By Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsMarch 7, 2019
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (March 7, 2019) -- Displayed inside the 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum Museum, the M29 Weasel is a testament to Army innovation and Soldier ingenuity.
The winter cargo carrier became part of division history when it was tested by Mountaineer Soldiers training at Camp Hale, Colorado, and then used to transport supplies and casualties in the Italian campaign during World War II.
According to legend, the field test was akin to asking the Soldiers to go out and see if they could break it. The tracked vehicle performed well in the snow and other rough terrain, and they accidentally discovered an unintentional capability -- it floated.
Today, the 10th Mountain Division (LI) is helping the U.S. Army's Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport (S-MET) program to test cutting-edge transport systems.
Four different prototypes of unmanned ground vehicles went to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, to see if they could keep up with the demands of the 1st Brigade Combat Team during their recent training rotation.
The intent of the S-MET is to lessen the load carried by Soldiers, thus improving mobility and increasing lethality on the battlefield. The vehicle is required to have the capability of moving a thousand pounds of gear and equipment alongside a squad for up to 60 miles over the course of 72 hours. Additionally, the vehicle has to be operable by remote control and provide one kilowatt of power while mobile and three kilowatts while static.
They didn't sink the vehicles like the original Mountaineers did in the 1940s, but 1st Lt. John Lockwood, executive officer with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st BCT, said that they didn't go easy on them either.
"Really, this was about doing the Army a service by putting the equipment through the wringers, test it as it was intended, but also not being afraid to get creative with it," Lockwood said.
First Lt. Samuel Marshall, 2nd Platoon leader with A Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, said that his unit received the S-MET vehicle almost two weeks before leaving for JRTC.
"We took our squad leaders and got familiar with it, got some Soldiers used to the remote and how to steer it," he said. "We did one tactical movement during the day."
Marshall said that they loaded the vehicle up with a .50 caliber machine gun, two Javelins, two AT-4s and extra rounds.
"We moved without problem in the daylight, but it was a little tricky at first at night," he said. "It was a learning concept that first night, but then we got better at it as we got better with our route planning."
Lockwood said that the system assigned to HHC could be driven or controlled remotely.
"We did familiarization training across the formation just because we wanted to have that flexibility when we got to JRTC," he said. "So right after the Mountain Peak exercise, we did the train-up and also the licensing -- because it is drivable -- so we were squared away."
Lockwood said that they conducted some more training on the vehicle at Fort Polk, and primarily used the S-MET to bridge gaps between their legacy systems, such as Humvees or the Light Medium Tactical Vehicle (LMTV).
"It definitely enabled us to enhance our mission," he said. "Being able to resupply and conduct reconnaissance organically -- as spread out as we were -- was really a combat multiplier in that sense."
Marshall said that this type of transport vehicle has plenty of potential to enhance warfighters' capabilities.
"In time, I could see how a light infantry unit could use these vehicles," Marshall said. "Especially on a company level, it would definitely benefit if leaders are efficient in their planning and operation of it. Then it would be very capable at the platoon level."
Soldiers' response to the performance of these "robotic pack mules" varied depending on the vehicle they tested and their mission sets. One infantry officer said that his unit had little use for the vehicle during offensive maneuvers, but he also noted how one mortar platoon was able to pack a heavy load of munitions onto the system and quickly get to their designated area much faster than anticipated.
Spc. Nicholas Varricchio, with B Troop, 3-71 Cavalry, said that his section sergeant was the main operator of the transport system but that he was able to control it frequently to move supplies from his section to another.
"It worked really well going across terrain, and we mainly used it to get supplies off the trucks and moving them between sections," he said. "We got fuel, water and food to where it needed to be. So, for resupply, this was great."
Varricchio said that they also loaded it with two litters to use for casualty evacuations.
"The main issue we had with it was with the battery," he said. "It seemed that the more weight we put on it, it died a lot faster going through the rough terrain."
Pvt. Cameron Wright, also with B Troop, said they experienced a malfunction with a vehicle during a dismounted maneuver that slowed them down. He also said that the vehicle they tested ran loud enough to give away their position.
"Obviously, you're not going to get it to be 100-percent silent, but I would want something that doesn't make much sound when you're walking up on an objective," Wright said. "I liked it though, it's a good concept."
Of the four prototypes, one had a stealth mode that enabled it to run with a significantly lower noise signature. Sgt. Nathaniel Packard, a dismounted team leader with A Troop, 3-71 Cavalry, described the sound similar to a small remote-control model car.
"It's also fast," he said. "I think it's way faster than our Humvees."
But with stealth mode off, the vehicle would be too loud for tactical movements. Still, Packard said that a transport system that enables Soldiers to move more gear for longer distances over any terrain is a concept worth exploring.
"(The Army) is absolutely putting the right foot forward," he said. "Obviously they want us to succeed in our mission. If they can make our mission easier they're going to do so, and it shows."
After returning from JRTC, a team from the Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE) from Fort Benning, Georgia, and the Program Executive Office-Soldier conducted after-action reviews with Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment; 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment; and 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment. The participants filled out surveys, shared their experiences testing the vehicles and were encouraged to provide both positive and negative feedback. If the program goes into production, the data collected at Fort Drum will be factored in when selecting the final prototype.
"I think this gets at one of the bigger issues we are facing," Lockwood said. "And that is bridging the gap on what a light infantry Soldier needs to fight the fight and figuring out a way to reduce the Soldier load so they are effective when they do get to the fight."