ROME — The Italian Army’s long-running Future Soldier program, which aims to digitize and better connect the at digitalizing infantry, to make it better connected, is ready to enter production after in the wake of trials this year that showed that too much tech was slowing soldiers down., not speeding them up.

A program that started with plans for Wi-Fi links on the battlefield, Bluetooth connections between soldiers and their rifles, and tablets strapped to the wrist of each combatant, has been streamlined to provide the required capabilities while preventing information overloads, data traffic jams and too much weight.

"Thanks to trials carried out in Lecce, southern Italy, over the course of this year, the Future Soldier program has been simplified and become more pragmatic," said Gen. Gaetano Zauner, the head of the Italian Army's general and financial planning department.

Launched in 2002, the Future Soldier program has spawned over a decade of collaboration between the Army and an Italian group of companies led by Selex in a bid to kit out the Italian soldier for the 21st century.

The initiative forms part of a wider program known as Forza NEC, which is charged with digitizing vehicles like the Italian VBM Freccia armored vehicle and giving command-and-control structures a net-centric dimension.

With a budget of €940 million (US $1.1 billion) euros, the Forza NEC program extends to 2021 and is spending €235 million euros this year, according to Italian budget documents. In 2010, the program entered a risk reduction stage.

This year, the Army started testing components of the Future Soldier program started testing at Lecce, by the Army, and will also give them a run during be given a run out at the part of the NATO Trident Juncture exercise to be held in Spain in November.

The Italian Army's Pinerolo brigade was picked to test the new technologies, while Selex is leading an Italian consortium of firms developing new kit, including Iveco, Oto Melara and Beretta.

Today, the software defined radio, which forms a key element of the Future Soldier program, is a mature technology, said Gen. Zauner, as is the night vision goggle — which was used in Afghanistan — an 800-gram helmet, body armor, a protective nuclear, biological chemical NBC mask and protective clothing. to be carried by troops.

A thermal camera to be carried by each platoon should be ready by 2016, as will new command posts Zauner said.

The Army’s new standard rifle, the Beretta ARX-160, has also been was used in Afghanistan, and one soldier per squadron will carry a grenade-launching version of the rifle. A sniper in each platoon will carry the ARX-200, a 7.62mm rifle equipped with an intelligent combat sight ICS sight made by Steiner, which is controlled by Beretta.

Soldiers program the performance of their cartridge into the sight, which then calculates trajectory and uses a laser range finder to indicate where to shoot.

Platoon commanders will carry a tablet with a menu of set messages that, if pressed, will send the message by radio.

"The soldier's load should be about 30 to 40 kilograms," said Zauner. "That is acceptable if you need to move fast."

After the exercise in Spain, which will be data-linked to Lecce, the Army will have an end-of-year review to make a final decision on what gets put into production.

But what is clear is that the Future Soldier program has been was streamlined since conception. In the last decade, planners initially envisaged all soldiers, not just platoon commanders, wearing tablets strapped to their wrists. That was scrapped, as were plans for images from gun optics to be sent by Bluetooth to soldiers’ goggles, allowing them to ‘see’ around corners by holding out their gun.

Additionally, a Wi-Fi capability in the radio was to allow communication with a range of up to 100 meters, to reach other soldiers and vehicles.

Those plans have now been dropped.

"Thanks to testing, we have been able to see exactly what was needed to attain the capabilities we needed," said Zauner.

"Bandwidth in theater is not what you have in the lab," he said. "We were finding that packets of data were getting stuck in queues whether we were using the radio or satellite communications."

Zauner said that too much information risked slowing the soldier down. "We needed to filter information," he said.

Another crucial aspect was cost. "Today the radio we are putting on the Lince Army vehicle is almost the same price as the vehicle itself," he said.

As cash-strapped Italy looks to cut spending, military planners are concerned that net-centric programs may be squeezed. Army officials are already concerned that the service Army is being cut out of big ticket programs while the Air Force looks forward to receiving the joint strike fighter and the Navy plans a huge new shipbuilding program.

Parliament did approve a new round of Freccia vehicle purchases months ago, but the funds have not been cleared by Italy's Industry Ministry.

In the meantime, the Pinerolo brigade has received the combat version Freccias, as well as anti-tank versions armed with the Spike missile, with mortar versions, command post versions, ISTAR and recovery versions to come.

"The Pinerolo will be a fully digitized brigade in two to three years," Zauner said.


Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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