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September 30, 2005
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Time Pieces: Keeping Time

 

I remember hearing the words, "Keep It Simple Stupid" more times than I care to count during Basic Training and MP School. It seems they kept coming back to haunt me in the Infantry and in my Combat Engineers unit. Why then, I have to ask myself, do we keep inventing new and better toys to take into the field? Not that they aren't invaluable…

Knowing what time it is - accurately - is essential. Virtually all operational planning is done around some time frame: whether we're attaching during pre-dawn hours, or coordinating movement with other units, knowing what time it is - sometimes within seconds - is vitally important.

There was a time (get it?) when a watch did nothing but keep track of time. Keep It Simple Stupid. A face with numbers, an hour hand, a minute hand and a second hand. A case that was capable of taking a fair amount of abuse and a crystal you could clearly see through but that wouldn't scratch. A band that held it on your wrist and hopefully wouldn't break too easily (more often than not, the pins themselves are the issue and not the band. More on that in a bit).

Today, thanks to ever-improving technology and miniaturization, watches are no longer JUST watches. "Wrist top computers" are not uncommon. Those "watches" provide us great capabilities as far as information tracking and feedback is concerned, but every advantage comes with a potential disadvantage. Let's look at some examples:

My first true dream watch was the Chronosport UDT: Made by Breitling, it was one of the first watches to incorporate both analog and digital displays. It included an alarm, backlight for the digital display, a digital stopwatch and was pressure rated to twenty atmospheres - 660 feet give or take a few inches. It also featured a unidirectional rotating bezel, used for tracking bottom time if you were scuba diving - or tracking time passage for any other activity. On the downside (depending on your point of view), the hands were thin and the luminous qualities of the number markers / marks on the bezel didn't glow so well. Combined, those features didn't make it the easiest watch to read underwater, or in low light conditions, but they were added bonuses on an already feature-packed watch for that era: the late seventies and early eighties.

Before we move on to look at some more contemporary watches, let's talk for a minute about the luminous features, backlights, hand sizes, etc. A couple years back I attended a low-light operations course and learned a hard lesson about those luminous features: if I could see them easily in the dark, so could my opponent. Big easy-to-read hands covered with luminous material are great. But they also add to the amount of light your wrist is giving off. Big number markers and bezel marks add even more to how much your watch glows. In true dark conditions, any light can be seen literally for miles. If it can be seen for miles, how hard is it to use as a locator beacon in distances we consider close quarter combat? The answer is that it is not only easy to see, but just as easy to shoot: my bright glow-in-the-dark watch took quite a few paintball rounds during the course of that training program - until I learned to cover it up with my gloves or at least to turn it around on my wrist.

Backlights can work much the same way. If you think about it, when you look down at your watch, your watch is "looking up" at you. You push that button to activate the light so you can read the watch, and the light projected is reflecting off your face. This effect is amplified by goggles, glasses or anything else that might be reflective on your face. Now I ask you: how much of a target do you want to be?

So, we see that luminous watches and backlights for reading displays are necessary to gain the information we need from such a simple tool, but we have to be mindful of the conditions we use them in. Hmm - sounds like every other tool we use. Use it right and be aware of the downfalls of using it "wrong".

With that in mind, let's take a look at some contemporary watches that do much more than just keep time. First on the list is the new HRT Watch from 5.11 Tactical. Last year 5.11 exploded out of the clothing industry to provide much more. One of the biggest surprises was their HRT Watch - not only because it was such a different product from their norm, but also because of the features that were designed into it.

With a titanium case incorporating a unidirectional bezel, the HRT starts out strong - but light (and that matters). 5.11 made sure that the watch would survive the environment it was expected to serve in - wet, harsh, hard conditions - by making the watch water resistant to 100 meters (330 feet) and sufficiently shock resistant to accept normal bumps and bruises. To secure the HRT on your wrist, 5.11 thoughtfully provides two watchbands: one is the typical diver's rubber strap, but the other is a classy black leather band. 5.11 answered the old problem of weak pins by using solid pins that require an Allan-key / wrench to remove. This is a MUCH stronger attachment system than has ever been used in traditional watches.

5.11 combined analog and digital displays in this watch, but what info you can get out of the digital display is radically different from what has been available before. Thanks to a partnership with Horus Vision LLC, 5.11 provides shooting software in the watch. The software requires you to put in some basic data such as ammo type, environmental conditions, etc. and the watch will give you back your scope adjustments. Further, it does so for MILDOT, TMOA and SMOA scopes. Because of the size of the watch and buttons, inputting the requisite data is easy, even with gloves on.

In addition to that unique capability, the watch also gives you digital readouts for:

- Day, date and month
- A second time zone
- An alarm
- A stopwatch
- A countdown timer with an alarm

That is an example of a watch/wrist top computer that provides much needed info for a specific activity: precision shooting. Other such watches provide info for differing specific needs.

The other example I want to look at is the X9 Wrist Navigator from Suunto. Be warned going into this: it is possible to get so much information out of a wrist top computer that you have a hard time understanding it all - at least until you get used to processing what you see. The Suunto X9 is a fantastic tool to have if you do a lot that requires navigation. Since Land Navigation is a primary course in virtually every military leadership school (at the operations level anyway), it's safe to assume that having such a tool would be valuable for operators.

However, there is a down side: with all of the capabilities that are built into these "watches", the battery life can be drastically shortened. Using the GPS features shortens the battery life even further. As with all survival skills/tools, two is one, one is none. Redundancy is good. Back up tools such as the X9 with maps and a compass.

That said, let's take a look at everything this tool can do:

First, it can tell time. Duh… Day, Month and Date are shown at the top of the display where the hours, minutes and seconds are easily viewable in BIG numbers. Additional information that is available from the main display include:

- GPS signal strength
- Mode indicator (more on that in a second)
- Altitude alarm
- Weather alarm
- Navigation method
- Battery strength level
- Time alarm (on or off)
- Activity status

Now that looks like a lot of info, and it is. As I said, until you learn how to view it and assimilate it, it can be overwhelming - or some pieces of information simply get ignored.

For the outdoor operator, the two greatest strengths of the X9 are its weather measurement/reporting capability and its navigation functions. Looking briefly at the weather functions first, the X9 gathers information about altitude, humidity, and temperature on an on-going basis, and based on those readings can give you a warning if changes indicate dangerous weather conditions. That might be nice to know if you're on a boat, in an open field, or simply out for a weekend hike.

The navigation tools are even better. The Compass function is simple but valuable. Lots of wrist-worn devices will give you an eight or sixteen reading compass. What I mean by that is: an eight reading digital compass will give you North, North East, East, South East, South, South West, West, and North West. Sixteen reading compasses give you the "North North East, or East North East" additions so that you add eight more general compass headings. Sometimes that's all you need. But if you're in the midst of an operation with a specific objective, or you're just taking those ever-loved land navigation classes and you have to follow heading 117 for 400 meters to find a Pepsi can, then the eight or sixteen reading compasses aren't much good. Bring on the X9. In addition to the eight digital compass headings it displays the exact heading in 360 degree increments. Like every other compass made, you have to hold it level to use it in this manner, but it's awfully easy to see and read - and it's comfortable enough to wear for weeks of outdoor activity.

The Activity and Navigation functions depend on the GPS system built into the X9. First, I've never seen such a small GPS system. No, it doesn't provide you map overlays in the display screen, but it doesn't need to. The Navigation function works in several different ways - and should really come with a book called "Navigation for Dummies" because even someone unfamiliar with land nav would have a hard time getting lost with this tool.

As a stand-alone Navigation tool, the X9 provides you a couple ways of tracking your path. Using the GPS functions, the X9 can "Mark Home" for you. It locks into its memory the latitude and longitude of your location when you activate this function. Everything else you do in relation to "home" is dependent on you marking the right place as "home" (duh). It is imperative that you understand that "home" is a relative term that refers to where you're standing when you activate the "Mark Home" function. (If anyone ever invents a watch that can find my house by pushing a button, I'm going to worry).

With "Home" marked in your X9, you can then begin a hike, outing, whatever - and wherever you end up find your way back by using the "Find Home" feature. From wherever you ended up, the X9 will direct you back to the location you were in when you "Marked Home". That's one way to not get lost.

The X9 also has something called "Active Track" as one of its navigation features. Using the time-interval GPS fix captures, the X9 can track your hike over time and distance, recording into memory which direction you went in for what period of time. Just like "Find home" directs you back to whatever location you used to "Mark home," "Track Back" will direct you back along the path you took as the X9 recorded your "Active Track". In other words, it gives you opposite directions than those you would have followed going out, so that you are lead back along the same path you used to travel out. Again, makes it hard to get lost. But it gets even better.

The X9 has a "Routes" feature. By preloading waypoints into the X9, you can create a planned route of travel that takes you from waypoint to waypoint. As you travel your route, the X9 will tell you which direction to go in to get to the next waypoint. Because you preload the waypoints in by latitude and longitude, the X9 can even tell you how to get from waypoint to waypoint even if you want to get to them out of order from your original route plan.

As I said at the beginning, the capabilities being built into today's "watches" far exceed what was available as little as twenty years ago. To make proper use of the tools, you have to learn how to use them in the manner that best suits your operation plan.

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