Army Tries to Build High-Tech Soldiers

The first battalion-wide tests of the Army's "Land Warrior" system are taking place at Ft. Lewis, Wash. This multibillion-dollar project outfits soldiers with 17 pounds of computer gear.

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MARTIN KASTE: There is really no other way to put this. The soldiers who've been outfitted with the new gear look like the Borg - yes, the half human/half robot bad guys on Star Trek. Lt. Shannon Reikert(ph) is the first to admit it as he flips the helmet-mounted computerized map display over his eye.

SHANNON REIKERT: We'd have this on one eye, and then we have our NODs mounted on the other eye. So it would be like looking around like this.

KASTE: Your what?

REIKERT: NODs, night vision device.

KASTE: Oh, okay.

REIKERT: So we'd have one on this eye, and we'd have this one on this eye.

KASTE: Multiple black cables snake in and out of Reikert's helmet, body armor, and a video camera mounted on his gun. On his chest, he has a khaki-colored, battle-hardened computer mouse.

REIKERT: This is a left click, right click.

KASTE: The idea here is that the soldiers in the field are all just moving parts in a battlefield computer network. And that, of course, means e-mail.

REIKERT: A little, I guess, keyboard screen pops up on your visor and you just kind of like text messaging on a phone.

KASTE: So you're going to select letter by letter using this thumb mouse in the middle of combat?

REIKERT: Yes. You probably wouldn't use that in the middle of combat. We tried it on one exercise and I found it helpful, but it took them three minutes actually to type in and say, hey, this is how much ammo we have, this is all of our equipment and everything else. So we tried it.

KASTE: And you could just bark that into a radio, in theory, right?

REIKERT: Yeah, and do it in a few seconds.

KASTE: And that's the point of these live ammo exercises at Ft. Lewis.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

KASTE: The Army is trying to figure out if cool, new technology still seems cool when you're under fire. Just like any workplace, the Army has plenty of techno boosters, such as Lt. Col. Brian Cummings from the office that tests this new gear.

BRIAN CUMMINGS: What we're doing is the first step towards moving the Army into the next century is digitizing soldiers, making them tactical where they're at...

KASTE: Wait a minute, did he just say digitizing soldiers?

CUMMINGS: ...digitizing soldiers...

KASTE: He did. Of course, this new crop of recruits probably digs being digitized. After all, they grew up on Nintendo, and they already come into the Army knowing how to text message and chew gum at the same time. Still, some of the older guys, the ones in their mid-20's, have some qualms. Lt. Reikert says he likes the computer mapping and what the Army calls situational awareness. But he also worries about having too much awareness.

REIKERT: Well, I can definitely see where you can have information overload - two radios going at once, a video screen in front of your eye. But you can turn your radios off if you have to. Mute them. You can just look at the screen whenever you wanted to.

KASTE: And that's something a civilian can relate to. Just like a laptop- lugging road warrior in the business world, soldiers sometimes get a powerful urge to turn all of their new gadgets off.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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