For years, the United States has maintained its military superiority by harnessing new weapons technologies to tanks, ships, aircraft and other major military hardware.
Now it's the grunt's turn to strap on this high-tech weaponry.The Army this year is to begin equipping in a major way infantry units with miniature versions of devices that tankers, sailors and pilots have long enjoyed. These night-vision scopes, day/night laser sights and thermal imagers that detect humans by their heat will mount on the M-4 rifle. The new rifle is smaller but just as deadly as the Vietnam-era M-16, which is being retired. New machine guns are also to be deployed.
But this is just the first phase of a multibillion-dollar effort. By 2006, when the Army fields a new generation of rifle capable of killing foes hiding around corners, officers say U.S. ground troops will have undergone the most profound transformation in the way infantry forces fight since the introduction of the blitzkrieg in World War II.
"We are going to see a quantum leap," predicts Lt. Col. Paul Buckhout, the Army's coordinator of light infantry systems. "We will see significant increases in the lethality of our forces, pound for pound."
As the Army begins to integrate the technologies into training and tactics, officials expect to see a vital benefit - much lower casualties for U.S. troops.
While testing is still under way, confidence is high that the new weaponry will not only boost the infantry's firepower but also allow it to engage enemies at longer distances and with more precision, day or night.
The Army's plans are moving forward amid an ongoing debate over the technology-driven revolution in military affairs and how it would affect the way the armed forces operate. Some defense officials have been arguing that with vast improvements in precision bombing, the Air Force could assume some of the traditional tasks of ground units, reducing the importance of the infantry.
But other experts reject that argument, saying advanced technologies will never compensate for the war-winning need of armies to capture and hold territory.
"The soldier is the one who has to take the ground and hold it, and nothing is going to change that," says Terry Gander, editor of Janes Infantry Weapons, a British military-affairs publication.
Other experts warn that the revolutionary potential of the new infantry technologies may not be realized unless the Army replaces its traditional operating doctrine. It would have to rely less on fielding huge mechanized formations, shifting instead to concepts that deal with a new range of post-Cold War challenges.
"The Army is doing the right kinds of things in terms of individual technologies," says Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon planner who now heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, a Washington think tank. "But a critical question will be what kinds of operational challenges will they be seeing that they need to address."
For instance, he explains, as geopolitical alignments shift and overseas bases shut down in the wake of the Cold War, the United States may have trouble finding friendly territories where it can assemble huge mechanized forces, as it did in Saudi Arabia for the 1991 gulf war.
The Army might cope with such contingencies by coupling the new infantry technologies with new operational concepts, such as lighter, smaller and more mobile ground forces, says Krepinevich, a former Army lieutenant colonel.
Still, he agrees the new technologies have enormous promise. Among other advantages for the infantry, they would far outstrip the capabilities of night-vision and other devices that are now in the field. They are also far cheaper.
One of the most significant improvements, says Lt. Col. Buck-hout, will be the infantry's ability to fight at night.
In the past, "when it came time to . . . destroy the enemy, everybody would line up, and when we sort of heard or saw something, we'd start firing," he says. "Now . . . we can array ourselves on the battlefield at night, spread out and move in teams without the risk of shooting each other. Not only will we be able to identify the enemy, but we can reach out and touch the enemy at a further distance."
The new technologies will also bolster the accuracy of infantry firepower, officers say. For instance, rather than having to line up his rifle's conventional rear and forward "iron" sights on a foe, a soldier will simply position on his target the red dot he sees in his laser sight.
Even as the Army begins deploying the new equipment, starting in 2000 it will be testing for fielding the systems developed in its "Land Warrior" program. These systems will effectively turn every foot soldier into a high-tech battle station.
The plugged-in soldier
The computer, communications and other technologies will be standard issue and integrated into gear worn on a soldier's waist, back, shoulders and head. They will plug him directly into some of the Army's most advanced command, control and communications systems.
Wearing helmet-mounted eyepieces, troops will be able to call up maps and images taken by spy planes and satellites. They will be able to guide aircraft and shells into targets, tap into navigation satellites and transmit to buddies, commanders and far-off artillery and aircraft live pictures of enemy positions and movements, day or night.
These capabilities, predicts a senior Army officer, "will lift the fog of war."
Shooting around corners
In the next step, the Army plans to field by 2006 a new rifle into which will be integrated all of the individual devices the Army is beginning to deploy this year. But the so-called Objective Individual Combat Weapon will go even further by effectively allowing its bearers to shoot around corners.
In addition to conventional bullets, the OICW will fire 20mm rounds that can be programmed to explode in the air beside or above a target, raining deadly shrapnel into foes behind walls or rocks or in trenches.
The rifle's built-in laser range finder will gauge the distance to the hiding place. It will then feed the information into a small computer, which will program the warhead in the 20mm round to detonate at the right height and distance from the enemy soldier.
While all this sounds futuristic, the Pentagon last month awarded a contract for the OICW to Alliant Techsystems Corp. of Minneapolis after it developed a fully functioning prototype.
"Right now, a soldier has nothing to take out troops at 700 meters who are in defilade or hiding behind walls," explains Mike Moore, the firm's OICW program manager. "Now he has to call in artillery. We are going to give individual soldiers the ability to take out enemies in defilade without having to call in support.
"There are absolutely no technological barriers to fielding this thing," he says. With additional funds, he adds, the weapon could be deployed as many as three years earlier than planned.