The soldier’s worst nightmare may now be a dead battery!

Last year I put up an article titled ‘Of fobbits, geardos and rooney guns‘. It looked at the phenomenon of those who attach to their rifles every accessory known to mankind (and a few items that I suspect are alien rejects). We call the results ‘rooney guns’. They’re often comical in their complexity, even without the assistance of fertile imaginations, as in the photograph below.

(More ‘rooney gun’ photographs may be found – or are linked – in the original article.)

I’ve watched the onward march of technology affect the foot soldier more and more, and my misgivings have grown every year. You may not know that, according to National Defense magazine:

For a three-day mission in Afghanistan, the average soldier lugs a minimum of 20 pounds of up to seven types of batteries — from small AA’s for night-vision goggles to brick-size packs used in tactical radios. Some troops tote even more — up to 35 pounds — for specialized equipment. An infantry battalion on a one-year deployment typically burns through $150,000 worth of batteries.

Power and energy are essential weapons of war. Troops deploy with more electronic gear than ever: Flashlights, radios, GPS receivers, computers, cameras, mp3 players, small robots, all of which have to be constantly charged.

There’s more at the link. Bold print is my emphasis. Given that troops are carrying up to 130-pound loads on patrol, the weight of equipment alone is now causing injuries, even in the absence of the enemy.

You’ll therefore understand my astonishment when I saw, on Max Popenker’s LiveJournal account, this picture of a Spanish soldier rigged out in that country’s COMFUT (COMbatiente FUTuro or Future Warfighter) gear, complete with what looks like a genuine battlefield ‘rooney gun’.

Here’s another picture from a Spanish article, showing the other side of the rifle (the base firearm is a Heckler & Koch G36 – I’ve no idea who makes the various and sundry add-ons, or their model designations).

I don’t know how many batteries those accessories require, but I’m willing to bet it’s quite a few – and probably of different sizes, voltage outputs and storage capacities, too!

COMFUT is described thus:

ComFut is divided into seven subsystems: weaponry, power supply, firing efficiency, information and communication, survivability, sustainability and preparation.

The system was designed and developed using lighter and more resistant state-of-the-art materials for ballistic protection in the helmet and the bullet-proof vest. Likewise, new textile materials help to reduce infrared (IR) and thermal signatures, improve camouflage and provide better protection against Nuclear, Biological, Chemical and Radiological (NBCR) attacks.

The information and communication subsystem comprises a radio terminal and a ruggedised PDA-type wireless laptop computer. The radio incorporates a GPS tracking function and is designed to handle voice and data transmission. This facilitates communication between members of the squad and connects them with the higher command levels.

The cordless PDA provides soldiers with information on the positions of any allied and enemy troops that have been located and the direction in which they are moving. It permits the transmission and reception of messages, alerts, mission data and so on. All these elements significantly improve the soldiers’ protection.

The firing efficiency subsystem is an optronic weapon system that improves the soldier’s capacity to detect the enemy thanks to equipment such as a thermal camera, laser pointers and image intensifiers. The weapon sensors are integrated via a wireless connection with a visor mounted on the helmet. This is essential in ensuring the soldier’s safety, as it enables him to aim and fire from behind cover without having to show himself.

ComFut transforms soldiers into intelligence sensors and target acquisition organisms who are fully integrated in the military command and control structure.

There’s more at the link. Here’s a Spanish-language television report on the system.

Y’know, that all sounds wonderful, and very modern, and all that . . . but I’m a combat veteran. I can’t help but remember the lesson, learned from instructors during basic training and rammed home through hard-earned lessons in battle: K.I.S.S. (“Keep It Simple, Stupid!” – although ‘Stupid’ could be, and usually was, replaced by any of a number of profane terms beginning with ‘S’, which I won’t bother to reproduce here, as I’m sure most veterans already know them!). The mind-boggling complexity of these systems gives me pause to ponder. Are they reliable enough, individually and collectively, for a ‘grunt on the ground’ to be willing to entrust his life to them?

Something as simple as a dead battery can disable a critical item at any time. Any component (or combination of them) may be rendered unserviceable by a hit from an enemy round or a piece of shrapnel, or prolonged exposure to extreme heat from the sun in a desert environment, or extreme cold in an Arctic environment. If that happens, will the remaining elements of the system keep functioning, or will the wearer be left with nothing but a lot of expensive, heavy, non-functioning junk weighing him down? I daresay the designers of the system have done their best to make it as reliable as possible, but any combat vet will have learned, early and often, the truth of the old adage: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” In my experience, that applies to the latest gee-whiz, flashing-lights-and-bells-and-whistles technology, too. Once the bullets start flying and the bombs start dropping, the promises of engineers and technicians several thousand miles away don’t mean all that much.

(During the 1980’s South Africa’s armed forces had fewer problems in that regard than many nations, largely because complex weapons systems were often tested in the operational area of South West Africa [today Namibia] and southern Angola, in pre-production form, by the engineers who’d designed them. They knew they’d have to do this, and that their own lives might – and in several cases did – depend on how well their equipment worked. This tended to concentrate their minds wonderfully!)

I know I have more than a few combat veterans among my readers. What say you? Would you, personally, feel comfortable and confident to be sent into battle reliant on so much technology? I wouldn’t . . . but then, my battlefield experience was long before personal computing devices and personal electronic aids became prevalent. I may be like the dinosaurs, reluctant and/or unable to adapt to this new technological age of battle. What do my veteran comrades have to say? Please let us know in Comments.



  1. If I had been loaded down like that, I'd have been hunting
    the "geniuses" who did it to me rather than the bad guys. Simpler and lighter is almost always better. Charlie knew that very well.
    – Vietnam vet

  2. I wouldn't use any of that stuff. I always did best with iron sights, and operations in both the Mediterranean and the Aleutian Islands proved the KISS principle, if any lingering doubts remained.

  3. Those guys in the Video where the commentator is speaking Spanish could be Mexican drug dealers. However, I've ruled this out since their weapons aren't Gold plated and encrusted with diamonds.

  4. I haven't served, but I worked for a company that made tactical radios for the military. Yes, they were heavy.

    One of our product managers always led off his presentations with a picture of a soldier down on one knee, leaning on his rifle, wearing a full pack and with tons of gear attached to harnesses. The caption underneath said, "We load our troops down with 200 pounds of lightweight equipment." The people who laughed usually weren't veterans.

    As for reliability, I had to remind a few people that dead soldiers don't file bug reports, so we'd never really know how our products were holding up.

    All of that said, the high-tech stuff isn't intentded to replace a soldier's basic skills – shoot, move, and communicate. They're supposed to enhance them, but the soldier should know what to do even if they don't work. (Ditching the dead weight would have been my first move, but I wasn't the one who had to face the sergeant when I got back.) Whether the enhancement is worth the cost is debatable.

  5. @Toejam: Yes, but with all those added electronic bits and pieces, their weapons probably cost as much as if they were gold-plated and encrusted with diamonds . . .


  6. @Dave H: I agree with the principle of abandoning dead weight – but when that weight is as expensive as those gizmos must be, I suspect the supply branch will have more than a few not very polite words for the soldier who leaves them on the battlefield! So will the politicians who vote the budget for the armed forces . . .

  7. I'm waiting for the introduction of small solar panels that go on soldiers' helmets so they can recharge the batteries on their night-vision equipment.


  8. @Peter: That's why I mentioned the sergeant. He's the first in a long line of people who'll express their disapproval.

    One of the things I learned in that business is that (today, anyway) not every soldier carries a radio into combat. A fireteam leader might, a squad leader probably will, as will most people up the chain of command until you get to officers who have people to carry the radio for them. About the only situation where everybody carries a radio is a special ops mission where coordination is crucial, and then it's a small belt or harness mounted radio with a headset or throat microphone.

  9. You know what I don't get?

    A soldier gets driven around the battlefield in a HMMWV with a battery.

    He spots a target in the dark using NODs powered by a battery.

    He communicates with his fellows and calls in arty and air with a radio powered by a battery.

    He designates the target for TacAir using a laser powered by a battery.

    But put a battery in his rifle sight, and a certain demographic loses their collective feces.

    I just don't get that.

  10. @Tam: Agreed, that's one of the sillier manifestations of gun forum mall ninja wannabe's. The early iterations of battery-powered sights were unreliable, and chewed up batteries like candy, but they were rapidly improved. For over a decade they've been reliable and perfectly serviceable.

    However, looking at COMFUT's myriad devices, all (or mostly) reliant on batteries, and all having to be humped by a poor 'grunt on the ground', one does wonder about complexity and all that . . .

  11. Unless I'm reading it wrong, the PDA/radio combo looks a lot like a scaled-down copy of the FBCB2/BFT system. Interesting, but I can't see much real use for it, at least below the platoon leader/sergeant level. The visor especially looks like a completely un-necessary distraction, and extra weight pulling the helmet off to one side (because everybody's helmet is a perfect fit for their head, right?).

    I assume that that massive optic is a thermal sight. Again, they have their uses, but not everybody needs to carry it all the time, and they go through batteries like nobody's business.

    I would much rather this R&D effort went into building a radio that wouldn't randomly lose it's comsec fill and become useless, or at least one that doesn't require a vehicle-mounted power amp to reach back to the FOB.

    It's not so much an issue of becoming reliant on these sorts of systems as it is an issue of "is this enough of an asset to be worth carrying around?" After all, any team/squad leader worth his position will know where his troops are, personal GPS/PDA or not. And it's not as if we were running around by ourselves, either. I've never done anything at less than squad level.

  12. I had enough crap to carry between my armor, weapons, ammo, and medic pack. Fluids are heavy as hell. I had an aimpoint, but aside from that I prefer a slick weapon.

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