters.

“There was a fear that we would overload the dismounted soldier with information and it would take away from his or her primary job of security and observation,” Herbert explained. “In fact, we see it as enhancing the soldier and SIREQ TD proved it scientifically. We don’t give ourselves enough credit. We can take in a lot of information, park it and transfer it to other people as we see fit.”

Key components
Earlier this year, the ISSP went out to tender following a complex four-year definition phase.

The request for proposals is expected to close at the end of May, with the first deliverables timed to arrive in 2014 as the army begins its road to high readiness plan for close combat soldiers. Initial operating capability is expected by late 2015.

Herbert stressed that the ISSP is a three-cycle project intended to keep pace as best as possible with technology spirals. While the current RFP focuses on the networked dismounted soldier, the second and third cycles will connect with the LCSS backbone, integrate with weapon and targeting systems, and better utilize information from unmanned systems and sensors. Cycle three will also seek innovative and more efficient dismounted portable power solutions. Cycle two will begin as soon as feedback is received on cycle one; cycle three is slated for 2016-17.

The individual components of the first cycle will consist of a short-range, software based radio with a modular configuration so that wave forms can be adapted to the radios of allies; an audio display or in-ear solution (which also offers some noise reduction); and a small tactical display with GPS. Key to the software radios will be the ability to form ad hoc networks and a push-to-talk device that soldiers can mount in a convenient location, as opposed to a device integrated into their weapon.

The backbone to all of this will be a computer with the ability to fuse data from the various systems.

Though integrated fire control at the individual soldier level is part of a later version, Herbert noted that commanders will have the capacity to link the current Coral CR thermal imager/laser range finder combination to better use fire control systems. “As our small arms program moves forward and we establish small arms fire control systems, we will fuse the two,” he said.

Two critical factors in any soldier system are power and weight. Though a great deal of research has been conducted on portable renewable energy sources, Herbert said a rechargeable and non-rechargeable battery solution would suffice for cycle one. That likely means a system that will accept the ubiquitous AA battery.

“We haven’t prescribed a form factor in our capabilities,” he noted, “we just demand that it be able to power a system for 24-48 hours and be proven with a chargeable and non-rechargeable solution.” A concurrent research project driven by DRDC called Advanced Soldier Adaptive Power is examining alternative power solutions.

As for weight, the solution cannot exceed legacy C4I soldier systems, which currently consist of a Dagger GPS, personal radio, flashlight and a laser range finder.

Herbert said the load carriage requirement was removed from cycle one so that as the new equipment is tested, soldiers will focus their feedback “on the C41 and the network pieces, not the load carriage. Load carriage is almost like boots – it’s a very personal thing. So the DLR load carriage experts are testing the development of a Canadian modular fighting rig. It’s not the end solution but it is a steppingstone.”

How all the components come together will be up to industry, Hebert observed. “Cabling and connectors are the weak link of our integrated system. If you go with a one-piece integrated system, you are still going to have to cable your two displays off of that, and probably some sort of power source if it’s not built in. We’re not prescriptive, but to meet our weight and power budget, we’re most likely going to see a few boxes. All in all, there is a bit of room there for industry to play with.”

Because there are so many aspects to the integrated system, Herbert expects bids to come from teams led by a prime rather than individual companies.

The ISSP is tied to a larger operating concept known as Army 2021 and the notion of adaptive dispersed operations (ADO), which envisions soldiers dispersed in large or small numbers across a battle space. “We need to challenge industry,” Herbert acknowledged, “but we need to stay fast to our requirements as they relate to ADO. We need to aggregate and segregate, even at the section level, as the mission demands.”

At the end of cycle one, the ISSP will deliver a level of information sharing that Herbert says is essential to meet the expectations of tomorrow’s dismounted soldiers. “Not only are we evaluating systems, we will establish a baseline of what we have now and then compare that to the eventual ISS. Thus, we will be able to turn to the commander of the army and say: with an integrated system your dismounted soldiers are now better at lethality or mobility by such and such a percentage over legacy equipment. That’s what we are aiming for.”

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