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Infantry overhaul: How DARPA’s new experiments could shake up ground warfare

This artist’s rendering shows how the Persistent Close Air Support program allows ground troops and air crews to jointly select and employ precision-guided weapons from aircraft. (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)

As Libya spiraled into chaos last year, U.S. Marines deployed there used a little-known computer application called KILSWITCH to map their routes and emergency plans. The program gave them not only detailed GPS-guided maps on handheld devices but targeting information and detailed maps of nearby compounds in case they came under fire.

The application — spelled out as Kinetic Integration Lightweight Software Individual Tactical Combat Handheld — is part of a broader high-tech program known as Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) launched to improve how U.S. troops under fire call for and receive close air support. But it hints at something larger: The Pentagon is rethinking how U.S. ground troops operate, with plans to push more information and technology on the battlefield to lower-ranking enlisted soldiers and Marines than ever before.

The KILSWITCH program was developed with involvement by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon organization that has overseen research for everything from sniper rounds that can change direction to space planes that deploy satellites. But it’s still an incremental improvement, and DARPA wants to think bigger, said DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar.

“Part of our job is to make sure that we’re thinking out ahead to what the future ground adversary is going to be doing, and to a future squad capability that isn’t just increments from where we are today, but fundamentally a better capability,” she said.

DARPA’s plan, in short: In addition to working on programs like PCAS to help U.S. troops now, it also has launched a long-term mission to overhaul how infantrymen fight. Called Squad X, it envisions U.S. troops using everything from handheld drones to streaming full-motion video to know more about the enemies they face.

[DARPA’s new experimental sniper round can turn in mid-flight]

The agency announced a new related effort last month, the Squad X Core Technologies program. It calls for experimentation on how to improve attacking enemies out to 1,000 meters, disrupting enemy communications, detecting threats out to 1,000 meters and boosting the ability of an infantry squad member to know where his teammates are through the use of drones.

“The usual thing is we go out there and try to come up with this dramatic change in capability and then individual pieces start to feed into how the Army and Marine Corps do business,” Prabhakar said. “I think you’ll see that with Squad X.”

DARPA has released the following two images to help explain the concept. The first shows infantrymen patrolling with the help of small drones buzzing overhead and a mule-like ground vehicle following behind:

An earlier image released last summer shows how situational awareness also could be improved through Squad X, with ground troops having better awareness of the ammunition available in their unit and how far away potential adversaries are:

DARPA will do a variety of experiments in coming months to develop a scientific baseline for what an infantryman can do for use in the project, Prabhakar said.

“You can make PowerPoints all day long about what might be good for the squad, but at the end of the day we’re going to learn so much by actually experimenting and first building a baseline of squad capabilities,” she said. “And then if you introduce this particular kind or way of sharing information, or if you mix in unmanned systems and use them to look around corners or whatever you want to do, does it actually change squad effectiveness? I think we’re going to learn a lot from these experiments.”