By Guest Column | General Paul J. Kern [Retd]
A US perspective on army transformation and India's F-INSAS programme
Earlier last month, the seventh in a series of the acclaimed joint exercise programme between the Indian and United States armies, Exercise Yudh Abhyas, was held at Mahajan Ranges in Rajasthan and Bathinda in Punjab. Once again, our soldiers had the invaluable opportunity to train side by side, engage in war games, and share tactical and technical expertise while showcasing our latest military equipment and defence technologies. Of note was our continued bilateral engagement in relation to countering threats of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
As our forces know too well, IEDs are cheap, effective and readily available weapons, which have claimed the lives of thousands of our dedicated soldiers. These killing tools are used by terrorists around the world, and their use is proliferating dramatically. According to the US Defence Department, the first nine months of 2011 saw an average of 608 attacks per month in 99 countries. Therefore, our ability to mitigate or prevent bodily injury to our soldiers is a critical endeavour.
From the US Army perspective, throughout the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, advancements in detection and protection technology have trailed battlefield needs. The Iraq War was 10 months old before all American troops in the country were issued the ceramic bullet-resistant plates originally reserved for troops stationed on 'front lines'. A strong focus on enhancing soldier capability, survivability and effectiveness took shape, recognizing that soldiers are the single most important asset in the army because they combine intelligence, flexibility, and adaptability to ultimately accomplish the army's missions and functions.
The US Army initially focused on making armoured and tactical vehicles more survivable in the face of the IED threat, and it began with up-armouring the High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV). Similarly, the US Army's Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) represents a new kind of combat force in the age of information warfare, combining new techniques, technologies and tactics on the modern, networkcentric battlefield. In addition, as the IED threat increased, the Stryker vehicle was modified to significantly improve its survivability. These latest improvements to the Stryker include a double V-hull, or DVH, that deflects blasts away from the vehicle and the soldiers inside; enhanced armour, wider tyres and blast-attenuating seats. And lastly, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles were developed and now form a mainstay of the US Army.
Our current operations have also proven that soldiers inside and outside of vehicles need additional protection. More than half of all combat-related injuries sustained by US troops are the result of explosions, and in many cases soldiers sustained Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). US Department of Defence statistics indicate that nearly 130,000 US service members deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have incurred TBI injuries — ranging from concussion to long-term brain damage and death — as a result of an explosion. Accordingly, considerable research and development efforts are underway to design better helmets to minimise the impact of an IED blast on the face, skull and brain. Similarly, the need to protect soldiers from injuries sustained in flash flame explosions has led to the adoption of uniforms that provide survivability, durability, protection and breathable comfort in all terrains. In addition to bullet-proof tactical vests, inherent flame-resistant (FR) fabrics have become a 'performance benchmark' for modern military uniforms. Given the Indian Army's exposure to IED explosions, and the varying, extreme climates in India, the need for FR, all terrain, all climate uniforms and improved helmet designs should be integrated into India's Futuristic Infantry Soldier As a System (F-INSAS) programme.
Enabling connectivity has become a priority for the US Army, recognizing that soldiers are more likely to survive when they are connected to a network that allows them to share real time situational awareness. The US Army embarked 20 years ago on the Nett Warrior programme, the world's oldest 'future soldier' effort. It was designed to fuse together a combination of commercial, off-the-shelf technology (COTS) with current-issue military gear and equipment. But this proved too complicated. These earlier programmes have shed their 'future soldier' collection of sensors, heads-up displays, GPS devices and computers for a single simpler device able to carry out voice, video and data functions. This has evolved into an integrated dismounted leader situational awareness (SA) system for use during combat operations. This 'smartphone' or 'tablet-like' approach delivers a familiar interface for the next generation of troops already accustomed to the latest trends in commercial technologies.
Over the past decade, there has been a rapid transformation in the US-India defence relationship. What was once a nascent relationship between unfamiliar nations has now blossomed into a strategic partnership between two of the preeminent security powers in Asia. Today, US-India defence ties are strong and growing and involve a robust slate of dialogues, military exercises, defence trade, personnel exchanges, and armaments cooperation. The US path to modernisation has not been easy and it will continue to evolve. As India moves forward with its F-INSAS programme, there may be some valuable lessons for the Indian Army to consider based on the US Army introduction of important new technologies which have increased soldier survivability in IED attacks.
We hope this spirit of cooperation and partnership, including sharing important lessons and knowledge, as was achieved during the Yudh Abhyas exercises will continue. We owe it to our soldiers.
(The writer was the Commanding General of the Army Materiel Command and is a senior counsellor of The Cohen Group. He recently co-led a US-India Business Council delegation of US defence executives to DefExpo 2012)