Shift in Priorities

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Office of Naval Research turns attention to 'irregular' warfare

More than three years of fighting in Iraq have yet to bring about a major shift in technology spending priorities at the Pentagon, a senior official says. The conflict, which in almost every measure has been a non-traditional "irregular" war, continues to expose equipment gaps that could take several more years to fill.

"We need more resources for irregular warfare," says George W. Solhan, deputy chief of naval research and retired U.S. Marine.

Compared to how much money the United States spends on new fighter jets, submarines and other big-ticket weapons systems, it is severely "under-investing" in technologies for unconventional warfare, Solhan tells National Defense.

"One of these days, if China emerges as a peer competitor, it might be very important" to have those expensive conventional weapons, he adds. "But right now, and for the foreseeable future, we have this war going on, and we are not putting nearly enough money in this area."

Following guidance from the Navy's top command, the Office of Naval Research is redirecting funds to non-traditional combat areas, Solhan says. This year, ONR is spending almost $160 million on counterterrorism programs, from a total research budget of $1.6 billion. The allocation of funds could begin to change in fiscal 2008, after ONR completes a top-down review of its programs later this year.

Much of the Navy's research work in unconventional warfare is closely aligned with the Marine Corps and the Army, Solhan says. The Navy's littoral and riverine units will need much of the same technology that ground forces employ.

Areas of top concern include communications for dismounted troops, lighter and more effective protective gear, and improved tactical vehicles.

The Marine Corps envisions that, in future conflicts, troops will be widely dispersed, and therefore will require advanced communications devices that are lightweight and reliable. "Every individual Marine will be a node" in a larger network offerees, Solhan explains.

Based on this premise, ONR is pursuing research aimed at producing miniaturized antennae that could be inserted into the body armor ensemble but still be efficient enough to transmit and receive data.

Most ground troops today don't have pocket-sized radios that are low-cost, secure and able to function in any environment. Solhan attributes this to a cultural bias in the military research establishment toward traditional programs aimed at fighting large-scale wars.

"In my opinion, the Army is doing a superb job and is focused on the future combat systems ... But I don't think that they are quite as committed to doing much at the soldier level," Solhan says, even though the Army is taking steps in that direction.

Neither ONR nor Army researchers, however, have yet been able to crack the code on a colossal challenge confronting scientists: How to lighten the equipment load troops must carry on their backs.

"Combat load is a huge issue," says Solhan. Soldiers and Marines are weighed down by 30 pounds of body armor and at least 50 to 60 pounds of gear in their rucksacks.

"We have lightweight stuff, but we make the poor guy carry more of it," Solhan says.

Mechanical load-carriage devices, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's "exoskeletons," are not realistic solutions, he adds. They are bulky structures that would allow a soldier to carry hundreds more pounds of weight, but are impractical for use in the battlefield and require energy to operate the hydraulics and pneumatic systems.

Solhan is doubtful that the combat load will drop much below 90 pounds, which is the same weight he himself carried as an infantryman in Vietnam four decades ago. It would make more sense to boost soldiers' fitness, so they can carry the weight, he says. "My theory is that we have to make the Marine or sailor higher performing, and then he can carry more . …