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Fort Lewis gets high-tech gear, but program is terminated

Hundreds of Fort Lewis soldiers apparently will deploy to Iraq in April with a new high-tech fighting system that the Army has now scrapped.

The Army's proposed $130 billion budget for the fiscal year ending in September 2008 terminates the Land Warrior program upon congressional approval. The program cost at least $1 billion,

The system is intended to give soldiers who are on foot a new level of awareness on the battlefield using state-of-the-art equipment.

The system features a helmet-mounted computer display; soldiers can pinpoint friendly forces to coordinate reconnaissance and assault missions, and survey rooms without exposing themselves to enemy fire.

"Due to significant Army-wide resource challenges, the Army decided to not pursue further development and production of Land Warrior," the budget note said.

The Army's budget was included in the proposed $481.4 billion defense budget for fiscal year 2008. The Pentagon submitted that budget last week, as well as a $93 billion supplemental budget for the current fiscal year to cover the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Army did not immediately respond to questions about the decision to terminate the Land Warrior program. Officials have said some alternative systems appear to be more economically feasible.

The Land Warrior program has been plagued by challenges, delays and a rapidly escalating price tag since the Army initiated it in 1994. The weight of the systems has been a major concern for the Army.

The 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) is in the midst of final training before it deploys to Iraq in April. The brigade will deploy a month earlier than expected as part of President Bush's strategy to send more than 20,000 additional troops to curb the violence in Baghdad.

Infantrymen with one of the battalions, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, have been training with the Land Warrior system since last year.

In September, the battalion participated in a limited test to evaluate the performance of the system to help the Army decide whether to continue the program. The systems proved to be "highly reliable" and provided an increased level of situational awareness for dismounted soldiers, according to the budget note.

Joseph Piek, a spokesman at Fort Lewis, said it was his understanding the battalion will deploy with the systems.

"It all goes to, you train as you fight," he said.

General Dynamics C4 Systems, Land Warrior's prime contractor, will support the systems during the battalion's deployment, said Fran Jacques, a company spokeswoman. That indicates there's money within the current-year and fiscal year 2008 Army budgets to maintain and repair the systems.

Jacques declined to comment on the Army's decision, saying only that it's a proposal that needs congressional approval.

Congress, in considering the fiscal year 2005 defense spending bill, directed the Secretary of the Army to merge the Land Warrior program with another future combat program and slashed its budget by $15 million. It also recommended the Army incorporate the combined program's existing capabilities into the Stryker brigades.

In June 2005, the Army awarded General Dynamics a $30 million contract for up to 500 Land Warrior systems and kits to link Stryker soldiers and their eight-wheeled armored vehicles.

During a visit to Fort Lewis in July, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, didn't outright endorse the systems but said their development was on the "right track."

"We see it as a plus," he said at the time, "but we also know that we've got to lighten the load on the soldier."

Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at chill@theolympian.com.

LAND WARRIOR

The system features a helmet-mounted computer display that fits over one eye. With the display, soldiers can pinpoint the location of friendly forces on an overhead map for coordinated reconnaissance and assault missions and, with the use of a weapon-mounted camera, survey rooms without exposing themselves to enemy fire.

The system, which includes a helmet, computer and battery pack, weighs 17 pounds, although General Dynamics told Federal Computer Week, a trade publication for government technology, that its latest configuration weighs 9 pounds.

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