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Nett Warrior returns from the dead

WHITE STANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- Most people had left the Army's Nett Warrior program and its futuristic eye scope in the expensive trash heap of Future Combat Systems. But it lives on here, where soldiers test the glorified smartphones that Army leaders want squad leaders carrying on the battlefield.

Soldiers such as Staff Sgt. Jesus Vasquez and Sgt. 1st Class Frederick Chinlever wear Motorola Atrix smartphones inside a green case mounted to their chests, connected to Rifleman Radios on their backs. They can't make calls on it, but they can see fellow soldiers' positions, mark IED and enemy positions, and even text each other.

"It's just like having our cell phone out there. They make it easier for us because we can see everything," Vasquez said.

The Army had envisioned Nett Warrior or Ground Soldier Systems to outfit its force with wearable 10 pound computers. Requirements and costs then spiraled, leaving many expecting Nett Warrior to die. It didn't die, but the program was gutted down to the smartphones soldiers like Vasquez are testing at this Network Integration Evaluation.

Soldiers have tested smartphones at each one of the three NIEs. The Army plans on fielding 600 Nett Warrior consoles to each Infantry Brigade Combat Team to be worn by squad leaders.

Each squad will then have battlefield access to blue force tracking, which is the military's system to track coalition troops on the battlefield. The Army has also connected Nett Warrior to the Tactical Ground Reporting system known as TIGR, pronounced "tiger." Soldiers use the system to report what they see in the field from enemy positions to biometrics to weapons caches.

The Army is testing more than the Motorola Atrix for Nett Warrior. Soldiers are also testing the General Dynamics Itronix GD300, another wearable, rugged smartphone. Other soldiers here are carrying the Motorola Xoom tablet.

Army leaders have chosen to test smartphones that run exclusively on the Android system. The Army is not testing Apple iPhones or iPads at the NIE. Army officials have said they prefer the Android system because of its open architecture.

Spc. Aaron Boatwright said he and other soldiers prefer the phones mounted to their chests more so than the prototype they tested in the previous NIE that was connected to their wrists and had wires running down their arms.

"Those wires were terrible. This is much more comfortable," Boatwright said.

The soldiers did have recommendations to improve Nett Warrior. First, they said the phones need higher resolution or non-glare screens to make it easier to read in the sun. Soldiers have struggled to read the phones moving across the New Mexico desert. Complaints about the glare even have some Army officials considering bringing back the eye scope that connects to a soldier's helmet.

Second, the soldiers want better battery life. The Motorola Atrix lasts three to four hours. Each soldier carries an extra set of batteries, but trying to switch the batteries in the midst of a firefight is less than ideal.

Boatwright said his battle buddy made the recommendation to the data collectors here to offer a stylus that soldiers could slip over the forefinger of their gloves to make it easier to navigate the software.

"Right now we're fat fingering too much," he said.

Training on the smartphones remains easy. The soldiers spend about five days learning how to use the software, but most own smartphones and have familiarity with the Android system.

Army leaders have said they want to issue a smartphone to every soldier and expect those smartphones to make it to the battlefield. Soldiers like Chinlever said he liked the idea.

"We all have them it just makes sense for us to use them this way if we can," he said.

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