High-Tech Warriors: The CAF’s Integrated Soldier System Project

Dave Pugliese is an award-winning author and one of Canada's top defence journalists. He currently writes the Ottawa Citizen's defence blog: Defence Watch

Dave Pugliese is an award-winning author and one of Canada's top defence journalists. He currently writes the Ottawa Citizen's defence blog: Defence Watch

By December of this year, the Canadian government expects to award the first phase of a program to purchase a new integrated system of computers, communications and sensors for individual soldiers.

Called the Integrated Soldier System Project or ISSP, the program would provide equipment not only to allow soldiers to navigate on the battlefield as well as track each other, but to feed communications and targeting information to a small personal data device each would carry on their person or in their helmet. This information would also be transmitted back to command centres through a computer network. In addition, the system would be able to interface with various sensors such as laser rangefinders and thermal imaging devices.

The Integrated Soldier System suites will be used by troops of operational task forces, including infantry, artillery forward observers, engineers, and combat support soldiers.

The first phase contract for the project would cover the purchase of up to 6,624 suites of equipment, says Sebastien Bois, a spokesman for Public Works and Government Services Canada.

The successful bidder will receive two contracts. The first will cover a period of about four years and will see the delivery of Integrated Soldier Systems (ISS) for qualification. If the systems pass review, then the government will purchase systems in batches, totalling 1,600 in all.

The military will also have the option of purchasing 5,024 ISS suites, either complete or using a component-by-component procurement, according to the Canadian government.

The second contract, called the Integrated Soldier Systems Optimized Weapon System Support Contract, will also be awarded. It will cover in-service support initially for five years, and further extensions could cover an additional six years.

During this period, the selected company could be called on to make improvements to the system. Modifications might also be needed to allow voice and data integration into new land command support systems.

The overall cost of the ISSP has been estimated at around $310 million.

Interested companies include Elbit Systems with L-3, Thales Canada, Rheinmetall Canada with Saab, General Dynamics Canada, Sagem with Raytheon, DRS Technologies and Selex.

The procurement, however, has had serious problems. First, the project has been going for a lengthy period. ISSP received initial approval from then Defence Minister Peter MacKay in 2008. The government was supposed to announce a winning bid in December 2012, with first deliveries scheduled for the spring of 2014.

But on January 25, 2013 the Canadian government cancelled its original ISSP bidding process after the bids it received were deemed as “non-compliant.” Industry sources say some of the bids were rejected because they did not meet technical specifications, and others were deemed non-compliant because companies failed to provide adequate information about their products.

For example, one bid was rejected because one official involved in the company’s proposal lacked the proper security clearance as the name of a health and safety officer was submitted in the bid in error. Another bid was rejected because information provided in two charts outlining spare parts acquisition did not exactly match up.

The entire process was restarted on February 15, 2013 when a draft request for proposals (RFP) was issued. Subsquently, an industry day was held on March 5, continued engagement with companies took place during the month of March, and a formal RFP was then issued in August of that year.

Various industry representatives consulted by Esprit de Corps warn that the ISSP process continues to remain flawed and Canadian soldiers could get short-changed as a result.

They point out the following:

The ISSP procurement was restarted/re-launched in the absence of post-field trial/request for proposals submission debriefs for each of the companies making submissions. There was also no substantive change in ISSP requirements or specifications (albeit a slight shift to a more rated, less mandatory process and an increased clarity on how field trials would be managed).

The Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces have always claimed that this procurement is based on a COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) solution, but that isn’t quite accurate. Each of the bidders responding to the request for proposals have to invest heavily in further development to meet the unique Canadian Army requirements and specifications listed. These requirements were so extensive that most industry bids during the first competition were up to 3,000 pages in length.

Each bidding company was required to invest non-recoverable corporate research and development funding of between $1 million and $2 million to field a complete prototype/demonstration model for the initial stage of ISSP.

Also, even if a company wins the first phase, there is no guarantee it will get the other follow-up phases. 

One of the biggest hurdles facing ISSP, however, focuses on the speed of technology improvements. ISSP equipment could be potentially obsolete even before it is delivered, warn industry representatives. They note that the time gap between when bids are submitted for ISSP and the actual delivery of the winning system in 2016 will be almost two years. Given the pace of technological change, this lag in the procurement process will likely result in the emergence of new technology that will render the system technologically inferior, they worry.

Another serious and emerging issue is that the capability offered by systems being built for ISSP could soon be eclipsed by civilian technology such as smartphones, which could soon find their way on to the battlefield.

In January, Israel’s Defense Ministry announced that it had signed a $100 million, 15-year contract with Motorola Solutions that will see the Israeli defence forces being equipped over the next several years with encrypted smartphones. These small, hand-held devices will offer not only the ability for individual soldiers to make encrypted calls and receive emails, but they will also come equipped with a built-in GPS system and be capable of sending and receiving digital media (the phone will have an eight-mega-pixel camera) as well as navigation information.

“The new military mobile network will be based on a smartphone device with a touch screen, similar to the advanced smartphone devices available on the market today, adapted to the needs of the combat soldier in the field,“ the Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The smartphone will also be equipped with a robust battery and durable casing.

As for what network the smartphones will operate on, Israel is looking at using an existing civilian network, with added security features. It will also continue to use its existing military-grade networks.

The U.S. Army has also launched its Nett Warrior program, which also uses smartphone technology. In this case, soldiers carry Samsung Galaxy Note commercial phones in a chest-mounted harness. The phones can receive and send text messages and other data as well as track other users on the battlefield.

By increasing the user's situational awareness through the use of precise navigation, the soldiers should have a greater synchronization of activity, thereby improving the soldier's capability and survivability on operations. In this photo, Master Corporal Adam Rymes, Reconnaissance Squadron of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, radios a situation report during a dismounted patrol in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province aimed to further develop knowledge of the area. (Cpl Shilo Adamson, Combat Camera).

By increasing the user's situational awareness through the use of precise navigation, the soldiers should have a greater synchronization of activity, thereby improving the soldier's capability and survivability on operations. In this photo, Master Corporal Adam Rymes, Reconnaissance Squadron of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, radios a situation report during a dismounted patrol in the Panjwai District of Kandahar Province aimed to further develop knowledge of the area. (Cpl Shilo Adamson, Combat Camera).

In July 2013, the U.S. Army announced it was starting to field the Nett Warrior system with Army Rangers and soldiers within the 10th Mountain Division. One of the selling points of the system is the cost savings. The army purchases Samsung Galaxy Note II smartphones at around $700 each and installs the Nett Warrior software at substantially less cost than what contractors would charge to develop original devices.