Future Weapons - Top Technologies in Development & Use by the US Warfighter
Science - or more appropriately, science fiction - has, for a long time, promised the development and implementation of all sorts of incredible weapon systems and technology. They're finally delivering: several new technologies have just been introduced, and more are coming to the battlefield. The big transformation for vehicles is the long-anticipated arrival of combat lasers, robots and remote control. Talking about "robotics" and "remote control" may conjure up visions of toy R/C planes or small drones - but it will be the A-10 tank-buster and bomber planes that are fully controlled by Army Special Ops spotters on the ground. Combat lasers will be more effective than what Hollywood imagined for the Terminator: real lasers will not have a visible "ray gun" beam, but rather a very real, 150 kilowatt beam hitting your eye that will blind you. Just before it cooks your brain.
Soldiers will not be left out. They are being equipped with superguns that will offer each warfighter the firepower of a group of squads, and technological aids that boost the accuracy and effectiveness of regular soldiers to the level of snipers. By 2020, there will be the deployment of thousands of exoskeletons that will help soldiers carry 200-pound loads.
We'll see pain ray antennas, next-generation drones and flying Hummers - yes, four-person flying combat vehicles. Cheaper than helicopters and only a few times the cost of Humvees, they will be very easy to fly thanks to autopilot and GPS-enhanced control. Let's take a walk through the armory.
Coming to the Battlefield...
Combat Lasers for Ships, Planes and Ground Vehicles
The HELLADS (High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System) program is developing a 150 kilowatt laser weapon system that is ten times smaller and lighter than current lasers of similar power, enabling integration onto tactical aircraft to defend against and defeat ground threats. It will also allow for a significant increase in engagement ranges compared to ground-based systems.
The United States Navy and Air Force will soon be installing "liquid-cooled, solid-state lasers" in their combat airplanes. The goal? These lasers will be used to shoot down missiles and rockets targeted back at the planes. Firing tests are slated to happen within a year.
In 2014, the U.S. Navy is prepping for the testing of combat lasers on the USS Ponce - stationed in the Persian Gulf. The following year, the Army's High-Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator program will be testing a Humvee-mounted laser system that can counter rocket, artillery and mortar projectiles.
Remote Control Fighters and Bombers
DARPA's Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) program is to demonstrate the capability for a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) - that's a soldier with a radio and camera system, designated to direct an attack - on the ground "to visualize, select and employ weapons at the time of his choosing" from an optionally manned/unmanned A-10 platform. An aircraft that is within 30 nautical miles of a target is expected to deliver a weapon on that target within six minutes of a JTAC request. A live-fire demonstration is planned for 2015.
So let's consider this for a minute...the A-10 has the ability to fire smart weapons like the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), a wind-corrected munitions dispenser, and integrated targeting pods; that's in addition to its more usual cache of goods like AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles, cluster bombs, rocket pods, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and electronic countermeasures. And we can't leave out its 30mm Gatling-type cannon - which fires depleted uranium armor-piercing shells at about 70 rounds per second, one of the most powerful cannons ever to be flown on board a plane. These weapons stores can be called in for a strike, without anyone even in the cockpit, with JTAC in place. What's even scarier is that the A-10 can talk back, too, via the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) - providing sensor data to our personnel on the ground.
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Soldier Exoskeleton/Human Augmentation System (HAS)
It's just like the movie, "Aliens" - where Ripley gets in that big yellow human forklift and goes to town. In reality, it's about increases in productivity and quality of work, with reduced injury - and there's two ways it's happening:
Research has shown that back strain is the most common non-combat injury because of the heavy packs the warfighter must carry in the field. A soldier with a pack would normally go, ideally, about 3 mph and cover 10-12 miles in a day. But the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC Exoskeleton) lets a soldier carry a 200-pound pack with minimal effort over a 12+-mile hike, and can assist speed marching at up to 7 mph (10mph is HULC's max speed). A HULC could be used to carry a 50 to 80 pound foldable motocross bike, which in itself would enable a soldier to go about 60-80 mph. That's augmentation at its finest; Lockheed Martin, makers of the HULC, calls it a leap forward in battlefield mobility. It's set to enter a second development phase this year as the system is refined so it can be worn under a uniform.
Then there's the Mantis (an industrial exoskeleton, adapted from the military-grade HULC), which will help workers hold heavy equipment that can cause fatigue and back injuries. Mantis has a mechanical extension for a wearer's arm and absorbs the strain and vibration from using heavy power tools and equipment like grinders and sanders, impact wrenches, blasting tools and more. So it seems that wielding heavy equipment in a factory or shipyard will now be nearly effortless.
Both HAS prototypes look like leg braces and a large backpack; but can significantly increase an individual's strength. Tests found productivity gains of more than 30 percent. The biggest drawback? Power. Most exoskeletons are battery operated, so they don't have much range yet. Still, MIT professor Hugh Herr is convinced: "The era that we're now entering is the bionic age," he says.
The Future is Here.
Weapon Systems Now Being Rolled Out in Large-Scale Field Use
The XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System
After years of development, the U.S. Army has unleashed a new weapon on the ground in Afghanistan: the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System. It's a high-tech rifle that can be programmed so that its 25-mm. ammunition detonates either in front of or behind a target - meaning it can be fired just above a wall before it explodes and kills the enemy.
Soldiers who've tested it in combat have dubbed it "The Punisher."
How it works: the XM25 allows soldiers to fire at an enemy fighter that has concealed himself, such as in a trench or behind a wall ("in defilade"). The shooter first determines the precise distance to the target with a specially designed scope attached to the rifle; an internal computer then programs a specialized round with the data from the scope. Upon making a final manual adjustment, the soldier fires the round, which detonates directly over the target - exploding shrapnel straight down.
The XM153 CROWS II
Problem: the enemy wants to kill you, and you sure don't want to expose yourself to the opportunity. Solution: the XM153 CROWS II. It's what allows you to shoot back, without exposing yourself. The XM153 enables a fighting crew to operate from the safety of the inside of an armored combat vehicle, while still carrying out patrols, acquiring targets, and firing a variety of weapons more efficiently - including shoot-on-the-move and target-leading abilities.
Bowing initially as RAVEN, the first remote weapons systems of this kind made its debut in Iraq in 2004 and were employed primarily by Special Forces, military police, infantry and transport units. The XM153 CROWS II, however, is now installed in over 1000 vehicles throughout the Army; it will soon be integrated into theall-terrain rapid response vehicles that will replace the Humvee.
How it works: The CROWS is composed of two parts: the weapons mount affixed to the exterior of the vehicle, and the control station - where the gunner is protected under armor. The mount is capable of 360 degree rotation and -20 to +60 degree elevation. Extremely versatile, it enables the use of theM2 .50-cal Machine Gun, theMk19 40-mm Automatic Grenade Machine Gun and theM240B 7.62 mm Machine GunandWeapon. Enhanced target acquisition systems mean a daylight video camera, and a thermal imager for night operations...both of which allow for enhanced target ID and engagement capabilities. Even better is the integrated fire control system, which provides ballistic correction.
The XM2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle (ESR)
The sniper's challenge - be far enough from your target to be out of his range, but not so far that you have to sacrifice accuracy. The current sniper rifle, the M24, has a range of 2,625 feet; so when the US military began outfitting its snipers with the XM2010 (the M24's replacement) in 2011, it gave them the opportunity to hit a target from about three quarters of a mile away. That's a 50% improvement on effective range relative to the M24, thanks in part to larger ammunition.
The Army's goal was to help their snipers in engagements in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. Using a bigger bullet, however, comes with a price: it's heavier to carry, along with increases in recoil, jump, muzzle flash, and barrel wear. So by rolling out the XM2010, snipers now have a weapon system that allows for more adjustments, and a better user fit: the stock folds to shorten the system for easier transport and better concealment, while still allowing additional accessories to be mounted on Picatinny rails.
How it works: Bigger isn't always better - but in this case, yes it is. The XM2010 is fitted with a 5-round box magazine (which is detachable), an easy-on/off sound suppressor with muzzle brake, a Leupold Mark 4 telescopic sight (with range estimation and bullet drop compensation), clip-on night sight and a new corrosion-resistant coating. But the biggest difference is the round: the U.S. government acquired .300 Winchester Magnummatch-grade ammunition, which isfired at a muzzle velocity in the neighborhood of 2,850 ft/s. The upgrade should increase the maximum effective range of .300 Winchester Magnum sniper rifle systems to 1,500 yards, and lessen the influence of wind on a round in flight.
Project One Shot
DARPA is rolling out "One Shot," the goal of which is to deliver sniper rifles whose accuracy won't be thrown off by high-velocity winds. "Military snipers may only get one chance to hit their target," say the minds at DARPA. "The One Shot program seeks to enable snipers to accurately hit targets with the first round, under crosswind conditions, day or night, at the maximum effective range of the weapon."
How it works: Pretty simple - factor in every possible variable in your surrounding environment, make adjustments at supercomputer speed and pull the trigger. The One Shot system, comprised of a compact observation, measurement, and ballistic calculation system (mounted on the weapon or the scope) takes in a massive amount of information...analyzes it...and provides a profile of measurements to compensate for crosswinds, deviations, atmospheric turbulence, time of day and other environmental conditions within range to target. One Shot then takes these calculations and gives the shooter an offset aim point on his target, through the scope - meeting the goal of higher probability of making that critical first-shot hit.
Extreme Accuracy Tactical Ordinance (EXACTO)
Even with something as advanced as One Shot, there can still be inaccuracies; so remove all doubt, and leave it up to the bullet to make its own adjustments. That's right, a smart .50-caliber bullet that can alter its trajectory - on its way to the target - for changes in wind and humidity.
What we're really talking about here is the first ever guided small-caliber bullet. Besting current sniper technology's range twice-over, the EXACTO .50-cal round (and accompanying optical sighting technology) will allow a shooter to "prosecute" moving targets in unfriendly weather conditions - something considered near-impossible, currently. Endgame? It's an improvement on safety: putting more distance between shooter and the target, and spend less time engaging the enemy.
How it works: The Extreme Accuracy Tactical Ordinance system combines a maneuverable bullet with a real-time guidance system to track the target and deliver the projectile spot on. So each bullet really functions more like a mini-guided missile: each round has its own aero controls (steering vanes), its own power source, microprocessor guidance systems, sensors, etc. The real trick is cramming all that technology into the limited amount of space of a projectile, all while being able to withstand being shot out of a gun. But it's as close to "set it and forget it" as a shooter can get.
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Looking Forward: FutureWeapons & Gear
What's Coming in the Next 10 Years for the U.S. Army
Lockheed Martin's Squad Mission Support System (SMSS)
The system, which turns a six-wheeled amphibious ATV into a robotic packhorse and charging station, has been subjected to a variety of simulated warzone environments in both remote controlled and fully autonomous modes.
The SMSS can carry a squad's food supplies, water, batteries, heavy weapons, ammunition and survival gear, and can even accommodate casualties. Besides transporting up to 600lbs of gear, the SMSS also provides two to four kilowatts of power, and is capable of charging 146 batteries within ten hours.
Lockheed provided four of the combat robot vehicles to ground troops in Afghanistan, said Joe Zinecker, program director for Lockheed Missiles and Fire Control. "There is nothing similar to this vehicle at all," he said. "It's the first large combat robot to enter the service."
The robot has a range of 125 miles, and can either operate like a remote-control toy car, or be programmed. It also has voice control and sensors, including optical remote sensing technology, infrared and color cameras. It's expected to go into production around 2017 or 2018.
Laser-Powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
It is possible that by 2020, a Lasermotive laser-powered UAV could be deployed. It's through a technological mechanism called "power beaming" - electrical power can be transmitted by converting the electrical current into alaserbeam, which is pointed at asolar cellreceiver on board the aircraft. Lasermotive, the company who's behind the engineering, has already taken small UAVs equipped with a small on-board battery (with enough juice for just a few minutes flight time), hit it with the laser propulsion beam, and powered themfor over 12 hours. So, using that technology, these combat UAVs would be able to keep flying with remote recharging from a ground-based laser - which could be generated from a current Hummer, MRAP or Squad Mission Support System.
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In Saving Private Ryan, "Upham" was a runner - he was the one who brought more ammo for the other soldiers. This UAV delivery service is the same idea, but faster and more reliable. And remember the Squad Mission Support System from before? These vehicles could be run from that automated platform to provide a variety of services, such as aerial surveillance, laser targeting for weapons systems, delivery service of ammo, weapons or other supplies from the SMSS.
The system for loading different things into the UAV (based on a short command transmitted from someone up to a few miles away) could be like the automatic data cartridge loaders used in data centers. The UAV would be sitting on top of the Squad robot vehicle, where different stacks of cartridges could be loaded. The stack would rotate to the right cartridge, and get fed into a payload area. Then the vehicle would fly and deliver it to soldiers a few miles away. It's supply, on-demand, from the Squad ground robot - providing a level of always-available close air support to combat squads.
DARPA's Flying Hummer: the Transformer (TX)
You're a soldier deployed in combat. How do you get around? As of right now, it's two ways - highly mobile multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) or helicopter, which aren't on hand as often as you might like. So DARPA decided, "why have 2 good things, when we can have 1 great thing?" The TX program combines all the pluses of both ground vehicles and helicopters into a single, agile vehicle. Heavy ground-to-air fire? Drive through it. Road obstructions? Fly over them; the Transformer will give ground troops transportation options that run counter to just about any threat.
Keeping with DARPA's mission of "preventing strategic surprise," transport will no longer be restricted to the usual roads and paths, which make troop movement predictable. It also means that resupply operations can happen more quickly to more places; fire teams can get in and out faster and easier; and medical evacuation capabilities would grow, thereby increasing the probability of survival of the wounded. What really makes this work is cross-training - anyone can drive a Hummer, so navigation and control of TX is designed to happen without the need for a dedicated pilot (sorry, flyboys). Scouting missions, personnel transport and logistics can be carried out by any four-man team. And they're still tweaking it, too: DARPA is looking into hybrid electric drive ducted fan propulsion systems, more efficient energy storage methods, morphing vehicle bodies, and unmanned flight controls. Flying Hummers...more than meets the eye. We could see it by 2020.
The technology serves a dual purpose - plasma antennas will allow for more compact "pain guns," with the added benefit of individual targeting capabilities. Plasma antennas will also enable multi-gigabit communication speeds for U.S. forces in range.
This means more secure battlefield communications, electronic intelligence and a lower probability of detection - as the plasma signature, when turned off, is unreadable by radar systems. It also means better (more secure) communications with remotely piloted vehicles and UAVs.
Plasma antennas are also slated for development in electronic warfare capabilities, such as electronic countermeasures (like flash-bang grenades) and Electronic Surveillance Measures (known as ESMs). In the hands of the military - and even U.S. Homeland Security and Border Control, it's a potentially effective tool for border protection & perimeter monitoring.
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Author & Lecturer
Brian L. Wang, M.B.A. is a long time futurist. He is the Director of Research for the Lifeboat Foundation and a lecturer at the Singularity University, in addition to being the author of Nextbigfuture.com.He has worked in the information technology industry for over 20 years and ran his own professional services computer consulting company. He has also been involved in e-commerce, internet startups and real estate investing. He is the author of Next big future website (Ranked in the Top 10 Science sites by Technorati and Top 100 Green Sites).He has written over 13000 articles for Next big future including in depth coverage on energy (especially nuclear and nuclear fusion), space, quantum computers, superconductors, nanotechnology, advanced computers and communication, military, technology and AI.He has provided an annual update on nanotechnology at the Singularity University from 2009 to 2012.Show all Brian Wang's Articles