On Today’s Battlefield, Is Information More Important Than Firepower?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 20 2013 12:03 PM

On Today’s Battlefield, Is Information More Important Than Firepower?

PR_Image_Gladius
The video game-esque Gladius soldier system

Photo courtesy Rheinmetall

Halo, Borderlands, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battlefield, Metal Gear Solid—these kinds of games taught a generation to see enemies as red dots on a mini-map. Now, today’s warfare is taking another turn toward the virtual with a highly advanced “soldier system” by the badass name of Gladius, which the German military plans to implement in Afghanistan as early as this June.

The Gladius soldier system was developed by Rheinmetall, Europe’s leading supplier of systems for ground forces. (Gladius is Latin for sword, which was the go-to weapon of Roman foot soldiers.) Rheinmetall claims Gladius is the most advanced soldier system of its kind. So far as we know, Seal Team Six may not even have comparable hardware

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The new technology represents a holistic approach to the modern infantry unit and a top-down philosophy in communication, targeting, and personal protection solutions. The most notable feature: the closest thing to a real-life “heads-up display” we’ve ever seen—like Google Glass for combat.

In games, the HUD enables you to more easily kill Nazi zombies or vaguely Eastern European insurgents. It tells you how to complete your mission, where your friendlies are, and how many bad guys are waiting for you around the corner. (This last bit is often made possible by some unexplained magic.)

On the battlefield, it gets everyone back to the FOB.  Anchored by a helmet mounted display (which doubles as night vision and augmented reality), a soldier can access maps, waypoints, “Blue Force Tracking” (good guys), and “Enemy Threat Reporting” and “Red Force Visualization” (bad guys). And you just know the next version will have all sorts of drone integration – bringing the eye in the sky into the helmet. (The Brits are already using miniature surveillance helicopters.)

Rheinmetall designed the system to keep 10-man units in constant communication with one another, in addition to incorporating support vehicles and real-time updates from external intelligence. They call this a “network-enabled operational loop,” and it’s the gamer’s equivalent of looking at the other guy’s screen. (Seriously, don’t be a screen cheater.)

The rest of the Gladius system furnishes soldiers with advanced reconnaissance equipment like thermal imaging, night vision, infrared, and long-range targeting devices. It also comes equipped with a digital magnetic compass, GPS, and an inertial navigational system, all of which feeds into a Linux-based “electronic backbone.”

Rheinmetall even makes these rather cool soldier identification devices so you can tell whether that silhouette on a rooftop is your buddy or a baddie. Every piece of technology is geared toward the rapid exchange of information and shared situational awareness—because on the battlefield, unknown unknowns get you killed.  

The Gladius comes with a “modular battle dress uniform, body armor, and harness system” that involves digital camo and anti-infrared technology, to help the wearer avoid enemy eyes. It’s also flame-retardant, vector-protected, and resistant to biological and chemical agents. (Buy one in the next 15 minutes and we’ll throw in a turret system of your choice!)

The notion underlying the Gladius soldier system is that a super-informed team of 10 is exponentially more lethal (and likely to survive) than an ill-equipped group many times its size.

Though most of us are not likely to square off against flesh-and-blood insurgents any time soon, there are other—ahem—scenarios in which a set of Gladii may come in handy. Unfortunately, it’d cost almost $2 million to outfit you and nine of your friends for the imminent zombie apocalypse.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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