Microsoft $30 billion army goggles still aren't combat-ready

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) – Microsoft’s new multi-function goggle system for the United States Army shows promise, but the US$22 billion (S$29.6 billion) programme is not yet ready for combat deployment, according to the Pentagon’s test office.

Despite progress since the contract was awarded in 2018, the system “has not yet demonstrated the capability to serve as a fighting goggle”, according to a non-public assessment by the Pentagon’s director of operational testing that was sent to the Army for review.

The report on the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, or IVAS, will be made public in the office’s upcoming annual report.

The programme by the Redmond, Washington-based company aims to develop a “heads-up display” for US ground forces, similar to those for fighter pilots. The system – a customised version of Microsoft’s HoloLens goggles – would let commanders project information onto a visor in front of a soldier’s face and would include other features such as night vision.

Improved versions of goggle prototypes fielded for initial soldier evaluations “demonstrated growth capabilities” and “improved comfort and field of view”. according to the assessment.

The Army announced in October a delay in fielding the programme to allow more time to prepare for the intense combat testing needed for full-rate production. The test, previously scheduled for last September, is now tentatively scheduled for May.

“The Army should develop an adequate test and evaluation strategy that quantifies improvements” to known deficiencies before the testing, according to the latest assessment.

Microsoft said it is continuing to make improvements to the technology. “Our close collaboration with the Army has enabled us to quickly build and iterate on IVAS to develop a transformational platform that will deliver enhanced soldier safety and effectiveness,” Mr David Marra, Microsoft’s programme director, said in a statement.

“We continue to test and refine IVAS through soldier engagements, ensuring this state-of-the-art mixed-reality platform is effective, reliable, and exceeds the Army’s objectives.”

Initial spending

The project with the Army has been opposed by some Microsoft employees who have protested the use of the technology for combat.

The Army in March 2021 placed an order of US$373 million for an initial 5,000 goggles, the first small tranche of what the company and Army say is a potential US$22 billion over 10 years for as many as 121,500 goggles, spare parts and logistics support, according to the service. Only US$40 million has actually been paid to date, said Army spokesman Courtney Bacon.

The Army is not yet accepting delivery of the first 5,000 systems and final payment for them is on hold “until the system passes validation and verification events”, she said.

The remaining US$333 million will be dispersed once the government completes acceptance of the systems, which is expected by Sept 30, she added. Because of “technical challenges with the IVAS display and reliability,” the programme shifted the combat test to May, she said.

The main question that must be answered to determine if IVAS is operationally effective in the May test “is whether a close combat unit equipped with IVAS can successfully accomplish their doctrinal mission in a realistic operational environment,” test office spokesman Jessica Maxwell said in a separate statement.


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