Next-generation weapons poised to transform how U.S. fights wars

| Saturday, March 5, 2016, 10:40 p.m.

If the military must fight another war, the enemy might confront laser-firing jets, wheeled robots shooting tank-melting warheads and soldiers armed with rifles that make each of them a sniper.

Those are just some of the high-tech weapons being designed for the military. If they pan out, they could revolutionize the way the Pentagon wages war — more networked than ever, with bullets that provide the ability to detect and destroy foes with ruthless precision, limiting American casualties.

Critics contend America's high-priced wonder weapons often fizzle, especially when fighting foes who refuse to go toe-to-toe with our high-tech might. They voice concerns that robotic weapons might remove human decision-making from killing, triggering ethical concerns about how war is waged.

In the forefront of military weapons research stands the Virginia-based Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. With an annual budget of $2.9 billion, DARPA funds nearly 250 projects designed to ensure U.S. military superiority worldwide while sparking economic development at home.

DARPA's priorities include finding and fouling enemy radar before it spots American forces; developing navigation systems that don't need Global Positioning System satellites that are vulnerable to enemy missiles; delivering warheads to targets at hypersonic speeds; and erecting an electronic wall to protect America from cyber attacks while simultaneously sifting through trillions of pieces of data for signs of terrorism overseas.

Fighting smarter

Some DARPA research, such as neural implants that help victims of roadside bombs overcome brain injuries, are at the far edge of science. Other projects use existing technology to fight wars smarter, such as the Upward Falling Payloads program that will pre-position military supplies in mobile pods on or near the ocean floor.

The pods, which are remotely summoned, will start to float to the surface before speeding robotically wherever the supplies are needed. Stashing the material more than a mile below the waves makes it difficult for enemies to find and destroy it.

The program, which was started in 2013, will cost $22 million this fiscal year but could save billions by reducing the need for floating fleets of supply ships. Sea testing on the pods is slated for summer 2017, according to DARPA spokesman Jared B. Adams.

Unmanned systems are the wave of the future, said Michael Horowitz, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the nation's foremost experts on autonomous weapons. Though critics caution that robots could be programmed to hunt humans, with little or no control by service members over the lethal systems, Horowitz contends that's “overstated.”

“Militaries want to build weapons they can control. The last people that want to employ weapons with unpredictable software or uncertain effects will be militaries,” Horowitz said.

DARPA's ongoing Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment program puts a single person in charge of a swarm of machines that, like a wolf pack, track down enemies. Those in the agency's Fast Lightweight Autonomy project want to design a robot brain that can quickly identifies obstacles and help unmanned vehicles overcome them, much like a bee or a bird darts over and away from predators.

Horowitz argues that these and other DARPA weapons will allow humans to exert more control over the chaos of battle because they're designed to be “more accurate and less likely to inadvertently kill civilians.”

Labs of the future

Inside the military's labs, researchers say most experiments aren't nearly as sexy as armed robots or underwater drones, but their projects promise to be just as transformative.

“We like to say that we're the lab of 20 years from now,” said Joseph Penano, a top scientist in the Naval Research Laboratory's Plasma Physics Division.

His current task involves figuring out how high-intensity, low-energy bursts of light can use the air they heat up like a lens, focusing the beam to detect poisonous gases or gunpowder residue from long distances.

A lab colleague, Jas Sanghera, is studying spinel — a rugged gem-like mineral made of magnesium aluminium. By heating and compressing powdered crystals into transparent sheets, his team hopes to find a cost-effective way to replace bulletproof glass while hardening cockpits, the blast-restistant visors worn by infantrymen and warhead domes attached to high-speed missiles.

Discoveries could transform popular consumer goods, too, such as making mobile phones impervious to destruction.

At the Army's Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, researchers are conducting experiments with steel. They hope to use 3-D printers to sculpt metal to military specifications, sometimes relying on sintering — bonding particles with super-headed lasers — to make parts on demand. That could slash the cost of transporting tons of spare parts, reducing the number of gas-guzzling convoys and soldiers pulled off the line to protect them.

The Pentagon has greenlighted similar projects to “print” food.

“Replicating spare parts to repair equipment is not as flashy as sending a sophisticated drone into the sky, but logistics are the backbone that sustains modern militaries, which means 3-D printing could become a vital force in helping militaries get to and stay on the battlefield,” Horowitz said.

Focused on reality?

On the battlefield, EXACTO self-guided bullets have the potential to make every soldier a marksman. They can travel in a curve, like a sliced golf ball, to hit a target.

Michael Vlahos, a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the U.S. Naval War College, listens to the talk about transformative military technology for which no precise price tag has been released and rolls his eyes.

Pointing to overdue Pentagon procurement debacles, such as the budget-busting F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program forecast at $1.5 trillion, he argues that America needs to quit “fetishizing these wonder weapons and finally come to terms with what war really is: sacrifice.”

“At the heart of war, there's sacrifice. We get away from that when we start looking at wonder weapons as technology that will save us from sacrifice, that will protect us from losses,” he said.

That's particularly true with enemies who refuse to play “by America's rulebook,” Vlahos said, pitting our superior technology against their forces in pitched battle, as Germany and Japan did during World War II and Saddam Hussein's Iraq tried in 1991.

He said murkier, protracted counter-insurgency wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq exposed a Pentagon unsuccessfully trying to apply technological solutions to human issues.

“We want technology to fight our wars for us,” said Vlahos. “It's time to stop thinking like that.”

Editor's note: First of two-part series. Coming Monday: The latest in consumer technology.

Carl Prine is a Tribune-Review investigative reporter. Reach him at at 412-320-7826.

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