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Host of gear innovations coming your way

Read on to find out who will get them, and when

Oct. 16, 2010 - 10:40AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 16, 2010 - 10:40AM  |  
A soldier displays the Land Warrior system, which is being replaced by the Nett Warrior system that centers on a small helmet-mounted computer screen.
A soldier displays the Land Warrior system, which is being replaced by the Nett Warrior system that centers on a small helmet-mounted computer screen. (Rob Curtis / Staff)
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Whether you are a grunt kicking down doors, an engineer clearing roads or a medic saving lives, the Army has a host of cool new gear headed your way. And the gear runs the gamut — from safer parachutes and lighter, sawed-off shotguns to bomb detectors and sensors that see through walls.

The influx of new gear is largely the result of Big Army's willingness to sacrifice servicewide uniformity for mission-specific adaptability. Most of the resulting gear is in response to soldier experience and input, but the Army has key commands leading this charge. Among them are the Asymmetric Warfare Group, which remains on the battlefield to identify how best to repel and overcome the enemy's ever-changing tactics and weapons. Program Executive Office Soldier hosts a cadre of experts whose mission is turning ideas into reality. And the Rapid Equipping Force navigates the red tape to ensure soldiers get the gear in months, rather than years.

Indeed, there are many items at various stages of design and implementation. Among these are nine key technologies that officials have described as "game changers." They are certain to change the way you fight and train:

The M26 Modular Accessory Shotgun System weighs half as much as the Mossberg shotguns soldiers now carry, and it can attach to the M4 in a matter of seconds. It has lethal, nonlethal and door-breaching capability, highlighted by a 3-inch, stand-off adapter.

The 12-gauge is single-shot, which means less cleaning and fewer moving parts than one would see in a semi automatic. The shotgun also comes with three- and five-round magazines that are easy to load, which allows soldiers to change shot selection in fairly short order.

As a stand-alone shotgun, the M26 weighs 5.5 pounds and comes with a hydraulic butt stock to absorb recoil — a necessary add, since the barrel is 7.75 inches. The size would be illegal on the streets, but provides a significant spray that is effective to 25 meters. That's good news for any soldier who needs to clear a room with one shot.

A Picatinny rail lines the top, and the shotgun benefits from front and rear sights. The M26 can also attach to the M4 without need of tools. The M4 magazine becomes the shotgun's handgrip, and is easy to locate as the soldier transitions from rifle to shotgun. However, the metal cocking lever on the side may prove a bit awkward for soldiers who are used to pump action.

The Army plans to buy 35,000 M26 shotguns. The first made their way to units this summer — primarily military police and engineers, Army officials said. But considering this modular system was largely driven by soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, troops can expect to see it in close-quarters battle in the near future.

Ever wonder if someone is hiding behind the wall? Well, hold on to your flash bang. The Army on Sept. 21 committed $151 million for "Sense Through the Wall" technology, also known as the AN/PPS-26.

The lightweight, battery-powered detector uses radar waves to detect human targets through eight inches of adobe walls or other barriers. The waves detect movement — even the breathing pattern of a person in hiding, according to Army data.

The AN/PPS-26 has a 20-meter reach, meaning an operator can "sense" 10 feet into a building if he is standing 50 feet away, or 60 feet into the building if the detector is placed against the wall. A red dot identifies the individual behind the wall, and provides the distance from and direction to that person.

While the red dot does not differentiate between a child and an enemy soldier lying in wait, Army data said the technology will give added protection to soldiers engaged in urban combat and reduce civilian casualties as buildings are cleared through traditional means.

Troops began asking for this technology in 2004, and the Army Communications and Engineering Research and Development Command began its research soon after at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

The Army plans to buy as many as 9,212 detectors over the next three years. The sensors will be built by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, of Buena Park, Calif.; and L-3 Communications CyTerra, of Orlando, Fla. Full production is scheduled for early 2013. It is expected that one detector will be issued to each infantry squad.

In the words of one soldier in Afghanistan, NIITEK's Ground Penetrating Radar "finds [improvised explosive devices] the right way."

The technology enables soldiers to identify buried mines and explosive devices — even those that are nonmetallic and nonmagnetic. It can be mounted onto any vehicle, but commonly is the forward arm of the Husky mine detection system.

Emergency funding brought the technology to Iraq in late 2007 and Afghanistan in 2008. The operational evaluation that followed found the GPR could successfully detect all types of threats troops were seeing in theater, said Juan Navarro, NIITEK's executive vice president and general manager.

The military ordered 30 GPR systems mounted on Huskys soon after that "pretty significant success," he said. The order soon increased by 50, and another 76 were ordered in June. NIITEK is required to deliver those to the 'Stan by the end of November, Navarro said.

IEDs remain the primary threat to soldiers in Afghanistan. They are responsible for 59 percent of coalition combat deaths so far this year, according to iCasualties.org.

More than 1,300 IEDs were detonated or defused in July, which was a 42 percent increase over July 2009, according to the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization. The attacks killed 53 troops.

Experts said the death toll would have been higher without widespread use of armored vehicles. More than 9,400 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles are in Afghanistan. There were fewer than 3,000 last year. But while MRAPs such as the Husky have greatly reduced IED-related deaths, the blasts still cause significant injuries and concussions to route-clearing units. A total of 399 service members were injured in the July attacks, marking a 68 percent increase.

Navarro said this $500,000 radar system is a critical technology that will reduce injuries and deaths. And acknowledging the enemy is adaptive, he said NIITEK is determined to stay miles ahead of the enemy. It will continue to work closely with the Army to adapt and improve GPR technology.

Medical professionals agree that an overwhelming majority of combat-wounded soldiers can be saved if they can get to a medical treatment facility within the "golden hour." But such swift transit is difficult in the austere terrain and challenging weather common to Afghanistan.

The Stryker Medical Treatment Vehicle looks to bring the "golden hour" to the battlefield.

The vehicle essentially is an armored operating room designed to pulse forward when units expect casualties severe enough to need emergency resuscitative care and stabilization surgery, said Joanne Cavanaugh, Stryker Production 8 program manager.

The vehicle provides the flexibility of medical mission module approach and comes with everything a physician needs to provide advanced trauma life support. It has a defibrillator, suction apparatus, ventilator, pulse monitor, IV and pump, ultrasound to find shrapnel and warm and cool refrigeration for blood and plasma. In addition, a "physician laptop" records everything the physician does so a record can travel with the solider.

"This really bridges the combat capability gap we have in far-forward medical treatment," said Col. Daniel Chapa, director of combat developments for the Army Medical Department. "We have the ability to very quickly evacuate patients on the battlefield, and we have the ability to provide far-forward care. But in some cases, based on the severity of injuries, it may be more prudent to send doctors and nurses forward to provide that life-saving care because the soldiers might not survive those trips."

Chapa was adamant that he would not want to put an asset such as a surgeon or operating room nurse in harm's way without adequate protection. But this vehicle provides full Stryker protection to the physician who would be in a tactical halt away from immediate contact.

"We think this is a good solution," he said.

Chapa would like to see the vehicle in every combat formation, as "a pretty good percentage of patients would benefit from this capability" based on the injury severity and the types of injuries medical teams are seeing in Afghanistan. While there is a requirement for it, and the prototype has been built, there is no funding yet.

Airborne soldiers can carry more combat gear while enjoying smoother descents and openings, thanks to the T-11 static-line, nonmaneuverable parachute. Best of all, the first 10,000 T-11 jumps have seen parachute-landing fall injuries cut by more than half.

The chute replaces the T-10, which has been in service for more than 50 years. That chute has a rate of descent of 22 to 24 feet per second, and a max load of 360 pounds. The T-11's rate of descent is 18 feet per second, and it can hold up to 400 pounds. This is a key benefit, as adjustments to jumper weight are not needed for high-altitude drops.

The basic geometry of the T-11 chute is dramatically different, according to project lead Mark Whiteman. The distinctive T-11 is two large rectangular pieces of parachute cloth that come down and form a lower lateral band. It looks like mushroom as it opens up and is square on top.

The three-phase deployment uses aids and a drogue parachute attached to a bridle line.

There is no lift until you are 275 feet from the aircraft, so jumpers must add two seconds to their count. But the opening is so smooth that first-time jumpers give it a second look because they feel no "jerk" when the chute deploys, Whiteman said.

The T-11 also provides "superior stability," said Maj. Jason Morneault, assistant project manager. A slider takes out extension twists as the jumper goes from a horizontal to a vertical plane. And unlike the T-10, which has a vent in the center, the T-11 has four corner vents that greatly reduce oscillations.

"A lot of injuries [are] due to last-moment oscillation when [the soldier] hits the ground in a body position he is not expecting," Morneault said.

While the T-10 averages three injuries every 1,000 jumps, the T-11 has seen a rate of 1.2 injuries. And absent of major injury, the softer impact will have health benefits over time. The new design results in 49 percent less landing force when the soldier hits the ground, said Lt. Col. Michael Sloane, product manager for Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment.

Morneault concurred. He has had no aches or pains after any of his nine T-11 jumps — a statement he cannot make regarding the 59 static-line jumps he made with the 82nd Airborne Division.

A soldier can jump wearing body armor thanks to a new harness design. Additionally, D-rings are in the area of the chest instead of the stomach, so a soldier who pulls his reserve is suspended from his shoulders in a much-preferred vertical orientation, Sloane said.

The program office conducted 3,646 jumps in 2008 to qualify the chute. Fielding started in March 2009, and more than 6,000 jumps have been logged at Fort Benning, Ga. All three Ranger battalions now have the T-11.

The T-11 will replace all legacy chutes in five to six years, officials said.

Big Army also has a new MC-6 tactical assault parachute to replace the MC-1 series. It has the same harness and reserve as the T-11, so jumpmaster procedures are the same. But the forward drive is increased by as much as 4 knots, and the turn ratio is increased by 40 percent to allow a 360-degree turn in five seconds. Morneault likened the changes to going from "a trusty old truck to a sleek new hot rod."

The MC-6 essentially is the same tried-and-true formula the U.S. Forest Service has used for 15 years. It turns almost twice as fast as its predecessor, which allows special operators to maneuver onto smaller drop zones. It also gives them greater maneuverability in high winds, and can negate a light wind and allow the jumper to maneuver in a 360-degree manner.

Suspension lines are not run through the main seams to the apex, which means they can be replaced in about 15 minutes.

High-altitude jumpers also will have new oxygen and navigation systems that "are going to save lives," Morneault said.

Say goodbye to the MBU-12P, which is a pilot's mask modified for high-altitude jumps. Now soldiers will have one specifically designed for them. The "on-demand" oxygen system shuts off when not needed, saving the supply. And gone is the old "elephant trunk" that was routed near the rip cord handle, and mistakenly pulled loose on occasion. The new hose is routed around back and away from the rip cord. It is made from braided steel, so oxygen won't cease even if it is pinched. In addition, a miniaturized regulator is on the mask and no longer an added component on the body.

A one-for-one swap has already begun, Sloane said.

In addition, a "pretty darn impressive" GPS will replace the compass board and hand-held GPS, Sloane said. Each system connects with the aircraft, where a jumpmaster screen provides release point and data. The system reacquires once the jumper is out, mapping away points and directing jumpers to primary/alternate points.

The technology will greatly reduce disorientation and separation, especially when jumping from 25,000 or higher at night, he said.

Nett Warrior is a system that promises to take situational awareness to the next level — and beyond.

The system is centered on a small helmet-mounted computer screen. The digital, hands-free moving map displayed shows the precise locations of the user and fellow soldiers without military GPS, as well as the location of known enemies. A secure radio keeps the dismounted team leader connected to the network for constant communication and information sharing. A hand-held data input device lets users send e-mails and other data.

The goal is to clear the "fog of battle" and ensure faster and more accurate decisions during the fight, said Jason Regnier, deputy product manager Ground Soldier.

Nett Warrior replaces the Land Warrior program, which was canceled in 2007. The new, open-architecture system is a vast improvement, officials say. The PDA processor and 2 GB of memory have been replaced with a laptop processor and 16 gigs. This allows for greater storage of maps, mission-specific imagery and graphics.

The 5-pound, battery-powered system can run for about 24 hours on a four-hour charge. Its wiring is integrated into a protective vest that carries armor plates, according to Army data.

The system is intended to be fielded in increments over the next decade, Regnier said. Nett Warrior Increment I is in the test phase. Low rate initial production is expected to being in March, and fielding is expected by late 2012.

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