Future Combat Systems: Not just cute little robots and flying trashcans

"Please, just don't call it cute," pleads one of the Fort Bliss soldiers, watching my face get all mushy as I gaze into the thermal cameras and laser range finders of the little surveillance robot. Earlier, I watched it rear up like a dog and peek over the ledge of a window to assure the combat team behind it that no surprises waited inside the building.

sugv-close-small.jpg

SUGV (small unmanned ground vehicle) and I stare into each others' eyes.

The morning's live combat exercise was available to anyone with the intestinal fortitude to get up at 0400 and make the jaw-rattling drive out to the Texas desert. There, soldiers tested the latest and greatest in military acronym technology--SUGV, UUGS and TUGS, UAS and B-kits--the major cornerstones of Future Combat Systems.

Future Combat Systems, the army's modernization program, touts itself as a seamless integration of soldier and "peripherals," where the soldier is the central processing unit but instead of being limited to his own god-given sensors--eyes, ears and so on--he has at his command a networked array of additional sensors. Now he can see around corners. Before soldiers go into a building they send SUGV, the small unmanned ground vehicle. The UAS (a hovering "eye in the sky" they've lovingly nicknamed the Flying Trashcan) provides early warning, among other things, for mortar attacks or IEDs.

UAS.JPEG

The UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) is for obvious reasons also known as the flying trashcan.

Media coverage of FCS has focused on the implications the adoption of video game technology: an Ender's Game-like dystopian future military in which young boy soldiers impersonally pick off enemies with Xbox controllers. The part about the Xbox controllers is right, but the rest deserves subtler interpretation.

FCS is not just about showering soldiers with cool technology, but making sure the technology actually helps. This should be good news for anyone tired of the old Donald Rumsfeld military paradigm, according to which you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had. That thinking also extends to the tools you go to war with, like recent generations of the PackBot which according to people familiar with the situation have been a nightmare for soldiers; among other things, their non-xbox controllers have been difficult to use, and the batteries don't work. Soldiers need real-time response when their technology hurts more than it helps.

The military is often accused of being "always prepared to fight the last war." Part of the reason is the stovepiping of intelligence. The troops on the ground understand first what's happening--whether some military vehicle is getting blown to shreds by IEDs and should no longer be used, or whether some piece of equipment is performing really well. But until recently, that information could not be absorbed by the people in charge in real time.

FCS, according to its proponents, is as much a technology initiative as an attempt to redefine how the army gathers information about itself. Now, when a soldier says that the controls on a SUGV are useless, within a couple of weeks the army rolls out a much more intuitive Xbox controller. Or, in the case of the flying trashcan, the camera didn't tilt adequately. A few weeks after a soldier made that observation, the UAS was outfitted with a Gimbel camera that swivels omnidirectionally.

To that end, the army has created an entire brigade of beta testers at Fort Bliss. The Future Combat Systems Evaluation Brigade Combat Team was plucked from all over the world to serve for two years as army's tech guinea pigs. Not the worst job in the world.

sugv-soldiers-small.jpg

Soldiers in the FCS Evaluation Brigade Combat Team use the SUGV during a cordon-and-search exercise.

Advertisement

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement