Back in 1999, I enlisted in the U.S. Army and started my adventure with basic training. While there, I was subjected to a new life experience, but I still recall what was hanging on the walls of my training company and spontaneously throughout the training post. In what seemed like the hallway of every building were prints that displayed the Army’s Land Warrior Program. During the course of basic, my fellow initiates and I were being hammered with many foreign acronyms, profanities, new types of pain, and sometimes a Drill Sergeant who would point at one of the prints and say, “That is the future, Privates, if you graduate you may just be good enough to be part of it”. From our most common push-up posture, we would look up in awe at the cool-guy holding an advanced rifle loaded with all kinds of futuristic optics, and wondered if we were to deploy to the Balkans, would we also be so cool.

Yet a deployment to the Balkans later, and none of us were that cool, in fact no one in the Army was that cool. The Land Warrior Program remained what it had been when I enlisted and was prior to that, when the program was initially launched in 1989 – but later received the official title, Land Warrior in 1994.

As my time in service progressed and I was assigned to new duty stations, training and deployments, the cool-guy prints followed me. They evolved with time, the guns, gear, and uniforms would metamorphisize and sometimes eclipse through various names such as the Future Force Warrior, Nett Warrior, Ground Warrior Ensemble, Ground Solider System and Battlefield Automation Programs. However, by the time I left active duty in 2011 – nothing real had come of the program – and nothing has yet to arrive in 2016.

In its inception and still struggling format, Land Warrior was set to deliver four base integrated technologies to the individual soldier.

  • A helmet mounted display to provide real-time data and video aligned with the soldiers’ weapon system, which held a corresponding video camera, laser range finder, digital compass, GPS, night and thermal vision within a command integrated heads up display.
  • A lightweight, high endurance battery pack.
  • An integrated personal area network incorporated into a protective clothing and equipment system.
  • A signal channel, ground, and airborne radio/computer communications subsystem.
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Land Warrior, Version One. Image courtesy of Pervasive.

This all seems like a unique and marvelous force-enabling package, but the design stability has yet to mature enough for fielding outside of a science fiction movie. Despite this technological brick wall, the Army has and plans to continue program restructuring, even as contractors such as General Dynamics and Rockwell fail to deliver a system without ongoing technical and reliability problems.

An absence of delivery is not surprising, in-fact a 1996 Government Accountability Office (GAO), report – titled: “Battlefield Automation: Army Land Warrior Program Acquisition Strategy May Be Too Ambitious”. That report is twenty years old, but the name speaks a timeless truth. Many of the problems that have plagued the program then, remain to this day. All that has really changed in time for the program is the cost, which at that time was only set to exceed $1.4 billion – by 2009 the amount invested has jumped to $3.5 billion.

The program, which fell under the Doctrine, Organization, Training Material, Leadership and Education, Personnel, and Facilities assessment and study – was able to piece together and deploy a limited set of 900 ensembles, and 300 vehicle kits to Iraq. The assessment and study was conducted on 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division in 2007. Their deployment – apart from their normal duties and mission set – was additionally complicated by unreasonable Land Warrior initial fielding issues.

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The largest challenge facing the unit, was that the Land Warrior equipment continuously failed on any multiday mission. Land Warrior in its current state, requires constant maintenance support, that cannot be conducted by the soldier in the field. Even so, the Army tried again, this time with a unit who deployed to Afghanistan, the following year – similarly fielding the same system that failed in Iraq. Following the deployment, and in separate after-action reviews, both units cited issues with disorientation, mobility, equipment space requirements, clumsy cables, weapon sighting issues as well as a plague of technical issues.

Another challenge for units forced to deploy Land Warrior, is the large footprint that is required for the maintenance and support the system. The Land Warrior logistical forward support activity requires a 60KW generator, a constant 4MB internet connection, and a team of twenty-three dedicated support staff. These requirements are rather ridiculous, and unrealistic outside of a sustainment and stability operation with largescale support options, such as what was established in Afghanistan and Iraq by 2008. This makes Land Warrior incompatible with any new, or less fixed campaign.

However, these results did not the slow the Army down, as it threw another $152 million at General Dynamics – who rebranded the failed system as the Ground Soldier System. General Dynamics had ambitions of outfitting a Special Forces Battalion with the so-called future warfighter capability.

Fortunately, the Army had other plans, which were more grandiose. Thus putting a halt to the on-going deployment of these systems – although the research and development of new variants did not. The Army began to look at integrating, various type of aerial and ground drone technologies into the system, as well as the use of the robotic MULE. Under these new parameters, the program was rebranded, under the Objective Force Warrior Program. 

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Objective Force Warrior. Image courtesy of Soldier Systems.

As Objective Force Warrior, the latest system is projected to integrate into Force XXI and Stryker vehicle platforms. The program is also slated to meet with a cornucopia of additional requirements said to include, but surely not limited to, a SINCGARS-compatible radio with a keyboard, and a handheld display. Also in development are occupational specialty variants in the mix for use by Medics, Combat Engineers, and Forward Observers.

The fielding date for the latest system was expected in 2015, but it failed to emerge. As well as the overall price, as the official current cost of the program is unavailable, but judging from the past figures, and the steady demand for new technology integration from the Pentagon, the 2009 figure of $3.5 billion has most likely doubled by 2016.

Respectively, a speculative $7 billion, for a program that has failed to launch after 27 years of investment. While in comparison, the cost of the most expensive variant of the F-35 series, F-35C is $116 million. For the price to-date, of the failed Land Warrior system, we could have purchased, thirty-one, F-35s.

(Main image: Land Warrior, circa: 2001. Image Courtesy of FAS.)