How U.S. Soldiers Are Using Their “Warhacks” To Transform Combat

The armed forces need battlefield innovation and adaptability, but are they agile enough to take advantage of it?
Fast Company, October 9, 2017 (approx. 1,650 words)

Major John Spencer recalls his first tour of duty in Iraq as a year of improvisation, ingenuity, and the kind of inventiveness that’s born of necessity. It was 2003, and Operation Iraqi Freedom was underway, an action that would last three weeks before Baghdad fell, and three more weeks before “major combat operations” drew to a close.

Though the conflict in Iraq has continued for many years, the invasion itself drew to a rapid conclusion—despite the fact that many of the more than 300,000 allied soldiers who took part found themselves burdened by outdated equipment on a battlefield that was changing more rapidly than they could keep up with.

“We literally took Desert Storm-type equipment into a different type of fight,” Spencer recalls, referring to the 1990-91 Gulf War that expelled Iraqi troops from neighboring Kuwait. The Humvee fleets in which many soldiers traveled and patrolled, for instance, were particularly vulnerable to even simple roadside bombs. “They weren’t meant to fight, they were transport vehicles,” Spencer says. So once troops realized that the Army’s supplemental armor kits for the Humvee were in short supply, they started bolting their own makeshift armor to the sides of their vehicles.

“That whole year, there were soldiers welding metal to the sides of their trucks, putting sandbags in the bottoms of their vehicles, just to keep up with a rapidly changing environment,” Spencer says. “It was basically a rotation of hacks and adapted equipment.” Such innovations are routinely demanded by the complexities of the battlefield. “Adaptability is the number-one requirement, for any military, for future wars.”

The field innovations Spencer saw in Iraq were part of the inspiration behind a series of “warhacks” he recently discussed at the Modern War Institute, a research program of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “Lifehack is a term coined to define a tool or technique that makes some aspect of one’s life easier or more efficient,” Spencer writes. “Warhacks could be the lifehacks for combat.”

Battlefield improvisation has always been a part of how wars are fought. But even as recently as the early 20th century, such improvisations were usually tactical in nature. If you could outthink, outmaneuver, or even just surprise your adversary, you often stood a better chance of victory. There have always been one-off technology hacks in battle, of course (the earliest very possibly being the Trojan horse). But for centuries, the most powerful and effective military technologies have been the exclusive province of governments: producing a tank, a gun, or a bomb has traditionally been so expensive that only those who can print their own money could afford them.

But the cost of technology has dropped radically since the middle of the 20th century, and ours and many other governments’ militaries have been hard-pressed to take advantage of it. In the U.S.–which, somewhat startlingly, is responsible for more than one-third of all global defense spending–the military is hamstrung by proliferating regulations, and by its fealty to big defense contractors reluctant to innovate themselves out of lucrative deals.

Terrorist groups and other “non-state actors,” however, have no such constraints, and have shown an impressive and challenging ability to innovate both tactically and technologically, especially in recent decades. After all, if there’s one weapon more than any other that defined the Iraq War, it’s the roadside bomb, or IED—the “Improvised” Explosive Device. Whether intentionally or not, the moniker belittles the development work that has gone into most IEDs over the last 15 years. While they may be hacked together out of easily obtainable components, they have also consistently evolved to match and in many cases outpace the counter-IED measures developed by the U.S. and its allies. In more recent years, they have been produced in factory-like conditions, complete with quality control.

The violent extremist group often known as ISIS has also hacked cars and even drones for use in combat. Modified ISIS quadcopter drones are used to drop grenades and other small bombs on their enemies in Iraq and elsewhere. To get car bombs as close as possible to their targets, ISIS and others have taken to welding formidable armor casings around the vehicles that carry the explosives, making it more difficult for enemies to kill their drivers or detonate their payloads before they reach their destinations.

“They were building Mad Max-type vehicles inside Mosul,” Spencer says. “ISIS was able to use asymmetric warfare in order to have very large army-like effects. They weren’t the first to do it, but they seem to be very good at adapting and innovating with what they have.”

In part, it’s the freedom to improvise that gives rise to military innovation, Spencer says, though improvisation can be a double-edged sword. “That ability to make those modifications and truly experiment, there’s a freedom that has to be given to people to do that. But as a military guy that makes me twitch a little bit,” he says. “There’s a fine line between tactical adaptation, and the order and discipline of using your equipment in the way it’s supposed to be used.”

The warhacks Spencer has developed recently arose in response to situations he faced in Iraq and elsewhere, over a 23-year military career. A specialist in the emerging field of urban warfare, Spencer notes that there is no organization within the armed forces devoted to the study and training of urban warfare operations. (There is an Army Infantry School and Armor School, a Naval Academy, and an Air Force Special Operations School, by contrast.)

Spencer’s warhacks are practical solutions to practical problems of the urban battlefield. The problems are not always terribly sexy, but they are very real. For instance, soldiers often sight through their rifle scopes for a better view of distant objects–or people. But pointing an assault rifle at an Iraqi or Afghan citizen can itself be interpreted as an act of hostility. Binoculars are bulky and often hard to come by, and rifle sights provide 4x magnification–often enough to discern whether a window contains a sniper, a discarded tire contains a roadside bomb, or a passerby is carrying a weapon.

To get that magnification without risking escalation via a brandished weapon, Spencer suggests fitting a helmet mount–commonly used for night vision devices–with a daytime rifle scope, letting soldiers inspect points of interest without bringing a weapon prematurely into play.

Spencer also considered the situation of soldiers who have dismounted an M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, the workhorse of mechanized infantry combat operations. In urban environments, soldiers on foot can spot adversaries that the vehicle’s crew cannot, but often have trouble directing fire because neither soldier nor gunnery crew can see each other. So Spencer suggests that the Bradley, whose targeting systems are linked via computer to its onboard sights, could use a model similar to the AH-64 Apache helicopter. Apache pilots wear high-tech headgear–the Integrated Helmet and Display Sighting System–that lets them aim the aircraft’s weapons simply by looking at a target. In the Bradley’s case, though, it would be one of the dismounted soldiers who would wear an Apache-style helmet, creating a simple way for the vehicle to target adversaries its crew cannot actually see.

Not all warhacks are so menacing. And in many cases they have only limited effect. In Iraq and Afghanistan, gunners on patrol in the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles known as Humvees spend up to 12 hours at a time perched on a nylon strap no wider than a seat belt. The thin straps are widely despised for causing back problems and putting soldiers’ legs to sleep. The simple hack someone devised was to replace the nylon strap with a wider leather strap to serve as a more comfortable seat.

“Kids would be either buying or being gifted that,” says William Cohen, who spent years working on defense-related problems for engineering and consulting firm Exponent, Inc. As part of its work with the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF), Exponent developed a new Humvee turret gunner’s seat, and had prototypes made by a rock climbing equipment manufacturer in New England. “We tested variations, different hardnesses, different thicknesses, and guys absolutely loved it. We made 50 and people coveted them like they were gold.”

But when the REF, which was charged with solving just such problems in the field, tried to deploy the solution more broadly, they encountered a roadblock: Someone deep in the bowels of the Pentagon pointed out that the new seat did not have a seat belt, and the project was dead. “The [original] strap didn’t have a seat belt on it!” Cohen recalls in frustration. “So we had an immediate impact on a number of individuals, but we had to back off because program managers would take over and do what they thought was right.”

Similar issues often arise when soldiers and commanders try to bring field innovations to a broader audience within the armed forces. As Spencer puts it: “How do you spread ideas across a million-man army? If I write a blog post, history will tell you that’s not how these things get created. It’s not the Center for Army Lessons Learned, it’s not centers for innovation. There are other ways ideas get spread and create something new.”

Part of the problem is that the armed forces have trouble building institutional memory among war fighters because most soldiers rotate into new posts every couple of years. “Sometimes we forget that it’s a rotational force,” Spencer says. “A regular army force is made up of people that are changing every two years, so there’s no expertise that gets you the innovations to enduring problems.”

And yet, it’s those innovations that are central to keeping any fighting force current, and able to respond to the rapidly changing threats that an adversary like ISIS can throw at it. “Warfare in general usually puts people on the ground with not the exact tools they need to fight the war they’re fighting,” Spencer says. “So the person that can adapt is the one that overcomes.”