The Army has long had detailed inventories, checklists and procedures to keep its helicopters, tanks and other equipment running.
Commanders could, at a glance, see the readiness of their equipment fleet as they prepare for battle. Even on the personnel front, a basic spreadsheet could tell a unit leader who is healthy, who completed the necessary training and who is ready to fight.
But granular detail on how an individual soldier or groups of soldiers might perform has remained tantalizingly out of reach ... until now.
The Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command has been at work on a kind of soldier/squad “dashboard” that would put all of that data in a usable form and at a leader’s fingertips.
Measuring and Advancing Soldier Tactical Readiness and Effectiveness, or MASTR-E, kicked off in 2018. Researchers with the command have since transitioned a portion of their work to a more permanent program with 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York. Other elements are still under research as the command prepares to further test, gather data and refine the software tool for hand off to Army leaders in 2024, officials recently told Army Times.
And this wasn’t dreamed up in a lab. “Our stakeholders at the outset of this program, initially from the operational community, came to us and said: ‘We want to know what [are] these critical “X” factors that can predict the ability to sustain performance under tough conditions,’ ” said George Matook, MASTR-E program manager.
They’re doing that with the help of a lot of soldiers who are being measured on everything from marksmanship under stress, to memory and cognitive functions while trudging on treadmills with heavy packs for hours.
The gathering of data in the field, in the lab and from archives of research material all flows into creating baseline information. That info provides a clearer picture on performance expectations, the factors that contribute to high-level performance, and how that can be tweaked or supported to improve performance, Matook said.
The aim is to build a predictive algorithm that not only tracks soldier and unit performance but can pull in data from decades of research. That combined tracking and data library should give commanders a reasonable threshold to know when to rotate a unit out of an exercise — or otherwise press forward. The two options can be balanced by monitoring sleep, hydration, exertion and mental stress, among other factors.
That way, just like running a safety check on a vehicle before heading to the field, leaders can perform a “spot check” in real time on their troops.
Some soldiers have done shock tests in a laboratory to measure how they react to stress levels. In early March, 100 soldiers contributed 1,000 hours of test data on stress tests, during which volunteer participants ran through high-fidelity simulations where they were “on the lookout” for threats. If they failed to identify or react accordingly, they received a mild shock.
Certainly that shock was a tough bit of feedback, but it was also designed to increase the mental stress on the subject so researchers could measure how well they handled additional stress, said Tad Brunye, a senior cognitive scientist at Combat Capabilities Development Command.
In February, researchers concluded physical stress tests that included incline treadmill walks for two hours with a rucksack containing half the subject’s body weight.
But beyond the laboratory, squads and platoons are undergoing monitoring of their performance in dayslong field exercises and tests. Scientists are using a host of measurements, devices, tracking and input to identify what makes a soldier perform, strengths and weaknesses, and breaking points for individuals and units.
April saw new field studies with units running live fires on a range, plus sleep assessments to measure recovery times and performance. Units at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Fort Devens, Massachusetts, participated.
Brunye also noted researches have pulled in hundreds of government human performance studies to build their models. For example, they relied on a paper that analyzed 45 laboratory studies on air temperature and cognitive performance dating between 1980 and 2018 to better understand how temperature affects focus.
“Heat stress causes the most significant decline in the most attention-demanding tasks,” according to the paper’s authors.
Two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine performed a “meta study” — or studies of studies — to process findings from 70 published articles on sleep deprivation and cognitive speed and accuracy.
The takeaway? Time awake — not just total sleep in the previous 48 hours — makes for distinct differences in speed and accuracy performance by test subjects.
The researchers run a major annual evaluation; the most recent event was in June 2021 with 75 soldiers from the 1-325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.
This June the team expects to run another group of soldiers through a 72-hour field training exercise, all the while monitoring heart rate, hydration, eye tracking, sleep and more.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.