From Waterloo to Wi-Fi: The Transition to the Connected Soldier

Last year marked the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. I recently read an excellent account of the battle by Tim Clayton. What a tremendous difference between the technology available to the soldiers and generals in those days compared with today’s connected soldier.

Back then, muskets, bayonets and various types of swords were the common weapons, supported by horse drawn cannon capable of firing fragmenting canisters and case shot. When the cavalry charged, infantry would “form square” to repel them and then quickly spread out into a line to avoid being an easy target for cannon once the cavalry had been resisted. Charge was followed by counter charge, and often over-zealous attackers were caught out as they advanced too far and were surrounded by their regrouping opponents. Units became highly disorganized in the chaos.

After four days of intense fighting, the battle was on a knife edge and only the 11th hour arrival of Blucher’s Prussian forces to support Wellington’s troops finally won the day over Napoleon.

connected soldier communicationBut what struck me most was not the differences between then and now but the similarities. At Waterloo, they had to coordinate multiple assets (men, horses, cannon, etc.), communicate rapidly across disparate parts of the battlespace to ensure opportunities were seized at the right time, cooperate with allies and avoid troop confusion, rebalance forces to repel attacks, monitor the weather and environmental conditions that may impact plans, locate and evacuate the injured, and maintain a logistics operation to supply equipment, ammunition and food. Substitute the location and the nature of the assets and it could be a description of the challenges facing the connected soldier of today.

Wellington, Blucher, Napoleon and their generals had to make decisions based on the best available information, which often wasn’t very reliable. Orders were transmitted in duplicate, via horse-mounted carrier, that often took many hours to be relayed when the situation on the battlefield was evolving much more quickly. The whereabouts of allies and opposing forces was often unknown, only intimated by spies and prisoners captured on the battlefield. Unforeseen and torrential rain played havoc with the movement of troops and horses.

There are reports of the injured being undiscovered for days simply because no one knew where they had fallen. And while time and the confusion of battle make determining exactly what happened at Waterloo impossible, it is generally agreed that the outcome could have been completely different had a few key decisions been made differently. If the generals and soldiers could communicate directly with and between each other, while knowing their precise locations, environmental conditions and their vital signs — as will be possible when the connected soldier is fully realized with the help of engineering simulation — the battle could quite possibly have gone the other way.

connected soldier antennaThe commonality between then and now is the critical role of situational awareness on the battlefield and the importance of fast, accurate and actionable information derived from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) technology. The connected soldier of today is a far cry from his musket carrying counterpart from two centuries ago, but both share an insatiable appetite for actionable intelligence. Fortunately today’s soldier is connected and tomorrow’s will be even more so.


ansys webinars this weekOn July 13th at 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern  time, we will be hosting a webinar jointly with Aviation Week to discuss the Engineering Challenges of the Connected Soldier and how simulation is helping overcome challenges such as size, weight and power, sensing and connectivity, integration into the battlespace and durability. We will also be joined by Dr. Stavros Georgakopoulos of Florida International University who will talk about his work on novel collapsible mobile antenna systems that will enable a soldier to carry a powerful antenna into combat folded into his back pocket.

I hope you can join us and, in the interim, I encourage you to explore our resources on the connected soldier webpage and watch this video that explains more.

And finally, by sheer coincidence, the ANSYS office in Belgium is located in Wavre, almost in the heart of the Waterloo battleground. So if you ever visit the Waterloo battlefield, be sure to stop by and say hello.