The infantry company approached unseen through the thick of the forest. Inside one building in the mock village on Fort Lewis sat the target of the day’s raid. Ten other men sporting Taliban-style robes and assault rifles roamed the streets.
Before the assault, the 120 Stryker Brigade soldiers fanned out across the village perimeter. Snipers set up rifles and tuned scopes. Soldiers carrying Squad Automatic Weapons prepared to lay suppressive fire.
With the sudden crackle of gunfire, the raid began. Soldiers from 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division stormed in and cleared each building, using blank ammunition and role players. The exercise was one of countless such operations at Fort Lewis.
But there was one major difference: A handful of soldiers were tracking their troops’ location through the Land Warrior System, from the mission’s planning stages to its finish.
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Land Warrior is real-time network the Army believes should make missions in Iraq and Afghanistan quicker, more efficient and less prone to accidents.
An earlier version was field-tested by a single Fort Lewis Stryker battalion in Iraq. Now it moves to the big stage – an entire brigade, in a different war-torn country.
“I used it on every mission we went on, and frankly, it was one of the best pieces of equipment we had over there,” said Staff Sgt. Dennis Davis, who used Land Warrior during his 2007 Iraq deployment with the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
“It helps with situational awareness on the battlefield,” Davis said. “I can’t imagine doing a mission now without the luxury of having it.”
The system allows users to see the locations of fellow soldiers and track their motion, among other features. Each pack weighs about eight pounds and features a rotating eyepiece, a handheld controller and a backpack with a computer, radio and geospatial-locating equipment.
It syncs up with computers inside Stryker vehicles and with standalone laptops away from the battlefield.
The soldiers of 5th Brigade begin deploying to southern Afghanistan this month and should see less urban combat than previous Stryker deployments to Iraq. But each unit in the brigade will receive Land Warrior. Team leaders, squad leaders, platoon leaders, platoon sergeants and higher will all be equipped with the system.
The two Fort Lewis Stryker brigades deploying later this year to Iraq have requested the system but are unlikely to receive it before they leave, said John Geddes, the Land Warrior trail boss at Fort Lewis.
The system – which includes the computer subsystem, batteries, hardware-encrypted radios, the eyepiece, controller, laptop and other hardware – costs $48,000 per soldier.
The 5th Brigade is taking 895 systems to Afghanistan.
When a soldier looks in his eyepiece, he sees an aerial map of the battlefield – either a drawn map or a satellite image – and the location of the troops. Commanders can program coordinates and routes before each mission so the troops know where they are and where to go. This can be particularly useful in unfamiliar urban terrain.
The ability to pinpoint locations of individual troops and text message via a keyboard on the controller should cut down on radio chatter. That means less time communicating to set up a mission and, leaders say, less chance of friendly fire accidents.
If a soldier is hurt, he can press a button that calls for a medic.
Land Warrior allows a user to click on an icon on the map and get instant information about who that person is and where they have been. Others who are away from the battlefield – such as in a vehicle or a unit’s tactical operations center – can follow the information in real-time.
But Land Warrior is specifically designed to help troops on the ground work more efficiently, said Lt. Col. Burton Shields, commander of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.
“It allows you to operate faster,” Shields said. “You don’t have to stop to radio in reports. You don’t stop to do map checks. It allows you to be more decentralized.
“You can spread out more because you know where folks are, and you don’t have to maintain as tight of control,” he said. “It prevents fratricide because you know where everyone is.”
The system won true believers among 4th Stryker Brigade on its Iraq tour two years ago. The soldiers of 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment were assigned to Diyala province as part of the troop surge and fought a raging insurgency.
Davis was a weapons squad leader on that deployment and is now preparing to return to Iraq this fall with the same battalion. He said he and others weren’t sold on Land Warrior during their pre-deployment training in 2007.
“But as soon as we got in Iraq, I fell in love with that system,” the 28-year-old Tacoma resident said. “We’d jump off the helicopter, and within seconds we knew exactly where we were and exactly where we the target was. You don’t really need to communicate through the radio to find out where others are or pull a piece of paper out of your pocket to find out where you need to go.”
There are limitations. The system operates on a peer-to-peer basis, turning each radio into a relay, but it also works on a line-of-sight basis, so soldiers inside buildings or other structures can drop off the grid.
The terrain of Afghanistan – known for forbidding mountains and steep valleys – could interfere with that as well.
Some 5th Brigade soldiers have questioned the effectiveness of its use in Afghanistan. The terrain is punishing, and the extra eight pounds will make climbing in the thin air of the mountains even tougher.
And outside the cities, there could be far fewer scripted missions in which soldiers conduct flash raids inside buildings.
Lt. Adam Smith, a platoon leader with 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, said the system was a bit off on the troops’ exact locations during Thursday’s mock-village exercise.
Smith, a 26-year-old Colorado resident, wasn’t totally sold on the system’s effectiveness for 5th Brigade’s upcoming deployment.
“In an urban environment, it would be great,” he said. “In Iraq, it would be a great system. In Afghanistan, not so much.”
The brigade commander says Land Warrior ultimately will be only as successful as the men who wear it, in whom he said he has full confidence.
“5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division is the most advanced ground combat formation in history,” said Col. Harry Tunnell. “But technology will not reach its full potential unless complemented by tough, disciplined, well-trained warriors.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758