Just Because You Can

Is there a point with technology systems in defence where you have to ask, should we.

This is the Lockheed Martin Squad Mission Support System (SMSS)


An unmanned load carrier, it is designed for autonomous and even beyond line of sight control, supporting the overloaded infantry squad with some help in carrying their marching equipment and sustainment supplies.

Clever stuff, but think of the additional weight and the fuel penalty that weight incurs, the reliance on complex technology that adds to the support burden and RF emissions that aid an enemy in locating the unit.

There are many advantages no doubt, but do those advantages outweigh the disadvantages and at what point should time be called, enough, being, enough?

Pushing the boundaries of technology creates advantage and so as a rule, timidity in advancing that technology will eventually erode the advantage.

But where do you stop?

I have no idea.

Maybe a mechanical mule that makes more noise than a real one but only has the endurance for a quick canter around the block.

Or just buy an ATV

Perhaps not!

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Dangerous Dave
November 10, 2015 9:30 pm

Alternatively, just reduce the kit burden to more manageable levels? Could weight be saved anywhere on personal kit by using lighter weight items, just as lightweight aluminium water bottles replaced heavier steel ones? A few grams shaved off of even trivial pieces of kit could mount up, overall!

November 10, 2015 11:45 pm

I was already an engineer when microelectronics hit the labs, leading first to microcontrollers then microprocessors then computers PCs mobiles and smartphones. I also recall the intentions of those pushing the technology; it was all going to be about the reduction in size of electronics, and the increase in reliability as component count reduced. “You will be able to carry a TV in your pocket!” Ridiculous… What none of the technologists predicted was what actually happened – for a while now electronic kit has not reduced in size, nor component count, but has instead had more and more functionality crammed into the same sized boxes. Indeed, some of the boxes grew bigger – the i-phone is considerably bigger than the 90s GSM mobile phone but then it can process and communicate and display a huge amount more. Much of what the electronics does for us we never knew we needed and yet so quickly we find ourselves wholly dependent upon it – there are I am sure people who can only find there way about because the sat nav guides them, and could no longer cope with a paper map. For reasons I fail to understand the entire population of the globe has evolved into a quasi-cyborg state, unable to live without their symbiotic smartphone telling them what to do, where to go, who to see, what to eat.

We long ago passed the point where “we’ve made this because we can” surpassed “we made this because we should”. And that applies to consumer geekware as much as it does to military. And just as the individual is duped into thinking they are becoming cleverer and more cool by enslaving themselves deeper to their Android friend, the military are falsely convinced their new technology makes them invincible and all-powerful. So what happens when the battery runs out?…

I have no issue with the use of technology as an optional tool. But I do have a problem with dependency. The point where the user is convinced some bit of software in indispensable is when they stop thinking for themselves, and when the loss of the technology renders them inadequate and incapable.

November 11, 2015 7:29 am

A wheeled vehicle is never going to be able to cover the different terrain that a bloke in boots can, although it may well be OK on military training areas. IRC in the late 1950s the para regt trialled handcarts, they were not introduced into service, and if any part of the army might need something it’s them – para assaults are a ‘come as you are party’. For everyone else carrying a reasonable load and support from unit transport works fine.

November 11, 2015 9:46 am

Depends on the deployment environment of course, very few of our enemies at this moment in time have the technology to jam RF, especially if the design is clever with frequency modulation in there – for every counter measure, there is a counter counter measure!

I think technology like this can have it uses, providing supplies to troops either hemmed in or cut off or going through hostile or suspect IED areas has it’s obvious advantages, very much depends on the enemies capabilities though, you wouldn’t want a thermal sight sitting tracking it all the way to its destination…

A Different Gareth
A Different Gareth
November 11, 2015 11:42 am

The human friendly height looks as useful as the extra carrying capacity. Though could this be achieved by a small, protected vehicle pulling a trailer?(With the added benefits of a protected vehicle to shelter in if necessary, possibly bringing a heavier weapon with it and have a higher speed to get out of trouble quicker)

November 11, 2015 2:45 pm

If we are going to off-load kit to robotic vehicles, it should be larg(er) quadcopters. Wheels and legs are nice, but nothing beats the all-terain capability of a flying craft.
Just to be able to send your bergen (nevermind ammo) to the rear, side (out of the way) or even ahead makes the foot soldier more mobile.

These ‘squad’ Quadcopters if able to carry say 50-500lbs could still be small enough to not warrant attention of any sophisticated AD systems (though C-RAMs might) and should be cheap enough to operate by the hundreds. Interconnected ‘swarm’ software could be used to let them know which routes are safest/fastest.
Just to have a resupply available at the push of a button – not just down in the field but even on rooftops – beats any wheeled or walking machine.

Okay, I got the idea from beercrates: http://hackaday.com/2013/09/20/heavy-lifting-copters-can-apparently-lift-people/

November 12, 2015 10:27 pm
Reply to  Chris

So what happens when the battery runs out?…

It’s like the horse and cart problem of the pre-combustion era. There could be a famine 50 miles down the road but you can’t help because the horse would eat all the food in the wagon before it got there. Every rocket engineer knows this problem: most of the fuel is expended launching the vast weight of fuel off the ground, and you try to have a dribble left at the end to do what you went up there to do.

Similarly, if built this thing will be carrying around more batteries then it will packs, ammo, food and anything else.

But, actually, that might be what it’s for. How many things on a soldier’s kit now require batteries? What fraction of his gear is ammo and batteries? Batteries are almost as important as ammo, now. And they run out faster! So really, this thing isn’t to save the infantry’s knees and spines – it’s to carry spare double A batteries by the kilogram!

November 12, 2015 10:41 pm

We should get Trevor Bayliss to make a dynamo set for the comms kit – it might need to be a bit more beefy than his wind-up radio though. How many kilo-watts does a Bowman installation burn?

Its been done before – note the gennie between 352 power amp and the battery:

Dangerous Dave
November 12, 2015 11:15 pm
Reply to  Chris

Piezo-electric units fitted into the soles of shoes have been suggested to keep Geek consumer tech. charged up before now, and who remembers the “perpetual” wrist watches that were kept wound by the movement of your wrist (as you walked). This sort of thing could stave off battery starvation, while reduced current needs from microelectronics and improved battery life from NiMh and similar technologies should be made to trickle into personal scale mil. tech. – C-cells? Soooo, 20th Century!

Still, on a lighter note the looks of the LM wheeled carrier at the front of the post have just made me realize where the MoD sold all those ATMP’s to!

November 12, 2015 11:43 pm

The concern that the batteries will run out is, to me, a bit of a strange one. With the single caveat that the electronics are not too energy hungry, I don’t see why batteries are a much more onerous burden than ammunition. One magazines-worth of batteries will power quite a bit of gear for quite a while. Certainly thirty-odd batteries will last longer than thirty-odd rounds from an automatic weapon and potentially will have greater military effect.

Still, there are efforts afoot to combat electrical availability – two of my favourite concepts work by taking energy from where it isn’t needed and put it into batteries to be used later. One looks at using electromagnetic effect to take recoil energy from a firearm while the other takes energy that would otherwise be jarring the soldiers legs. I can’t remember quite how it does it, but it involves some sort of passive exoskeleton mechanism.

Having something like the autonomous go-kart presented in the article could present a number of advantages not immediately obvious. Fitting mine detectors to it (which would be carried anyway) could allow you to send it ahead of your patrol to prove a route. You’ve got casevac right there.
EM warfare is a concern, but then most infantry already use short-range radios so I don’t see why the control system need be any more of a liability than those.
You would have to spare some of your force to guard it, but there will usually be a reserve
It’s autonomous so there shouldn’t be much, if any, RF transmissions.
If it’s optionally autonomous, you could potentially pile everyone on and drive to a forming up point, with absolutely zero emissions.

Dr Whom
Dr Whom
November 13, 2015 6:04 pm

There is no weight-saving technology that will ever reduce the individual soldier’s load. He will just carry more. Because you can bet any potential enemy will be doing the same.

Deja Vu
Deja Vu
November 15, 2015 2:09 am

@Dr Whom – not inevitable, carrying the kitchen sink has implications on effectiveness in close combat.
The issue of the Infantry soldier’s load was addressed in BAR 163 in an article “The Irreducible
Minimum Fighting Load” by Lieutenant Colonel Toby Evans who examines the issue of
the overloaded infantry and some recommendations to solve the problem. The target load is less than 25 kg including clothing! An interesting comparison between the loads carried on Herrick and on operations in Normandy (1944) is made. Col Evans quotes a USMC Major “Overloading of the individual infantryman is a problem caused by leaders, and can be fixed by leaders.”
The issue was picked up in the latest BAR 164 in a letter by Maj Matthew Whitchurch which pointed me in the direction of the Platoon Tactics Pamphlet 3 dated 2009 which states that the tactics in the pamphlet are predicated on the use of a Organic Combat Load Carrier, which it states is likely to evolve into a semi-autonomous and /or autonomous capability at section level. Which goes back to @TD’s post.
In retrospect maybe the 58 pattern kidney pouches bum roll and pack had the virtue that there was only so much you could fit in them.

November 15, 2015 6:26 am

The simple truth is that the infantryman will always be (and has always been) loaded to the hilt, as evidenced here:

If you want to look at the detail of what is not changing (batteries and electronic kit aside), here is a good account:

November 15, 2015 7:30 am

The quad bikes and trailers have helped. They proved idea for bulky items such a stretchers and heavy items such as extra ammo.

November 15, 2015 8:27 am

The blokes are always going to carry as much as they can when it comes to things that go bang or whoosh. The critical factor is what they are carrying in the assault itself.

You need to be as light as you can for that – water and bullets only. Everything else gets bought up as fast as possible during the re-org. It is during this phase that I see some scope for something that can quickly bring up and dump ammunition, water and entrenching kit. Bergans etc can follow up as a low priority. But that kit dumper has got to be able to be supported with less effort than a small reserve of blokes drapped with link and bandoleers who can shuttle this stuff.

Afghanistan had some exceptional loads but that was in-reality theatre and operation specific.

Ed Gummow
November 23, 2015 11:59 am

The big advantage to unmanned vehicles is exactly that – they’re unmanned. You can send them places you wouldn’t send a man. I’ve never got the SMSS/Mule concept, because it’s always going to be preferable in those scenarios to have someone driving the thing. Send it across a potential minefield however, and it becomes worth its weight in gold. As long as the cost of losing the technology doesn’t make it worth sending a man instead……..