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How technology is transforming the future battlefield

From immersive VR combat training to open platform defense systems, innovative technologies have and continue to mold the modern battlefield.

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In the 21st century military, technology isn’t just more complex and dialed-in; it permeates all facets of operations. To help soldiers in training prepare mentally and physically for battle, modern innovations provide integrated intelligence, while real-world simulations leverage (and create) an enormous amount of data tailored to individual situations and needs. Today, through a headset, soldiers can simultaneously know details such as what’s on the ground, what’s in the air, and specific enemy movements, so they can make the most informed battlefield decisions.

“With the sheer amount of data that’s moving around, time has really become a very critical weapon,” says Joel Dillon, vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and a West Point graduate who served in the U.S. Army for more than 20 years. “It’s always been a weapon on the battlefield, but it’s even more critical now. It’s down to the milliseconds for life and death decisions.” And the technology framework that helps harness all of that data into seamless, life-saving applications on the front lines? Open system architectures.

Next-gen warfighting with open systems

Using open systems architectures — tech-agnostic platforms that can connect many different systems and interfaces with each other, including software, hardware, and operations — is key to ensuring a free exchange of information and providing a unified and streamlined experience.

Embracing this kind of accessibility is crucial to the U.S. military’s evolution. In the past, soldiers in combat have been saddled with equipment suffering from interoperability issues — in other words, weapons that aren’t operating on the same technological wavelength, whether due to incompatible power sources, conflicting proprietary mainframes, or other limitations. The battlefield equipment given to soldiers, such as night vision goggles, GPS devices, and tactical assault kits, also isn’t networked together from a power microgrid standpoint.

Not only is this an inefficient setup, but closed technology systems mean soldiers are less proactive and nimble while in the field. “When I was a commander, I would have to carry a bag of batteries around, because if the batteries in my night vision goggles died, I could not use the power that I had in my radio,” Dillon explains. “I was carrying a lot of extra weight I didn’t need. When you’re talking about an infantry soldier on the ground, they’re carrying everything on their back, so every ounce counts.”

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Off the battlefield, open systems architectures can also improve defense operations. More specifically, these platforms ensure that several important aspects of governance — including the concept of operations (CONOPS), business logic, and data models — aren’t permanently embedded in a particular framework. Instead, in open systems, as the mission evolves, the framework evolves with it. This is important because when older frameworks from previous missions are applied to new ones, the combination of new and existing data can potentially lead to technical conflicts.

Technology is reshaping how soldiers prepare for battle

Booz Allen Hamilton is at the forefront of supporting and creating a new kind of digital battlefield, and open systems are central to its approach, which provides the architecture to network different capabilities together in seamless ways.

Using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, the platform can sort through and processes biometrics and analytics generated from multiple sources and sensors — and then funnel it directly to soldiers to help them improve their mental, cognitive, and physical performance. The technology, and the data the technology delivers, come together to produce insights and analysis.

The precision of this data, and the way it can be tailored to each individual fighter, is crucial to its efficacy. “You really have to get the right information to a person,” Dillon says. “People get overwhelmed when you give them too much. And so, there’s a very important human performance component to future warfighters. It’s not just focused on the technologies alone; it’s focused on how these technologies can work in concert with the human operator.”

Although digital warriors are poised to have a major impact on the battlefield, the system is also reshaping the entire mission life cycle, before warfighters are even deployed. For fighters in training, immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets are commonly used to supplement traditional classroom work. This technology can help soldiers experience the same conditions and environments they’ll be operating in, and in context with how they’ll execute their missions. “We can create hyper-realistic environments that model the real world very well,” Dillon says. “They can train with their squad and with their platoon and feel like they’re actually on the terrain. So, they may be at home base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina — and we’re modeling an environment in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or Asia for example.”

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Not only do these immersive training missions save money — and keep soldiers safer, since drills are being done in virtual environments — but they’re also laying the groundwork for soldiers to become more effective, better fighters. The most effective, fully integrated approach also incorporates lessons from world-class sports training by prioritizing nutrition and health. Headsets and other sensors can gather biometric, physiological, and cognitive data from soldiers to identify strengths and weaknesses.

A number of biometric markers, which might include a fighter’s heart rate, blood pressure, or core temperature can potentially offer enormous insights. “We can analyze that data and determine when someone is overwhelmed, when they’re stressed, [and] determine how we can adjust things to make them perform better,” Dillon says. Soldiers and commanders can then turn around and apply this intelligence when fighting actual missions. “A squad leader can now actively in real time look at their headset display and see how all of their soldiers are doing. They can use that to make really good decisions on how to use their soldiers, and make sure they’re doing the right thing, that they’re healthy.”

Open systems are poised to make a significant impact

For defense organizations, open system architectures offer several major advantages. It’s much quicker to replace smaller components within a technology framework along the way instead of doing a complete system overhaul. Incremental changes also keep fighters safer, because the newest and best technologies reach the field faster. “You’re going to keep the soldier on the cutting edge of technology at all times,” Dillon says, “because the last thing you want to do is have a piece of technology get stale, and you don’t have a way to replace it without major expenditure and major time.”

Innovation that is accelerated by open systems architectures can have a positive impact across the entire Department of Defense, Dillon says. People who work in teams across the department would benefit greatly from having real-time access to data so they can share information and react faster, for example, members of the Navy could work in tandem to help an injured civilian during a medevac. A surgeon from a Navy hospital could watch how first responders are reacting and give immediate feedback from afar, as could the rescue helicopter’s flight crew. As a result, all parties would be able to prep in advance and be able to spring into action quickly.

Others who have more specialized jobs benefit from VR and AR. For example, aircraft mechanics in the Air Force or Navy could use a headset for real-time, step-by-step guidance on how to do the complex tasks required to fix planes. “Your hands are free to do the work, and you have this assistant there helping you,” Dillon says. In the coming years, open architectures might also spread to other industries beyond defense and be used by oil and mining companies, as well as first responders such as police and firefighters.

“There are so many applications, it’s just mind-boggling,” Dillon says. “It’s only a matter of time before we see this across the board — not just on the battlefield but across the civil sector as well. We’re all going to be using some of these technologies in the very near future.”

Interested in more? See how these technologies are applied in the Digital Battlespace—learn more.

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