The Army’s Advanced New Sights Could End Up Leading to Reckless Shooting and Fratricide, Experts Say

 In GDI, Land, Defense, Environment, Information

Editor’s Note: This arti­cle by Matthew Cox orig­i­nal­ly appeared on Military.com, a lead­ing source of news for the mil­i­tary and vet­er­an com­mu­ni­ty.

After more than 20 years of attempts, the U.S. Army is now equip­ping infantry­men with a sophis­ti­cat­ed sight­ing system that allows them to accu­rate­ly shoot around cor­ners with­out expos­ing them­selves to enemy fire. But this futur­is­tic capa­bil­i­ty, some say, may come at the cost of pro­fi­cien­cy and could even result in more friend­ly-fire casu­al­ties.

Using a tech­nol­o­gy known as Rapid Target Acquisition (RTA), sol­diers can see their weapon sight ret­i­cle wire­less­ly trans­mit­ted from a new ther­mal sight on the M4A1 car­bine into their ther­mal­ly enhanced night vision gog­gles, allow­ing them to see and quick­ly shoot enemy tar­gets — day or night, from the hip or lying behind cover and shoot­ing over a wall.

“It’s hard to express how much of a game-chang­ing tech­nol­o­gy this is for our sol­diers on the bat­tle­field,” Brig. Gen. Anthony Potts, com­man­der of Program Executive Office Soldier, said during a recent inter­view.

Army offi­cials promise the RTA tech­nol­o­gy has per­formed well in sol­dier test­ing. But mil­i­tary experts warn that if the ser­vice isn’t care­ful, it could lead to an over­re­liance on tech­nol­o­gy, degrad­ing crit­i­cal marks­man­ship skills over time and increas­ing the risks of frat­ri­cide that come with ambi­gu­i­ty in ther­mal-spec­trum detec­tion.


More and more chal­lenges like this are likely to arise as the Army’s exten­sive mod­ern­iza­tion effort begins to yield new capa­bil­i­ties that rely on advanced tech­nol­o­gy such as robot­ics, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and aug­ment­ed real­i­ty to enhance sol­dier per­for­mance on the bat­tle­field, they said.

“I think when new tech­nolo­gies come in, they enable people to do things that they weren’t able to do before and to do cur­rent tasks more easily with less intent — you don’t have to con­cen­trate as much,” said Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow for Defense Programs at The Heritage Foundation. “Overreliance on tech­nol­o­gy can lead to lack of dis­ci­pline and a lack of under­stand­ing of the fun­da­men­tals and skills that are needed when the tech­nol­o­gy isn’t there to help you out.”

A long way from land warrior

Army weapons offi­cials have been trying to give sol­diers the abil­i­ty to shoot around cor­ners since the late 1990s with Land Warrior, a pro­gram that relied on a wear­able com­put­er and advanced nav­i­ga­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions gear to give sol­diers more sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness. The system allowed sol­diers to see around cor­ners with a weapon-mount­ed ther­mal camera that fed into a helmet-mount­ed heads-up dis­play. Soldiers ulti­mate­ly reject­ed it, how­ev­er, because it relied on a tangle of bulky con­nect­ing cables that became snag haz­ards and restrict­ed mobil­i­ty.

In 2015, PEO Soldier offi­cials unveiled a new take on this con­cept that elim­i­nat­ed bulky con­nec­tor cables. Using a new Family of Weapon Sights-Individual (FWS‑I), sol­diers can wire­less­ly trans­mit their sight ret­i­cle into the wide dis­play screen of the new helmet-mount­ed Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular (ENVG-B) and quick­ly fire at enemy tar­gets.

Last September, the Army con­duct­ed a small field­ing of the FWS‑I and ENVG‑B, along with other equip­ment at Fort Riley, Kansas, making the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team the first unit in the ser­vice to receive Rapid Target Acquisition.

During test­ing, PEO Soldier offi­cials saw a dra­mat­ic improve­ment in marks­man­ship when National Guard troops first shot with cur­rent optics and then used the Rapid Target Acquisition tech­nol­o­gy, Potts said.

“We went up to New Hampshire and we were work­ing with the National Guard up there, and we put them through a stress shoot. … And after they [had] been through a rig­or­ous field exer­cise and they shot 40 tar­gets,” he said. “And on aver­age, when we put them through that, they hit 17 out of 40. They were winded and people don’t real­ize … when you put people under sim­u­lat­ed combat sit­u­a­tions, shoot­ing a target ain’t as easy as people think it is.”

After a couple of hours of train­ing with the FWS‑I and the ENVG‑B, the sol­diers showed marked improve­ment, hit­ting an aver­age of 34 out of 40 tar­gets after doing anoth­er rig­or­ous fire-and-maneu­ver exer­cise, Potts said.

“It was a fire-and-maneu­ver exer­cise. It was up in the snow at night in New Hampshire, and you are talk­ing about guys that are knock­ing down tar­gets at over 200 meters at night, doing hip shots with this,” he said. “You don’t have to put the butt­stock into your shoul­der. He can stand behind a build­ing; he can lay behind some rocks, put a weapon over his head and still engage tar­gets.”

Technology can’t replace marksmanship fundamentals

This wor­ries experts in the spe­cial oper­a­tions world, because it goes against the fun­da­men­tals of marks­man­ship that have always been crit­i­cal to engag­ing the enemy.

“You don’t have the body behind the gun absorb­ing and man­ag­ing recoil in the tra­di­tion­al manner that we teach sol­diers how to con­trol and manage recoil,” said a former Army spe­cial oper­a­tions forces sol­dier with exper­tise in small arms, visual aug­men­ta­tion sys­tems and acqui­si­tion. “Firing a single round is one thing, but being able to con­trol the weapon … to be able to fire two or three or four rapid shots to ensure inca­pac­i­ta­tion of the threat is great­ly dimin­ished.”

In a real combat sit­u­a­tion, the sol­dier using this tech­nol­o­gy will be “swing­ing the weapon around in a non-intu­itive manner … until some­thing that is hot zigza­gs across the field of view. And then he zigs the gun back, finds the heated thing, sta­bi­lizes the gun enough to break a single shot and then shoots the target,” accord­ing to the former SOF sol­dier, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely. “So, every­thing that we teach them about day­time marks­man­ship, other than trig­ger con­trol, is thrown out of the window.”

Wood, who is a retired Marine offi­cer, said the mil­i­tary has to guard against becom­ing over­con­fi­dent in tech­nol­o­gy and con­tin­ue to train on proven marks­man­ship tech­niques.

“I think that is really a danger, and it calls upon the Army and pos­si­bly the Marine Corps or others who start using these sorts of things to absolute­ly be rigid in ensur­ing dis­ci­pline that marks­man­ship fun­da­men­tals are learned to begin with and then prac­ticed on a reg­u­lar basis, so that you can go analog and use the mechan­i­cal skills needed — sight pic­ture, trig­ger con­trol, breath­ing,” Wood said.

“When you bring in these super sophis­ti­cat­ed sight­ing sys­tems … and you are just look­ing through a lens and wher­ev­er your weapon is point­ing you see the dot, well what hap­pens when that sys­tems fails? Do you know how to go to iron sights? Do you know how to com­pen­sate for envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors that your com­put­er mech­a­nism might not be pick­ing up?” he asked.

Potts told Military.com that he is con­fi­dent that the Army will con­tin­ue to train sol­diers on time-tested marks­man­ship skills such as shoot­ing with backup iron sights.

“One of the big debates in the Army for years is, we give the pre­mier equip­ment that exists to who — our spe­cial oper­a­tors, who are our best trained people in the world,” Potts said. “If you are going to put two people into combat, the 19-year old pri­vate or the 29-year-old sergeant … to make it fair, you prob­a­bly want to give the young guy all this new tech­nol­o­gy because he is not as skilled as this other guy.”

The thermal blob and the risks of fratricide

Another poten­tial mine­field involved with this new sight­ing tech­nol­o­gy could emerge if sol­diers begin rely­ing too much on ther­mal sig­na­tures to iden­ti­fy tar­gets, experts said, which can lead to frat­ri­cide.

Beyond 100 yards, human tar­gets can look like heated blobs through ther­mal devices, making it impos­si­ble to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between friend and foe, the SOF source said.

The Army’s new ENVG‑B can fuse both the infrared image inten­si­fi­ca­tion of tra­di­tion­al night vision and ther­mal into one image to get the best of both tech­nolo­gies, Army offi­cials say.

“I think that ther­mal fusion is extreme­ly effec­tive; it elim­i­nates some of the frat­ri­cide risks that come with ther­mal,” the former SOF sol­dier said. “Now it becomes a train­ing issue … how rapid­ly can you fade between more ther­mal and less ther­mal.

“If you have the ther­mal cranked up in order to iden­ti­fy heat sig­na­tures, that over­lay ther­mal image in the ENVG‑B is going to reduce your abil­i­ty to see clar­i­ty and def­i­n­i­tion in the image inten­si­fi­ca­tion, IR spec­trum.”

If sol­diers have their ther­mal set to high, they won’t be able to see “pat­terns of uni­forms, cur­va­ture of the mag­a­zine on the rifle or what­ev­er you are using to decide that it is an enemy com­bat­ant, not one of my fellow sol­diers,” he said.

Soldiers and lead­ers in armored units don’t have the same prob­lem because enemy tanks and vehi­cles can be easier to iden­ti­fy under ther­mal optics.

“When you’re trying to find a tank at two kilo­me­ters and then be able to see, based off exhaust plume loca­tions, what that vehi­cle is — ther­mal helps you,” the former SOF sol­dier said. “But human beings don’t have tell­tale sig­na­tures of three road wheels and an exhaust pipe and the rear right thing that glows in this manner.

“Thermal gives you a bunch of capa­bil­i­ties, but it has its lim­i­ta­tions, which is why I am encour­aged about fusion,” he said. “I think that fusion is the future. I just don’t believe that dig­i­tal fusion is where it needs to be right now from a tech­nol­o­gy stand­point.”

The Army did not respond to a Military.com inquiry specif­i­cal­ly about frat­ri­cide con­cerns with the new system.

The ser­vice is just begin­ning to pro­duce more mature tech­nolo­gies as a result of the ambi­tious mod­ern­iza­tion effort it launched in 2017. It plans to field option­al­ly manned robot­ic combat vehi­cles and new unmanned sys­tems to send into the fray before risk­ing its manned assets.

To be effec­tive, Army lead­ers that they will have to rely on some level of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence to enhance bat­tle­field deci­sion-making — a prospect that some in the com­mu­ni­ty warn could lead to deadly mis­takes and unin­tend­ed col­lat­er­al damage if safe­guards aren’t in place.

The ENVG‑B por­tion of Rapid Target Acquisition is a short-term capa­bil­i­ty that Army offi­cials plan to begin trad­ing in in 2021 for the new Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), an advanced Microsoft tech­nol­o­gy that relies on aug­ment­ed real­i­ty to allow sol­diers see a con­stant feed of bat­tle­field infor­ma­tion into spe­cial combat glass­es, in addi­tion to the sight ret­i­cle.

Time will tell if the Army can deliv­er on its promis­es and tran­si­tion to new tech­nol­o­gy and advanced capa­bil­i­ties in a way that mit­i­gates risks and main­tains sol­diers’ pro­fi­cien­cy.

Despite the con­cerns over RTA, Wood said it could be an effec­tive bat­tle­field tool.

“On the good side, more of your force could be more effec­tive because you are not having to rely on every­body having extra­or­di­nary marks­man­ship skills,” he said. “When every­thing is work­ing, you are point­ing the weapon, you are seeing where the dot is, and every­body is able to deliv­er fairly effec­tive fire. That would be great, and I think that is where the pro­po­nents of some­thing like this are going.”

Potts said he is con­fi­dent that the tech­nolo­gies such as RTA and IVAS will become more and more advanced with each new upgrade.

“People look at us and [think], ‘Why can’t you guys figure this out.’ I want to say, ‘Do you want to talk about the his­to­ry of the smart­phone and four decades ago what that looked like and how many of you have for­got­ten that you used to carry yours in the trunk of your car in a case,’ ” he said.

“If we had done it by the normal mil­i­tary acqui­si­tion system, we would have can­celed the pro­gram three times,” Potts said. “But the real­i­ty is no one will give up their smart­phones. We are going to have a great prod­uct for our sol­diers, and it’s going to get better every time. We just have to have the tac­ti­cal patience to get there.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared on Military.com

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