Canadian soldiers' high-tech gear helps in battle, creates burden


Verified Military
Verified Military
Oct 24, 2006
Canadian soldiers' high-tech gear helps in battle, creates burden

VANCOUVER - Canada is among countries evolving their armies into forces of futuristic soldiers, with laser-sighted rifles, GPS-equipped units directed via computer and equipment that lets them see and kill the enemy in all conditions, day or night.

But before conjuring images of invincible Star Wars troopers, consider some not-so-fun facts.

The average Canadian foot soldier on patrol in Afghanistan today is toting more than two-dozen extra batteries on his already overloaded body to power all the electronics he must carry.

During Operation Medusa in the fall of 2006, an offensive against the Taliban, one infantry company alone burned through 17,500 AA batteries in two weeks.

And those cool night-vision goggles that clip to every soldier's helmet? They give the soldier an edge in combat but sometimes also a pain the neck as they dangle in front of his eyes - that is, if they don't cause a poorly strapped-on helmet to flip right off his head.

That's the kind of reality check Doug Palmer will provide for anyone too much in awe of the possibilities of high-tech warfare.

Palmer, a former infantry officer with 35 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, now works in the army’s Directorate of Land Requirements unit that develops equipment for foot soldiers — everything from boots to helmets and all the gee-whiz stuff such as visors with jet fighter-style heads-up displays and holographic gun sights.

He is closely involved with the directorate’s Integrated Soldier System Project, which aims to create that futuristic warrior before the end of the next decade.

The federal Treasury Board is to decide this month whether to approve release of the first slice of money to fund the $310-million program, which would involve defining what the system’s initial capability should be and testing the solutions with Canadian soldiers.

The project envisions the soldier at the centre of a personal network, electronically linking everything from his radio and global-positioning unit, a PDA, remote sensors and vision aids, even the electronic sighting device on his weapon.

Some of those elements already exist, says Palmer, such as the soldiers’ individual GPS units and personal radios, but they’re not truly integrated.

‘‘Right now if you look at the dismounted Canadian soldier he’s got a very highly compatible set of load carriage (equipment) and a very compatible helmet,’’ says Palmer, who is based in the Ottawa area and holds a major’s commission in the reserves.

‘‘But we’ve hung some stuff on that, that if we’d been doing it as a clean sheet of paper, we might not have done it that way.’’

Take the night-vision goggles.

‘‘When you put that device on the helmet it changes the centre of gravity for the helmet and indeed the whole head,’’ says Palmer.

If the helmet isn’t properly strapped down, it can shift and move the eyepiece so ‘‘you’re not looking through that device correctly anymore,’’ not to mention the potential strain on neck muscles of the dangling unit.

The solution, he says, is an integrated helmet that will offer bullet, shrapnel and blast protection, as well as incorporating communications gear, active noise-cancelling ear protection, perhaps built-in GPS capability and eventually an information display on the visor.

‘‘So he can look in there and potentially see his battle-management system, maps, orders,’’ says Palmer.

‘‘And he will be able to see sighting and fire-control information coming off the weapons system, so he’ll be able to shoot around corners or switch to thermal to infrared to daylight sights all on the same sight.’’

Which takes us back to batteries.

Currently, the foot soldier’s electronic load includes a GPS, tactical flashlight, a rifle’s laser-aiming device, perhaps some other electronic sight, a marker beacon and communications gear.

‘‘You load up your water and your ammunition and you put brand new batteries into everything you own regardless of what it is,’’ say Palmer.

‘‘Depending on how long you’re out, you will take at least one complete set of spares for everything, and potentially two complete sets of spares.’’

That can add up to another 30 extra batteries.

And when the patrol returns from its mission, the batteries in every device, whether used nor not, are thrown away, says Palmer.

‘‘Brand new ones go into the system because I don’t know what the batteries have been in contact with and they may have inadvertently discharged or something like that.’’

Palmer says the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows about 75 per cent of the energy given to soldiers ends up discarded because they’re not prepared to risk failure in a firefight.

The hope, he says, is that suppliers can develop some kind of centralized power system built into the soldier’s tactical equipment vest, which would act like a docking station for various devices that would then only need standby power when undocked.