U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Kayla Corob, a medical surgical nurse, assigned to the 901st Medical Detachment, displays the Health Readiness and Performance System (HRAPS) in August 2022. The Army Reserve is testing the HRAPS as a potential new technology to aid in the readiness of Soldiers.

U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Kayla Corob, a medical surgical nurse, assigned to the 901st Medical Detachment, displays the Health Readiness and Performance System (HRAPS) in August 2022. The Army Reserve is testing the HRAPS as a potential new technology to aid in the readiness of Soldiers. (Debrah Sanders/U.S. Army)

As the Department of Defense looks to train the Army of 2030 and design the Army of 2040, it faces substantial challenges brought on by multi-domain warfare, emerging technologies and increased great power threats. Future warfighters must be better prepared for complex, large-scale combat operations — yet current methods for training and support have not kept pace with these challenges.

There is no easy answer to ensuring soldiers on the front lines are supported on and off the battlefield. However, live, virtual, constructive (LVC) training and human performance tracking technology, such as wearable sensors, show immense promise for better training and improved decision-making on the battlefield. Today’s technology is moving the nation’s defense capabilities forward in ways I could have never imagined when I joined the U.S. Army out of high school.

Training new recruits for the future of warfighting

Accelerated readiness — the concept of allowing warfighters to master the mission virtually before putting boots on the ground — supplements physical training in the field with realistic scenarios using augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) and LVC training. I don’t believe accelerated readiness is a substitution for live training, but it allows warfighters to rehearse critical skills, tactics and techniques in a way that saves time and money, two precious commodities for the DOD.

Over my three decades with the Army, I trained new recruits in Operation Desert Storm, teams in Iraq, anti-improvised explosive device (IED) units in Afghanistan, and cadets at West Point. I often reflect on the resources I could have saved if my teams had the ability to do virtual exercises to increase proficiency before hitting the range. We could have optimized our time on the physical field, saving ammunition for future exercises. We would have performed better on large-scale exercises by being able to practice walking through an entire cycle of a multi-domain exercise — from movement to contact, calling for fire, taking casualties, and calling for a 9-line medevac.

In the past, it was difficult to pinpoint exact problem areas with soldiers’ performance. Now with the advent of wearables, every session is transformed into a personalized experience. Commanders can review individual and team results and let data guide recommendations on where to focus training.

Many soldiers come to basic training thinking they can run for miles but end up with shin splints or stress fractures. Wearables can allow the Army to use data to physically scale warfighters more effectively and gradually — in turn, increasing graduation rates and reducing injuries. A more personalized approach to training could aid retention and recruitment, which is a major priority for building the Army of 2040.

Enabling optimal decision-making for current soldiers

During my time with the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization, I led road clearance patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan to help soldiers counter IEDs. Typically, we’d be out on a patrol for 12 to 16 hours at a time. If we had the ability to utilize wearables for teams back then, I could have watched for metrics like sleep patterns and heart rate to determine the best time to have units on the road searching for IEDs. The data would have allowed me to better pace things based on mission metrics and biometrics. I would have taken fewer casualties.

The Army no longer needs to rely on guesswork and opinions. The DOD is already expanding the use of wearables across services to monitor warfighter health, and this technology at scale and with the proper data analytics could truly be transformative for soldier safety and readiness. Wearable fitness trackers are outfitted with enhanced sensors that collect specialized data on physiological and cognitive readiness and performance and provide real-time insights that commanders can use to guide next steps. This can be used to put the right soldier in the right job in a squad. Insight into spiking heart rates, sleep data, cognitive measurements of a warfighter’s psychological state and wellbeing, performance on situational awareness, and more — that can all be considered when determining which team is the best fit for each mission.

I like to say wearables help commanders think, “OK, is now the right time to do this? Should I?” Consistent monitoring of health, fitness and readiness-relevant information allows commanders to better plan reset time and ensure maximum effectiveness of ground-level warfighters.

Supporting the holistic lifecycle of soldiers even after they’ve stepped off the battlefield

Wearables can detect when a warfighter is getting overstressed. This is highly useful in the field, but it can also help veterans facing stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, and high suicide rates. I see a future where wearables could track key metrics to identify mental health risks in veterans, using that data to detect changes in physical activity and stress levels.

Technology allows us to explore new, improved ways of doing things. For many years, the Army has had a high rate of deployments, requiring time away from family and contributing to high divorce rates. What if there was another way to train soldiers, where they didn’t need to be overseas for so long and could still go home at night? Recent technology could allow warfighters to train more effectively at home — ultimately improving mental health while impacting retention and recruitment.

The Army of 2040 must be prepared for large-scale combat operations with joint forces and new levels of complexity, lethality and speed. Getting there will require data-driven decision-making and the ability to personalize training for everyone — while making room to use data to support a soldier’s entire lifecycle.

Todd Burnett is a U.S. Army veteran and current executive adviser at Booz Allen Hamilton. He served 30 years in the Army training new recruits and leading explosive tracking units in Afghanistan, among other responsibilities.

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