It is vital that all military equipment work wherever American Soldiers need it.
Even a cursory examination of our nation’s history shows that American troops have had to contend with extreme cold weather conditions more than once.
From Korea to Afghanistan, the lives of American Soldiers depend on functioning equipment in inhospitably frigid environments, and nowhere else in the world can provide extreme cold weather testing like the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Test Center (CRTC) at Fort Greely.
CRTC is a subordinate command of U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) in southwestern Arizona, which is responsible for evaluating equipment in extreme desert, sub-Arctic, and tropical environments.
The range of conditions present at CRTC is unimaginable to much of the world’s population. The highest summer temperatures have been as much as 150 degrees warmer than the deepest cold of winter. The longest summer days have nearly twenty-three hours of daylight, while the winter solstice has less than five hours of daylight. Close to the Arctic Circle, CRTC is the premier site for punishing tests of military equipment in severe cold.
One of the most recent examples of items subjected to the most punishing elements at CRTC is the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), an augmented reality goggle based on Microsoft’s HoloLens that stands poised to redefine close combat force capabilities.
“To me, the IVAS program is one of the most revolutionary things we’ve done for the dismounted close combat force since the inception of night vision,” said Col. Troy Denomy, IVAS product manager under Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier. “It’s not just a night vision device or a situational awareness tool, it’s combining all of that into one system.”
The IVAS prototype heads up display packs a variety of impressive capabilities into one package. Night vision and thermal scope settings are both available at the press of a button. Soldiers can share topographical imagery or 3D maps of an objective at any time, whether rehearsing or in the field. A Soldier can pair the IVAS to a weapon, enabling the weapon to be aimed using a reticle projected into their field of vision rather than holding it at the shoulder and peering through the scope. All members of a platoon can know where all of their teammates are at a given time, no matter how dark or dense the surrounding terrain.
“It’s like a wearable version of Blue Force Tracker,” said Isaac Howell, CRTC test officer and former infantry officer. “You’re able to maintain visibility of your entire element dismounted while moving through terrain. That is a huge benefit to command and control.”
The need for putting the device through its paces in an extreme natural environment prior to fielding was self-evident to the Army officials in charge of the program.
“If we only test and understand how the system works in a nominal environment, that very much restricts options on where we fight,” said Denomy. “Designing the system for extreme cold, humidity, and heat is paramount.”
“We’re going to be expected to function in multiple domains and regions,” added Sgt. 1st Class Josh Braly, with the Soldier Lethality Cross Functional Team. “This needs to be a piece of kit we know is robust enough to handle the hazards of cold and the tropics.”
When Infantry Soldiers stationed at Alaska’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson arrived at CRTC in March, the terrain and temperature were made to order for the test. It was well below zero degrees Fahrenheit, and CRTC’s test officers had planned a multi-mile night trek across rugged terrain in realistic scenarios that also served as training for the Soldiers. An element of the Soldiers served as mock opposition forces. Snow-shoes were required in the deep snow that partially or wholly covered all manners of obstacles, including dense vegetation. Aside from the test officers and data collectors accompanying the Soldiers, the exercise seemed like a real infantry mission.
“These observation points were chosen so they could observe some existing mission infrastructure as part of a scenario where they are tasked to move into an area and do reconnaissance,” said Ivan Geroy, CRTC test officer. “It’s pretty complex, rolling terrain with steep sections: this is the first time the system has been exercised in extreme cold with complex topography.”
Some of the test officers and personnel present were from Yuma Test Center and Tropic Regions Test Center, YPG’s two additional subordinate commands, who were slated to participate in future tests of the system. Many months earlier, all of the test officers had participated in an earlier Soldier touchpoint of the system at Fort Pickett, Virginia, which they credited with shaping the experience they created at CRTC.
“We did the land navigation courses as trainees, which was really helpful to understand the test we were designing,” said Geroy. “It helped scale expectations for the test and enabled us to build realistic scenarios within the constraints of the test.”
For their part, the Soldiers who participated in the CRTC exercise found the scenarios compellingly realistic.
“You want to know how the system will react in adverse conditions, and there is nothing more adverse than falling in five feet of snow and pounding your head on a tree, subsequently jarring your equipment, and seeing how that affects the interface of software and hardware,” said Spc. Nicholas James, one of the participants. “How practical is it to use in the snow, in rough terrain, when moving five klicks on an objective? With any design you make, you have to include people.”
The Army evaluators felt that the involvement of a variety of YPG personnel throughout the testing of the IVAS was beneficial.
“If the team that’s involved in the program just parachutes in for certain events, they can miss some of the perspective and context of what the system is and is not,” said Denomy. “Absent that perspective, people can draw wrong conclusions, particularly when they look at the device in the state it is in now — it looks like it is ready to be fielded, but it is still in a prototype phase.”
Once testing is concluded, the first units are expected to receive the device at the end of this year.
“I think it is a revolutionary piece of technology that is beneficial as it exists now, but where I really get excited is thinking about where it is going to be when fully mature,” said Howell.