FORT BENNING, Ga. - Pfc. Jeff Estill and 14 other Bravo Company troops learned recently that high-tech Land Warriors get just as cold, wet and muddy during a midnight thunderstorm as an old-fashioned infantryman.
But the early-morning rain, strong winds and falling temperatures that rocked Fort Benning, coming on the next to last day of systems testing, were exactly what the creators of the Army's new Land Warrior concept wanted.
"Everything worked just fine," said Estill, his mud-caked boots and fatigues suggesting his night at the desolate Griswald Range was anything but a day at the beach.
"This stuff works well in nasty weather, that's for sure," the Dayton, Ohio, native said, gently patting his modified M-4 carbine.
Estill and the others, led by Maj. Craig Hilliker, since mid-September have been field testing such state-of-the-art combat systems as thermal weapon sights, infrared aiming lights, laser range finders, video cameras, close combat optics, integrated headgear with helmet-mounted display and image intensifier, and, a laptop computer.
"We can even send E-mail," Estill said.
It's all part of the Pentagon's effort to use new information technologies to reshape the U.S. military. Information Age warfare will depend on information pulled directly from satellites and instant communication.
To explain what warfare could be like in 30 years, Army Colonels Hank Kinnison and Phil Hamilton, along with representatives from most of the major contractors, met with the media earlier this month to discuss the Early Operational Experiment, which the Army calls "a first generation modular, integrated fighting system for the dismounted solder." That means, Hamilton said, the Army is preparing tomorrow's foot soldiers for action on the "digital battlefield" that places an emphasis on high-tech weaponry.
"Land Warrior represents the first step in integrating all equipment into one system while leveraging weight reduction, power management, lethality and survivability," said Hamilton.
Advanced communications will keep all soldiers closely linked to commanders. Maps of the battle area, which can be seen on quarter-sized computer screens, are more accurate and easy to follow than past methods, Army officers say.
"I wish we had them in my day (in Vietnam)," said Marine retiree Tom Hayden, a representative of main contractor Hughes Aircraft. "Sometimes you gave out coordinates for incoming firepower and the shells would fall right on you. This system eliminates that fear."
Kinnison, a former battalion commander with the 101st Airborne Division, has overseen the project with representatives from Hughes and subcontractors Motorola, Honeywell, Battelle, Gentex and Arthur D. Little, evaluating each piece of equipment under the most rigorous testing.
"We're harnessing technology in order to strengthen the role of the infantryman in the years ahead," said Kinnison, who has been the project's manager at Fort Benning since July. "There's no question in my mind that we will still have to be able to fight in close quarters in the next century. Our goal is to provide our soldier with every advantage possible."
That could prove expensive. The engineering, manufacturing and development phases of the Land Warrior contract were awarded to Hughes in July 1995 for $51 million. Production of the LW system, which includes helmet, protective clothing, weapons, computer, radios and software, is slated to begin in 1999, if the Pentagon decides to award a contract. The price to equip the Army's 34,000 infantry soldiers by 2012 is an estimated $30,000 to $40,000 each, or at least $1 billion.
The gear worn by Estill and others from the hand-picked 3rd Brigade squad is designed to be lighter than conventional equipment, yet they found it somewhat bulky and too constrictive.
"Especially when it came to crawling in the mud," said Estill. "But as technology increases, the size of the computer and radio pack on our back will be reduced. The batteries have been a problem, too. We need to recharge them every two hours or so."
Those problems will be worked out, said Hamilton.
"We meet with our `test' soldiers every day. We want their input on every aspect of this evaluation period. After all, these are the men who will be using this equipment in the future."