The Army today is developing more than 600 new pieces of equipment and weaponry, including at least 40 major systems. Because it typically takes 10 years from "womb to boom," there is a mounting preoccupation among military thinkers about whether recruits a decade from now will be capable of manning the electronic battlefield of the 1990s.
"We've made a decision of a few good things versus, like the Soviet Union, lots of okay things . . . . The assumption is that our stuff -- in terms of kill probabilities, ranges and so on -- is better than their stuff. To get all that, in some cases we've made equipment that is difficult to operate and maintain," said Harry F. O'Neil, director of the training-research laboratory at the Army Research Institute (ARI).
"It breaks fewer times, but when it does it's harder to fix. It's kind of like your automobile. Twenty years ago, you could open up your hood and have some vague idea of what was going on. Now you open it up and God knows what's going on," O'Neil added.
The Army brass thinks that, particularly in the immediate future, traditional military virtues such as marksmanship, endurance and discipline will remain as fundamental to battlefield success as they have ever been.
But among solutions being pondered for training soldiers in everything from loading a howitzer to fixing the complex electronics on an M1 Abrams tank is computer-based instruction.
For example, ARI is testing a lightweight computer that can teach the intricate vocabulary of artillery guns to 13 Bravos, cannon crewmen.
When the right buttons are pressed, the computer asks such multiple-choice questions as, "The device that makes the tube as easy to raise as it is to lower is: a) evacuator b) elevator c) extractor d) equilibrator e) don't know." (The correct answer is "d.")
O'Neil said soldiers using computer tutors have been nearly twice as inclined to finish the course as those slogging through a more traditional textbook; furthermore, computer-based instruction allows the material to be taught 30 percent faster.
If such devices are mass produced at $200 apiece, it will free human instructors for combat and the computers can be horded "like you stockpile arms or fuel" in case the Army suddenly has to grow in size 42-fold as it did between 1939 and 1944, he adds.
ARI, which is housed in an anonymous northern Virginia office highrise and boasts more research psychologists on the payroll than any other organization in the nation, also is trying to tap into the youthful fixation with video-arcade games.
In a project called Battlesight, soldiers can sit in a plywood cabinet and manipulate controls similar to those on an M60 tank to combat an on-coming video phalanx of Soviet tanks.
Operated with a quarter and carrying an eventual price tag of $5,000 each, Battlesight may end up in recreation rooms, bars and barracks in hopes that tankers will practice their combat skills during their spare time with the same vigor now devoted to Pac-Man.
The Army also is looking for a high-tech solution to problems that have plagued combat soldiers for millenia, such as land navigation, otherwise known as getting around in the woods. (Infantrymen claim they don't get lost, they get "misoriented.")
For example, aspiring Green Beret troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., have "been plagued by a significant failure rate -- over 40 percent," with most of the washouts tied to failures in map reading and land navigation, according to ARI documents.
Furthermore, roughly half of the Army's best Rangers in a military competition in Georgia last spring got lost.
And recently declassified documents on Vietnam combat deaths indicate "many instances of deaths directly attributable to errors" in land navigation, including artillery spotters accidentally calling for fire on their own troops, according to ARI.
Now Army researchers are considering a solution borrowed from University of Illinois scientists tracking condors. Radio transmitters the size of a cigarette pack will be carried by soldiers on maneuvers.
As they tack through the woods, their movements can be tracked, plotted and recreated to show them where and why they got lost.