In the development and testing phases since at least 2004, the German Ministry of Defense has purchased enough IdZ-ES (Infanterist der Zukunft-Infantryman of the future, also know as Gladius) Future Soldier Systems to outfit 68 platoons of mechanized infantry/2,460 soldiers, or roughly a reinforced regiment with the systems.The Gladius system is a wearable, integrated fighting system that allows individual soldiers greater opportunities on the battlefield to communicate, coordinate, and fight more efficiently. Unit leaders receive versions that allow better command and control via the ability to monitor friendly forces in real time. It runs off of a central battery pack mounted to the back of the load bearing equipment and is fitted around ballistic armor and even NBC requirements. Included with this suite are LAM devices and thermal optics for the G36 service rifle, in addition to a push to talk button mounted on the rifle itself so soldiers can stay on target or not give away their status of communicating to the enemy while on operations. UAV integration is also a key component, allowing commanders to view UAV feeds in real time. Central to the entire system is the ability to be “tethered” to the sectioned “home base” armored personnel carrier.
The battery-powered core computer, worn on the soldier’s back and known as the ‘electronic backbone’, controls all the devices and sensors carried by the soldier through various interfaces. Its principal functions include power supply management, access control and monitoring, the soldier information system for map and situation display, navigation, reporting, exchange of reconnaissance and target data, processing sensor data, operator interfaces and visualisation as well as system configuration.
Through a manually operated control and display unit known as the BAG, the soldier can control the Soldier Command System and communication. All relevant data of the current situation, the position of friendly forces, mission and system status is displayed either on the BAG or on the OLED helmet display.
These “Future Soldier” systems have existed in prototype form since the 1990s, with many European and U.S programs testing the feasibility of them. This particular contract is especially important because of the size of purchase with 68 platoons having the ability to be outfitted. Ideally, and in a perfect world, these devices should be able to turn the battlefield in an infantryman’s favor by “clearing” the inevitable fog of war as much as possible. In reality, they remain untested on a mass scale. Several news reports have indicated that the systems were in use by the German infantry in Afghanistan, specifically the 23rd Mountain Infantry Brigade in 2013. However it must be stated that the German ISAF contingent has never been more than a reinforced regiment in comparable size. At that, the majority of German troops are support personnel who most having not left the wire, wouldn’t have been issued the IdZ-ES system to begin with. Thus, even if the systems were in active usage by infantry troops in combat, the amount would have been very small, and most likely not enough to gain real insight and feedback on.
The other issue with all of these “Future Soldier Systems” is that they appear to be a holdover from the 1990s, an era of relative peace within NATO. The systems are an ideal answer to a textbook war, fighting from mechanized vehicles against conventional armies across the plains of Europe. When in fact, the majority of warfare that NATO will most likely encounter, such as it already has in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, is an asymmetrical fight, against an insurgent enemy that doesn’t have convenient vehicles to “tag” as red icons on a heads up display. I think there are some components of the IdZ-ES system that could be very useful in this fight, such as the UAV integration and the universal communications packages. But the trade-off has to be worth it in terms of weight and reliability of the technology. Adopting these as full systems might not be the best solution as compared to working slowly with certain components of them.
The end question should be if this truly makes an Infantryman more lethal as a team on the battlefield. The Marine Corps thinks that suppressing small arms is one of the answers. Which goes to show, why have a detailed communications system to overcome the inevitable confusion of battle, when you can lessen that same confusion by simply reducing its volume? As an example.