“We own the night.” With those words, spoken in 1991, then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman summed up the new era of U.S. military dominance. The United States had defeated darkness. U.S. forces could operate around the clock, sustaining a pace and intensity of operations that no enemy could possibly counter. One night vision device soon became a constellation of capabilities that enabled a special operations team to leverage the optical and thermal spectrums against the enemy. Drawing on laser targeting, advanced gunships, and stealth, it was a capability that combined the best of American tactics, industry, and science.
To anyone who deployed during the Global War on Terror, these were critical tools that helped achieve the mission and bring soldiers home, night after night. And these tools are still vital. There is still no one who can replicate the full set of capabilities that U.S. forces call upon, and we will rely on these tools for decades to come.
But we are no longer alone. In the past decade, terrorist groups from the Taliban to ISIL have demonstrated an ability to acquire and use night vision to lethal effect. And great power competitors are catching up quickly. Everyone watching our adversaries develop these capabilities is asking the same question: What’s next? What will enable our operators to continue to own the battlespace, the element of surprise, the initiative?
The answer is human-machine teaming, and for the special operator, that means mixed reality. Mixed reality is the next generation of soldier experience. It’s an augmented view of the world—one that combines and interprets data to present the user with an enhanced picture of reality. It augments, not replaces, human senses. Where a human can focus on one point in his field of vision, a mixed reality device can monitor everything and alert the user to anything he misses.
It allows a soldier to train better—in any environment, to know his friendlies, to spot his targets, to track threats in real time. It allows a team to practice the mission, testing scenarios, tweaking plans, and replaying as needed. It allows the maintenance technician to pull up the manual and even work alongside the expert—virtually—from anywhere in the world. It allows the medic to access the state of the art while deep downrange. And it can allow our forces to continue to dominate outside the wire. But it’s more than that.
Each of these use cases is app-based, in which a program combines the hardware of a mixed reality device with custom software to create a tailored experience for the user. But just as the app presents data to the user, the user also generates useful data that can be captured, analyzed, and used to improve the force.
This allows mixed reality to become the backbone for a data-driven force. It’s a backbone that supports and enhances each soldier across the lifecycle: throughout their recruitment, training, deployment, and return. It’s a way of assessing, aggregating, and tracking the force. No longer is a soldier’s profile just his MOS and time in service. Each soldier’s profile is a rich dataset that develops over the years, through dozens of applications and thousands of access points. And the data that each soldier generates can help an officer to understand her team, improve performance, and plan for the next mission. And the data that each team generates can help a commander understand his force, view operations in real time, and gain a broader view of the battlespace. Mixed reality is the next generation. It’s a new level of insight. It’s readiness, quantified. It’s always there.