Silicon Valley Defeats Old Industrial Complex


Four small firms - Pacific Consultants, Exponent, Pemstar, and Computer Sciences - worked for six months to accomplish what Raytheon and several million dollars could not do in four years: arm the U.S. infantryman for future war.

It went something like this. The Army had let out a bid for the design and construction of an individually-worn field unit that includes a computer with radio, voice communication, wireless e-mail, a satellite-mapping system and other high-tech gear for the individual soldier.

Raytheon won the contract. It builds great missiles, but its 40-pound "Turtle Shell" prototype unit was a disaster. A soldier who tried to ground-roll wearing the Raytheon device would get helplessly stuck on his back like the turtle after which it was named. The thick cable attaching helmet to body shell kept snagging in bushes. The helmet was so heavy that prone soldiers couldn't lift their heads to fire their rifles. The software didn't work, the batteries failed, and the pack wasn't waterproof. It wouldn't fit under a parachute harness either.

In the final analysis, it was a $2 billion useless, 50-pound anchor that spilled battery acid when hit by a bullet.

The General Accounting Office was on the verge of urging Congress to scuttle the entire project.

Enter Army Col. Bruce Jette - more precisely, Dr. Jette, Physics, MIT.

Col. Jette hired a Silicone Valley troubleshooter, Exponent. Exponent engineers quickly identified what they saw as the major problem. Raytheon engineers had stuck too closely to the original specs - generated by a table full of bureaucrats who had more experience sipping lattes than dodging bullets, and who understood the design of a large rocket launcher, but couldn't wrap their minds around what G.I. Joe needs personally to survive.

Simply stated, Exponent wanted to start from scratch, using off-the-shelf components as much as possible to create something that worked. Raytheon refused this subversive notion.

According to Dan Causey, chief of technical management for the Army Land Warrior project, "Raytheon had a lot of ego and technical talent invested in the project. They felt they were at the top of their game, and we hadn't convinced them. It was a real impasse."

With the virtual impossibility of any cooperation between Raytheon and Silicon Valley, the Army told Exponent to go ahead. Exponent brought in Pacific Consultants and two other firms, and charged forward.

Someone mentioned flak jackets. This seemed like a natural, so the system was designed around a lightweight jacket that had already proved its mettle. Gone were harness and shell, along with two major problems: getting stuck on your back, and not being able to wear a parachute.

Next, these guys spent several days at places like Best Buy, Comp USA, and Fryes Electronics. They purchased a lot of stuff. If somebody thought it might work, they bought it: pieces of hardware, software, gizmos, and other off-the-shelf components. This was an out-of-the-box workshop. The only box these guys knew was one containing computer components, and they had already thrown that one out.

By the fall of 1999 in Menlo Park, Cal., Pacific Consultants demonstrated a Microsoft CE-driven unit that ran circles around the revisions demonstrated by Raytheon and Motorola. They had used off-the-shelf components, written their software in the common "C" software language, and incorporated a wireless card so that multiple units could talk with one another.

At 12 pounds, these units weighed less than an old M-1 rifle. The prototype Pacific Consultants demonstrated to the Army in this Silicon Valley bake-off lacked many proposed bells and whistles, but Pacific Consultants said they could complete the development in six months for $2 million, and could build the final units for $30,000 each. This was half the cost of the Raytheon and Motorola units that couldn't compete in the bake-off, and couldn't stop bullets either.

It was a no-brainer. That day the Army awarded Pacific Consultants a contract to design the hardware, software and communications systems. The next year, Pacific Consultants with their consortium won a $35 million contract to make the new prototype.

Soldiers who have tested the new Land Warriors are delighted. They fit the torso like a glove, perform better than advertised, and they stop bullets. Keep in mind that these units still are just prototypes - proof of concept devices.

In its present incarnation, the Land Warrior supplies each soldier with every piece of information he could possibly want or need in any conceivable combat situation - specifically tailored to the individual situation. Each soldier knows precisely where he is, absolutely and with respect to the other guys. Each soldier has enhanced target acquisition and night-vision capabilities.

Field grade leaders at the squad, platoon, and company levels (or whatever hierarchy a specific unit uses) can coordinate action to whatever detail they believe is necessary. Nobody is ever out of communication, and it all happens in eerie silence. A traditional enemy hasn't a chance against soldiers equipped with these prototype Land Warriors.

What tomorrow holds for these wonders is nothing short of miraculous.

They will operate on a distributed network communicating with VUHF. Short of literally wiping out every element in the group, you won't be able to crash one of these networks. Windows CE is incredibly robust. If something crashes CE, it can be rebooted in a matter of seconds - especially if it is modified for exactly this kind of situation. Immediately after rebooting, it is back in the network. When out of touch (for any reason at all), it relies upon its own resources, which can vary from soldier to soldier. If an individual unit fails completely, it still performs the vital function of body armor.

Because the units consume very little power, they already have long-lasting batteries. In the future, batteries will be powered by the warmth of the soldier's body or alternatively by Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) for virtually limitless battery life.

Already, the units receive their commands by voice from the individual soldier. Coming soon is a bone-conducting mike that will allow a soldier to "think" his command in virtual silence. The display will appear on a drop-down face shield that also serves to protect the trooper's face, and a significant part of the interaction will be via a bone-conducting "earphone" that silently speaks to the wearer. These elements will serve both the functions of communication with the computer and with the other individuals in the unit.

Current units have a chest-mounted mini-cam for visual communication between units and coordinators. This mini-cam probably will move to the head in operational units to increase flexibility.

Also on the horizon are satellite up- and down-links, coordinated by the individual in charge. This capability will allow for almost instant update in both directions to help solve immediate problems, and to coordinate and control larger scale operations. This capability can be especially useful in situations where a soldier encounters a civilian or another soldier with whom he cannot communicate because they don't speak each other's language. A quick satellite connection can download the appropriate translating software so that effective communication can commence within seconds of the encounter.

The concept would have the soldier speak in English through his bone-conducting mike. A small speaker on his unit would then reproduce his words in the stranger's native tongue, and vice-versa. This real-world capability approaches the efficiency of Capt. Kirk's Universal Translating Device in the old sci-fi show, Star Trek.

A major lesson lies within this story. Big money and big-time vested interests in Washington and its political-military connections produced an expensive, dangerous contraption. There is nothing easier for an enemy than killing a soldier stranded on his back atop a 50-pound shell of barely operating electronic junk.

On the other hand, a few guys with the ability to think out of the box, who knew where they wanted to go and got there on their own initiative, created a piece of equipment that promises to give the American warrior an unstoppable edge. And they did this primarily with off-the-shelf civilian components. There were no huge budgets, no large bureaucracies, no long lead-times, no budget overruns.

Perhaps we should examine this model for its applicability to the Joint Strike Fighter, future warship and land vehicle design and construction, small water craft, communications - in fact, this eloquently raises the question, why must we always redesign the wheel when the civilian community has many times already been there and done that? The military-industrial complex may have had its place, but defense of our country matters to all of us. We must use the best we have now, not just what worked before.