Wearable Military Technologies

ISSSP Reflections No. 30, October 30,  2015

Author: Ajey Lele


This paper discusses Wearable Technologies and their relevance for a country’s overall security architecture. It attempts to identify and analyze the present and potential importance of these technologies for the 21st century warfare.


Copyright: US Army, CNBC
Copyright: US Army, CNBC

Wearable Technologies are those technologies/instruments/equipment/gadgets which could help humans to carry out some of their functions more freely. Also, at times the safety aspect could be built into such instruments which offer some form of security, protection to the individuals wearing such equipment. Probably, even a doctor’s stethoscope, or a collar mike used while speaking to a large audience or a helmet used for protection while driving/playing could be viewed as a Wearable Technology.

There is no standard definition of wearable technologies. The selection of technology would depend on the purpose for which it has been used for. For example for a person working in mines would have a helmet, other protective gears, tools for working underground, camera and communication gadgets on his/her body as wearable technologies while for an electrician, protective hand gloves and specialized footwear could be viewed as Wearable Technologies.

Presently, Wearable Technologies (also called wearable devices or wearables) are identified as “electronic technologies or computers that are incorporated into items of clothing and accessories which can comfortably be worn on the body. These wearable devices can perform many of the computing tasks as mobile phones and laptop computers; however, in some cases, wearable technology can outperform these hand-held devices. Wearable technology tends to be more sophisticated than hand-held technology available in the market today because it can provide sensory and scanning features not typically seen in mobile and laptop devices, such as biofeedback and tracking of physiological function”.

There is no fixed definition of what exactly constitutes wearable technology. Essentially these technologies are nothing but the gadgets/devices an individual could wear on his/her body. Such gadgets could help in multiple ways like provide information about some activity carried out by the individual like number of steps walked or help click photographs or provide information about the location or assist to connect in real-time with the internet/intranet.

However, modern wearable technologies should not be confused as mere headphones, helmets or specially made shoes/gloves etc. Present day technologies are more about using such gadgets for ‘connectivity’. Such gadgets constitute of small and smart sensors which facilitates easy and real-time transfer of data, images, audios and videos. Also, such technologies could constitute of range protection technologies from body thermals for guarding against cold weather to bulletproof jackets.

Broadly, wearable technologies could be defined as those technologies worn on the body either as electronic gadget (even a small computer) or clothing or devices made from any other material. Such devices would have capability to perform specific functions and assist the wearer or they are carried on the body owing to some artistic reasons (say a tattoo over a body and body piercing to sport a ring!). Such technologies/gadgets/devices could constitute a type of cloth or any other covering equipment (helmet, goggles, etc) or ornament or even video equipment.

From a consumable electronics industry and fashion industry standpoint acceptance of wearable technologies would depend both on the usefulness of such technologies and also on their advertising policies to make such technologies as fashion statements. It is important to note that most of these technologies could belong to convenience category but not necessarily life-changing category. Much of the development in this arena would depend on the research and development undertaken by engineering, sensor and software development agencies in this arena. However, their induction in the armed forces is expected to be only based on the utility merit.

Delineating Wearable Technologies

The most important aspect of any wearable technology is that it should not become a ‘burden’ for the user. Such gadgets should not hamper the movements of the individual and mostly should allow hands-free activity. Most of the modern day wearable technologies used by the people normally include the accessories associated with mobile telephones and have some form of communications capability. Internet connectivity to such equipment makes real-time information available to the user. 

Wearable technologies have relevance in various aspects of life. They have applications in  fields like health, transportation, education, medicine, entertainment/music etc. Particularly, in health and medicine sector there are various direct or indirect applications and various software and sensor based applications available (wearable) to assist monitoring of individuals’ vital health parameters. At times human body implanted devices are used for such purposes which could also be considered as wearable technologies.

While wearable technologies have proven their utility in sectors like healthcare. There has also been a major resurgence of such technologies among the consumer community. Availability of low cost sensors, wireless connectivity and active materials have resulted in mainstreaming wearable technologies. With the continued miniaturization of enabling technologies, wearable devices are found in a diverse forms ranging from glasses to jewellery. Driven by the ability to connect with key modern trends in healthcare, fitness, messaging and socialization, the wearable technology ecosystems is attracting significant levels of interest and are also finding their way into professional sports.

Various new ideas are being discussed with regard to wearable technologies. In particular, the miniaturisation of various computing devices is assisting the development of new wearable technologies. Developments in technology fields like nano-info and biotechnology are directly or indirectly assisting growth in the wearable technologies domain. A wide range of ideas from smart fibres to new materials to augmented/ambient reality is resulting in evolution of a new domain of wearable technologies.

Technologies/gadgets akin to wearable technologies could be said to have been in existence for many centuries. Use of fighting devices like knuckle style weapons or pointed rings in the fingers for attacking the enemy from close vicinity have been recorded in history. The Indian warrior Maratha king Shivaji (1627-80) is known to have used tiger claws (iron finger-grip with razor claws) to kill Afzal Khan, a commander of the Adil Shahi dynasty. Also, some references are found to the usage of brass (metal) knuckles during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Perhaps such incidents could be viewed as early instances of use of Wearable Technologies in warfare.

Military troops, for many decades, are identified with basic hand-held radios carried as a backpack unit supporting secured data and voice communication. This equipment is popular because of its low power requirements so that the troops are not required to carry additional packs of battery. Such equipment, though never labelled as wearable technologies, were so for all practical purposes.

Since time immemorial, technological developments have always impacted the process of war-fighting. Particularly, in the post Cold War era, a significant shift has been observed in the nature of warfare mainly owing to development of technologies. Soldiers have also started using various application based skills to enhance the effectiveness of existing technologies and also few technologies are modified in an innovative fashion for battlefield usage. Today, the realm of military technology has developed significantly and modern day soldiers are even carrying micro-Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs/drones) as a portable gear. In near future, one can expect the widespread soldier adoption of wearable technologies by the militaries.

During the operational phase of any battle, soldiers suffer from fatigue which is the result of long working hours, harsh surroundings, physical strain and individuals lugging around a lot of weight leading to exhaustion. Certain sections of land forces (say infantry)are expected to carry most of the logistical supplies along with them in face of rough terrain and bad weather. Naturally, they cannot carry too much weight on their body or along with them. At the same time, they require their hands to be free to fight. Under such circumstances, alternatives to some of their bulky equipment, that allow them to have real-time connectivity with their commanders and permit free body movement in combat situation, become essential. Here wearable technologies present a good option.

Military Utility of Wearable Technologies

Technology is the key for success of military campaigns. A significant impact of technology was witnessed in the First World War. This war is also known as the chemists’ war because of usage of explosives and poisonous gases and other heavily polluting weapons. Naturally, to create such weapons the available technology and knowledge of chemistry were used. In short, even back then, the dependence on science and technology for war fighting was obvious. During World War II and various subsequent wars, various states have depended on modern technology for war fighting. Historically, militaries are found investing on scientific research, innovation and technology development for their specific requirements. Presently, the advent of any new technology and technology applications in the civilian domain gets analysed by the military technologists to apprise themselves of its usefulness for military applications. Military technologists have an interest in new ideas and methods with regard to its applicability on existing technologies in an innovative fashion to increase their own effectiveness. Naturally, they look at wearable technologies with much interest.

wearable pdaOver the years, the nature of warfare has shown significant changes. The period of conventional warfare which was dominant during the World Wars era and Cold War era is no longer considered as the only reality. The 21st century, is an era of Asymmetric Warfare where state actors are found constantly being challenged by non-state actors, groups of guerrilla fighters, terrorists of militias with a covert state support. Hence, present day states are expected to remain prepared to address both conventional and unconventional threats.

Modern military theory divides war into strategic, operational and tactical levels. Each level is concerned with making and implementing strategy, and this entire process always remains dynamic. At the strategic level, the main focus is on defining and supporting national policy and role of the armed forces is more about force projection.

The operational level is about employing military forces in a theater of war if required, or otherwise remain prepared for any eventualities. The tactical level could be considered as actual participation in combat. Militaries also have a mandate to assist the civil authorities. In recent times, with the increased frequency of natural disasters in many parts of the world, it has been observed that militaries are getting more and more involved in disaster management. To address various security and safety related challenges, the armed forces are always on the lookout for innovative technologies and fresh ideas to employ them, and wearable technology could be one such idea.

On the other hand, it has been argued that, in the post-Cold War world, there is a growing probability of non-contact warfare, indicating that ground troops are not likely to fight in a direct faceoff and there would be more dependence on unmanned systems and robotics. Particularly, with the maturing of drone technology and standoff weapons, the future missions are expected to show changes from the present format of land, air and maritime missions. Now, the basic question is, ‘why should the 21st century militaries invest in wearable technologies?’

Over the years, as the nature of conflict evolved, military tactics have also kept apace. Guns, tanks, aircraft, warships submarines and space systems are still considered as tools for addressing both conventional and asymmetric conflicts. To address any form of conflict, presence of intelligence gathering mechanisms is a must both at strategic and tactical level. The notion of non-contact warfare should not be absolute. ‘Men/Women behind the machine’ are still relevant. Robots can only fight wars, but eventually wars are to be won by the humans. Current geopolitical realities indicate that wearable technologies do have a place in the present security architecture.

There could be two basic explanations for this:

  1. The 21st century military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc. indicate that standoff-weapons and airpower alone are not sufficient to resolve the conflicts. There would be a necessity to involve ground forces significantly. These forces are required to be well equipped and agile. They need to remain in contact with other ground formations and/or aircrafts flying overhead. Naturally, real-time connectivity becomes a necessity. Presently, the allied forces soldiers operating these theaters are using wearable technologies which include not only IT enabled communications tools but also backpack mini-drones.
  2. Non-contact warfare is not likely to emerge as a form of war-fighting where ‘soldier in the loop’ is absent. The soldiers/operators involved in deploying standoff weapons could also benefit from wearable technologies. Also, the pilots flying the aircrafts/drones or submariners operating in deep/shallow seas could have specific use for wearable technologies.

Knowingly or unknowingly, ‘wearable technologies’ have already become a part of military life. Walkie-Talkie units and night vision goggles used by the militaries for long could be considered as ‘wearable technologies’. Also, particularly with the advent of mini-portable computers and mobile telephony the connectivity with the soldiers and by the soldiers have improved significantly. Today, the soldier could be equipped with wristwatches, armed bands, modified headgears, goggles or even fingerings with very small sensors designed for specific purposes.

Any wearable technology introduced must have the underlying purpose of reducing complexity and workload for various defence operators. Apart from the soldier, such technologies could also find utility for the personal undertaking ground maintenance and jobs with the support domains. Militaries normally expect that the induction of any technology should offer untapped opportunity for efficiency improvements and cost savings, and safety, usability and efficiency. The same is also true in the context of wearable technologies.

Wearable technologies could offer multiple benefits to the armed forces and other security establishments. Such technologies have the capability of augmenting the sensing capability, providing artificial intelligence based solutions, cognitive abilities and augmenting reality. Most importantly such technologies allow the military personnel more freedom of action. Soldiers get timely information which assists them in furtherance of their campaign. Both operational and strategic levels such technologies could make wider impact and offer solutions to various battlefield and other related necessities.

Wearable Technologies on Offer

For any technology to become ‘wearable’ there has to be acceptability from the end-user’s side. Also, at times the culture, custom and traditions associated with the specific military units may play a role towards deciding the employability of such technologies. The comfort level and utility value for the end-user would determine the success of any wearable technology. The arena for wearable technologies would remain dynamic and military users should cater for such changes at a rapid pace. For example up-gradation or change in operating systems could change the nature of applications and this could eventually demand the replacement of the existing wearable technology. This would also demand the soldier quickly adopting new techniques and becoming comfortable with it. Present generation wearable technologies are dominated by the IT based technologies and there exists a possibility of them getting exploited by the enemy. Hence, it is important to ensure that such technologies worn by the soldiers do not get easily compromised.

fighter helmetsPresently, military wearable technologies are undergoing a process of evolution. Hence, it could be incorrect to categorise them under a specific format. Broadly, the identification (mainly from military perspective) could be done under the nomenclature of IT based and other technologies. The other technologies could include various appliances from wrist watch to camera to radio sets to footwear to helmets to smart clothing.

Military applications for wearable technologies could be far and wide. The military applicability would be normally defined by the military leadership or the commander on ground or by military technologists. There could be some technologies/gadgets which the local military leadership (say the unit or formation level leadership) could decide depending on the ground situation and in specific cases, the soldiers would have such technologies as part of their kit. For example, a paratrooper deputed for a specific mission could have some specific wearable technologies, including small arms. Over a period of time when such technologies would evolve further and militaries would become more comfortable with their usage then probably some doctrinal level changes could also take place towards defying their use. Presently, the conception of wearable technologies is more in a formative stage hence this section debates interchangeably both on technologies which are exclusively for the military and technologies which could have utility for the armed forces.

As discussed earlier various types of wearable technologies (wearables) could be identified based on what part of the body such gadgets could be put on. Smart watches, smart glasses, health monitoring wristbands etc. are such common gadgets. Presently, gadgets like artificial skin and wearable computers are getting discussed for specific military utilities.

Major emphasis is laid on wearable technologies with the electronics and computer based gadgets. The broad concept behind a wearable computer is to have a device on the body which could replace a laptop. Such a device could be assembled in a way which allows it to be worn or carried on the body while still having the user interface ready for use at all times. Wearable electronics involve sensors developed to fulfil the specific military requirement. Depending on the requirement the electronic components are either fully integrated into the soldier’s jacket or carried separately. The concept of wearable skin should not get limited to having a jacket carrying few electronic sensors. Here the challenge is to develop a garment by keeping in mind ease of wearing (weight, response of the material to temperatures/humidity etc.), camouflage, maintenance and durability. The modern skin for the soldier is not only about being resistive to extreme temperature also could have wearable GPS, a small battery and few useful sensors embedded therein.

The US military has been one of the largest funders of wearable computing and wearable technologies. Communication and battlefield command systems use a combination of personal, vehicle (ground, air and water), static and satellite technologies that all work together. The US military in particular has been very active in the development of smart clothing and wearable technology solutions. The Naval Air Technical Training Center’s (NATICK) Future Force Warrior programme is developing fully bionic warrior suits that it hopes to introduce by 2020. This suit would include intelligent armour, bio-monitoring, weaponry, communications and exoskeleton.

First responder services, such as the Police, Fire and Ambulance, are now also beginning to use smart clothes and wearable technologies. In some parts of the UK, police forces are using head mounted cameras and Personal Data Assistants (PDA) for storage and transmission systems to record information as they patrol and interview suspects and witnesses. This will act very much like the in-car video recording systems that are used widely. Safety products for monitoring personnel in hazardous or remote environments are also highly desirable, such as monitors of chemical exposure levels and biophysical status”.

Google Glass is one of the most talked about device in recent times in regards to its applicability for the defence forces. Modern militaries are keen to possess hands-free, head-mounted intelligent devices having say recording, transmitting and computing capability and Google glass could be an option. Google has put the product prototype in the US civilian market, however, a better quality product is under development. Military technologists/industry would have to work (some have already started working) to develop a military suitable product.

The gadget which Google has brought into the market is a headset that the user wears like a pair of eyeglasses. The headset has a small prism-like screen tucked into the upper corner of the frame that keeps the user constantly plugged in to his/her e-mail, calls and other notifications. One aspect of this technology is that it makes the concept of screen redundant. It basically  amounts to wearing a heavier pair of glasses with a small screen that hangs just out of user’s direct line of vision. There are different ways to operate Glass. The device has a touchpad on the side – the part that goes over the user’s ear or by giving voice commands. This wearable technology has various potential uses and militaries need to exploit them as per their requirements. It is expected that augmented reality based technologies can combine to create a much more realistic and immersive environment in real time which could help militaries immensely.

The agencies developing precision-tracking technology for firearms are combining wearable technology, like Google Glass, with a Precision Guided Firearm (PGF) in a way that allows users to shoot around corners. “When paired with wearable technology, PGFs can provide unprecedented benefits to shooters, such as the ability to shoot around corners, from behind low walls, and from other positions that provide exceptional cover. Without PGF technology, such positions would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fire from”. The US Military’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) unit is developing a Google Glass-like augmented reality system for the battlefield. This system allows commanders to send maps and other information directly to the soldier’s field of vision. The gadget is attached to a military helmet, and it is also possible to integrate it with weapons control system. Here the concept is instead of looking down at a 2D map or chest-worn computer, the soldier sees virtual icons (such as navigation waypoints, friendly/blue forces, and aircraft) overlaid on their real-world view.

At present, advanced quality and low weight bullet-resistance and stab protective vests/suits are available, and are being used by defence personnel. Scientists are working on various projects in this arena to make better quality suits. The US agencies are developing Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) and Mark 5 prototype suit is expected to be ready by 2018. Here the attempt is to develop a suit that can monitor the user’s vital signs, provide real-time battlefield information and be bulletproof from head to toe. The other proposed features could include an exoskeleton made of liquid armour, smart fabrics that could help stop haemorrhaging, enhanced sensory capabilities and Google Glass-like visuals. Also, such suits could come with helmets with heads-up display technology. Various militaries, particularly their Special Forces units, are using bulletproof, ballistic protective combat helmets which also have integrated communications facilities. The process of development in this field is continuing.

Military Applications

From the applications’ point of view a broad classification of military wearable technology could be as follows:

  1. Improving Aiming Capabilities

Present generation rifles can track targets, detect wind and weather, and calculate the optimal flight path for the bullet. There is a possibility that by hooking these rifles to an augmented reality platform like Google Glass, soldiers could aim the targets without actually looking at them, shooting around corners or over hills and barricades.

  1. Monitoring the physical state of soldiers while on the move

The physical condition of a soldier does impact the overall performance. The physical condition of a soldier and the injuries sustained by him/her (if any) could be identified putting tiny biosensors on their body and help their commanders to monitor their condition. Such sensors could monitor various vitals such as heart rate, breathing, and hydration. Some sensors could be devised to detect injuries.

  1. Better communication between troops and military animals

The field of military wearable technology could be expanded to other animals participating in military campaigns like horse, mules and dogs. Their position, health, etc. could be monitored remotely by using such technologies. Also, a bomb-sniffing dog could be trained to activate a specific kind of sensor for a specific kind of bomb, instantly alerting its trainer to the threat and also remotely relaying the information to the commander.

  1. Providing 360-degree battlefield awareness

Various inputs about the situation in the surrounding could be helpful for the fighter and augmented reality could provide assistance in this context. This could be done by combining a virtual display overlay ala Google Glass with information from reconnaissance and other real-time inputs received form soldiers, various on ground sensors and from the drones operating in the region. The relevant information could include location, weather condition, topographic details, satellite/radar image and enemy troop concentrations.    

Global Investments in Wearables

It is difficult to identify the exact nature of commerce (present and predicated for the future) exclusively, in respect of defence wearable technologies. This is essentially because, even though such technologies were used in defence area for many years, they were never segregated and studied as a specific ‘entity’ until recently. It may be difficult to make a judgment based on the information and projections available quantifying the overall market of this technology. However, some such information available could help to present a broad idea about the overall market scenario and the trend for the future. It may be noted that many of the technologies being used in the civilian domain are finding/could find a place in military sector too.

Presently, it is mainly the US defence establishment which is making systematic investments towards incorporating these technologies and some of their important programmes have been discussed in the earlier section.

Wearables are a huge fad in consumer electronics and it is expected that such technologies would develop a niche market for themselves in the coming few years. Since such technologies and the concept of their usage are still at a preliminary stage, it could be difficult to forecast their future with certitude. However, some trends are visible to make a broad judgment. Some divergent forecasts presenting limited assessment about the likely market of this technology are available to evaluate the future relevance of this technology. The UK based Juniper Research projects the number of wearable devices shipped will rise from about 13 million in 2013 to 130 million in 2018, and that the size of the market will jump from $1.4 billion in 2013 to $19 billion in 2018. Business Insider Intelligence projects shipments of 100 million pieces in 2014 and believes the market will ultimately be worth about $12 billion per year. IMS Research said the market for wearables was already at $8.5 billion in 2012, with 96 million devices shipped, and that it should grow to 210 million devices worth $30 billion in 2018. (Note: IMS’s definition of wearables includes industrial and military applications, not just consumer ones).

As per ‘The Wearable Technology Ecosystem: 2015 – 2030 – Opportunities, Challenges, Strategies, Industry Verticals and Forecasts’ the fitness and sports centric wearable devices could capture a major market share in coming few years. The investors are expected to invest few billion dollars into wearable technology start-ups. Wearable devices are expected to help wireless carriers drive over $71 billion in additional service revenue by the end of 2020. Nearly 50% of all wearable devices shipped in 2020 could support embedded cellular connectivity. This also offers a major opportunity for wireless chipset suppliers.

Looking Ahead

The concept of battlefield has changed significantly over the years, mainly owing to the military technological revolution. However, emergence of wearable technologies as military tool should not be attributed to any such revolution. Wearable Technology is more about the smart use of existing technologies to assist humans to have more freedom of action. For a soldier any additional assistance – whether by way of wearable technologies or otherwise – on the battlefield is always welcome. The nature of support provided by wearable technologies could be wide-ranging from protective body armour to artificial intelligence based tools for real-time intelligence sharing and decision support.

Presently, wearable technology is making its presence felt both in the civilian and military domains. It is obvious that induction of this technology in military domain would take time owing to the militaries first ensuring various security measures, soldier’s safety and ease of operations. Also, militaries would have to ensure that the soldiers using internet based wearable technologies do not end up disclosing their location and other such details to the outside world. For militaries such technologies would gain more acceptability particularly when less heavy and durable batteries are made available to replace the existing heavy backpack power sources.

Overall, the use of wearable technologies for the militaries could be wide ranging. From the soldier on ground to combat pilots, wearable technologies are making their relevance noticeable in various military related fields. In militaries, it is expected that initially the dependence on wearable technologies could be in segments like communication and health. However, with the technological advances in the fields of materials, robotics, augmented reality, cognitive sciences, body area networks, sensors, ambient intelligence, etc., it is likely that more novel wearable technologies could be developed. 

Military leadership has to appreciate that wearable technology is an idea which needs to be expanded based on specific battlefield requirements. Currently, when this idea is gaining greater acceptability, it is important to test it under various probable battlefield situations and benchmark its battlefield performance. It is likely that every such situation could have different expectations from wearable technologies. Also, military personnel would have to develop a habit of using such technologies. There would be need for the military users to develop a comfort factor with such technologies before they are put into use. Acceptance of such technologies would involve changes/modification in war fighting tactics both at user and support system levels. In some cases, specific training needs could also arise.

All such technologies are expected to gain global acceptability over a period of time with many armies using them. It is understood that wearables are add-ons and regarded more as accessories, but still their utility could be significant. Eventually, such technologies could even lead to modifications in military tactics and strategies. It could be premature to predict any possibilities of changes in the military doctrines, because the idea of using such technologies in militaries is still mostly at an embryonic stage. However, with more investment in this field, supported by additional research and development, there is a possibility that in future counter and counter-counter measures could be developed by military strategists in respect of these technologies. Also, militaries would have to ensure that any heavy dependence on wearables by the soldiers would not impact quick decision making ability. It has been observed amongst Smartphone users that their speed of movement reduces when they text while walking/driving. It is important to ensure that the agility of the soldier is not compromised owing to the usage of such technologies.

During the initial years of evolution, wearable technologies, particularly in the field of consumer electronics, were mostly considered as a fad. However, these technologies/gadgets have withstood the test of time and have proven their utility. In case of militaries too “the soldier of the future is most likely going to be the protagonist of the practical application of wearable technology.”

About the Author

Gp. Capt. Ajey Lele is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is also currently holding the position of Assistant Director (Admin). He can be contacted at ajey.lele[at]gmail.com

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