Army Develops One-Man Tactical Operations Center

February 2011
By George I. Seffers
E-mail About the Author


A U.S. Army soldier works with the XM156 unmanned aerial system, a platoon-level asset that provides the dismounted soldier with reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition capabilities.

Modernization efforts increase situational awareness at platoon and squad levels.

Basic science and technology research currently underway as part of the U.S. Army’s soldier-as-a-system modernization plan could lead to a wireless personal area network and other technologies that will better integrate the individual soldier into the Army’s tactical network. The Army is developing a host of technologies to improve situational awareness for dismounted platoon and squad leaders, essentially creating a tactical operations center packed on the back. The idea is to increase the knowledge—and therefore the firepower—of the individual soldier.

Soldier Planning Interfaces and Networked Electronics (SPINE) advanced technology objective is one of several Army efforts to continually modernize command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) at the lowest levels. The service intends to improve situational awareness while shedding some of the weight, bulk and cables that hinder the dismounted warfighter’s mobility. Other components under development include improved helmets and head-up displays, a generator that produces power while the soldier walks, a smart sight for firing at targets beyond line of sight, and a mouse built into the forward handle of the soldier’s rifle.

The SPINE advanced technology objective is developing a government-owned, soldier-borne electronic equipment architecture. The goal is to reduce the electronics system weight by 30 percent while improving power availability by 50 percent for a 24-hour period.

Stephen Kim, SPINE technical lead, describes the system as the foundational basis for dismounted soldier C4ISR. SPINE will mature and demonstrate technologies for improved mobility, information management and lethality through a wireless personal area network for small combat unit leaders and soldiers. The system will include a robust, antijam, high-bandwidth, frequency-agile waveform capable of working in challenging combat situations with a low possibility of detection or interception. “SPINE is what we like to call the magic backpack,” Kim says.

SPINE will be certified by the National Security Agency, which has technical experts on the development team, and will be integrated into current and future radio technologies, including the Enhanced Position Location Reporting System and the Soldier Radio Waveform. SPINE will be compatible electromagnetically with the Joint Tactical Radio System and will include a manned/unmanned teaming capability to provide soldiers at the lowest levels with data from unmanned aircraft or unmanned ground vehicles.

“SPINE involves a lot of different components, some of which are part of the advanced technology objective and some of which are not. SPINE seeks to integrate a bunch of different sensors at once. We’re making it interoperable with ground sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned ground vehicles, and we’re integrating all of that into components the soldiers will actually wear,” says James Megliola, a strategic outreach representative at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, under the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command.

Those wearable components for the SPINE prototype include a processor with an L-shaped docking station and a tactical radio. Officials hope either to modify or entirely eliminate the docking station in later iterations of the system, removing some of the movement-hindering weight and wires. The cables that currently tether the helmet, body-worn components and rifle components all are targeted for elimination in the final product.

“Wires are awful. Nobody wants to deal with that, especially a guy who jumps out of a helicopter, or airplane or armored vehicle. We want as few wires as possible,” Megliola says. “SPINE is a tactical operations center that you wear on your back. We call it SPINE for a reason. Think of it as the backbone of your dismounted soldier C4ISR.”

Natick also is developing a helmet that will provide greater protection and integrate the head-up computer display, night vision, thermal sensors and enhanced hearing technologies, reducing the number of devices a soldier must carry. Soldiers might use a different version of the future helmet depending on their individual missions, according to Megliola. For example, a soldier in an armored vehicle might have a helmet with increased mandible protection while the dismounted soldier helmet will have a softer face mask that is better suited to placing a face against the rifle butt. The head-up displays also have improved over the years with greater pixel resolution and contrast. In addition, the information displayed may be adjustable with one click—of a rifle handle.

Natick researchers are developing a mouse built into the forward handle of the rifle. Integrating the mouse into the weapon allows soldiers to control data without putting down their weapons. A second, wearable mouse might be included as part of the future soldier’s uniform as a backup.

To improve the individual soldier’s lethality, the service also is integrating a smart sight system, which would enable one soldier to transmit target data to a shooter who is not within sight of the target. A forward artillery observer, for example, might transmit data to a grenadier on the other side of a hill. The grenadier then could engage the target without actually seeing it.

The future soldier’s C4ISR package may be powered by the Soldier Conformal Rechargeable Battery, which is designed to match the contour of the soldier’s ballistic protection. When used in conjunction with a fuel cell, the battery can support missions up to 72 hours before requiring a recharge.


This U.S. Army photograph depicts the Soldier Power Regeneration Kit (SPaRK) phase 1 prototype. While a soldier walks, the device generates electrical power in an effort to reduce the cumbersome weight of batteries carried onto the battlefield.

SPINE may be integrated into Nett Warrior, which uses and improves on components of Land Warrior. Land Warrior was stripped of funding and effectively killed a few years ago, largely because of the system’s weight and financial constraints. It has, however, been to combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. None of the units experienced any fratricide incidents while using Land Warrior for greater situational awareness, points out Maj. Marc Cervantes, USA, Army Infantry Brigade Combat Team product manager.

Formerly known as the Ground Soldier System Increment 1, Nett Warrior will be worn on the soldier and will include a radio, a helmet-mounted display and a handheld data input device. The wiring for the system is integrated into a protective vest. SPINE components are planned for the second increment of Nett Warrior.

Nine infantry battalion combat teams are scheduled to receive increment 1 capabilities this year. The first increment provides enhanced situational awareness, force protection and lethality through the use of unattended and attended sensors and munitions. It also provides a communications network backbone for battalion command networks. Increment 1 consists of urban and tactical unattended ground sensors, unmanned aerial systems and small unmanned ground vehicles. The systems will be fully integrated and networked through the Network Integration Kit, enabling data sharing and the command and control of systems.

Specific increment 1 systems include the XM156 Class 1 Block 0 unmanned aerial system, a platoon-level asset that provides the dismounted soldier with reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition capabilities. This includes imagery data provided during day and night operations and in adverse weather conditions from as high as 1,000 feet above ground level. The 25-pound vehicle incorporates commercial electro- optical and infrared sensors and uses a gasoline-powered propulsion system for vertical take-off and landing.

The unmanned aerial system will be complemented by the XM1216 small unmanned ground vehicle, a 32-pound, tracked robot capable of conducting operations in urban terrain, tunnels, sewers and caves. It provides an unmanned capability for missions that are manpower-intensive or high-risk, such as urban intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Increment 1 also will include AN/GSR-9 tactical unattended ground sensors and AN/GSR-10 urban unattended ground sensors. The first provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors as well as radiological and nuclear sensors. AN/GSR-10 provides situational awareness data in urban areas. The ground sensors will be used to perform perimeter defense, surveillance, target acquisition and situational awareness tasks, including radiological, nuclear and early warning. The sensor field will include a gateway node to provide sensor fusion and a long-haul interoperable communications capability for transmitting target or situational awareness data to a remote operator or to the common operational picture through the Joint Tactical Radio System network.

SPINE and other increment 2 technologies could begin hitting the field by 2013, according to Kim, and likely will be fielded within a three- or four-year time frame.

Soldiers one day may also benefit from the Soldier Power Regeneration Kit (SPaRK), a combat-boot-mounted power generator that produces electricity as the soldier moves. The current version includes a motor, spring, ballscrew, wing and cable. As the shin rotates over the ankle joint, just after the heel strike, a cable by the heel pulls on a wing of a small generator. Pulling down on the wing component compresses the spring and spins the low-pitch ballscrew, which spins a motor at very high rotations per minute, generating electricity. After that stage of the gait, the leg is free to swing and no cable forces pull on the generator wing, which allows the formerly compressed spring to push upward on the wing as it attempts to regain its natural length. That motion again spins the ballscrew, which spins the motor to generate more electricity. SPaRK is designed to recharge batteries and eventually may power the soldier’s electronics directly.

“SPaRK power output depends on operating mode, speed and user weight. It has two operating modes: regular gait and standing knee bends,” Greg Kanagaki, SPaRK project engineer, explains. “The SPaRK is designed to be worn on each leg, and power generated increases with increasing user speed and weight.” The system can generate between 2.5 watts and 9.2 watts per leg, depending on the operating mode.

An early SPaRK prototype weighs  just under three pounds, which Army officials hope to reduce to about one pound. The system is not part of the SPINE program and is not officially part of the Army’s overall modernization effort, but the plan is to develop the technology to the point that it could be wrapped into an advanced technology objective in the near future, according to Kanagaki.

Army Brigade Combat Team Modernization:
Army Research, Development and Engineering Command:.
Nett Warrior:

Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.