The Army’s long-awaited program to outfit soldiers with wearable computers isn’t exactly dead. But it’s in a state of suspended animation while Pentagon officials figure out if it needs a brain transplant.
Debi Dawson, a spokeswoman for the Army office overseeing the Nett Warrior program, confirms that the Army has put the multi-million effort on pause. “It has not been cancelled,” Dawson emphasizes.
But it smells like the Pentagon is reconsidering the purpose of Nett Warrior in a fundamental way. The idea behind it is to give soldiers a suite of digitized maps, cameras, computers and communication tools that they can strap to their kit and to stay connected during the fog of war.
The Army has worked on various incarnations of Nett Warrior for almost two decades, without success, while the gear weighs down soldiers with about eight extra pounds of equipment. If that wasn’t enough, commercially available smartphones now do everything the Army wants Nett Warrior to do, and more.
Now, a Pentagon acquisition group called the Configuration Steering Board has paused Nett Warrior for a possible brain transplant. The board is looking “for opportunities to infuse existing government devices” into the program, Dawson tells Danger Room, like commercially available smartphones and tablets, or the military’s voice-n-data Joint Tactical Radio System. It’s possible the board could recommend that the Army tear up the designs for Nett Warrior and reconfigure it around, essentially, an iPhone.
Army officials in the Nett Warrior program are touchy about smartphones — all while Big Army goes app-crazy and inches closer to requiring all soldiers to carry an iPhone or Android device. The former director of Program Executive Officer Soldier, which is in charge of Nett Warrior, was uncomfortable during an April briefing with questions about Nett Warrior’s apparent technological obsolescence. His answer: maybe rejigger Nett Warrior so that its central computer is a smartphone.
That seems to be precisely what the Configuration Steering Board is considering. It’ll deliver its recommendations for Nett Warrior to a larger acquisition oversight body, the Defense Acquisition Board. Dawson says there’s no time frame for any conclusions about Nett Warrior.
She did, however, push back hard against a recent report in the plugged-in blog Soldier Systems that Nett Warrior is done, dead, finito. Nett Warrior’s just on hold, Dawson says; the board is not considering the broader question of killing the program. And Nett Warrior is famously hard to kill: it was originally something called Land Warrior, another system providing wearable connectivity for soldiers that was first conceived in the mid-90s, back when a phone was just for making phone calls.
But Soldier Systems might just be prematurely correct. If the board is considering incorporating smartphones or tablets into Nett Warrior, it might consider cutting out the middleman and recommending the Army use those devices for connectivity. The Army recently tested a variety of smartphones at the White Sands Missile Range running on the Army’s private data network, and its vice chief, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, told a House panel on Tuesday the devices and the network all performed swimmingly. If Nett Warrior is effectively in suspended animation, it might not be long before the Army pulls the plug.
Photo: Spencer Ackerman