DARPA, Defense Science Board, Domestic Surveillance by Unmanned Aircraft, Drones, DSB, Future Vertical Lift, Military Technologies, NASA, Pentagon, Plutonium, Plutonium-Powered Electronics, Prompt Global Strike, Remote Weapons, United States Air Force, United States and weapons of mass destruction, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), Weapons of Mass Destruction
Networks of unmanned submarines. Subsonic cruise missiles with intercontinental range. Radios powered by decaying plutonium. Those are just a few of the technologies that the Pentagon‘s top scientific advisory panel wants to see in troops’ hands by 2030.
Most of the technology already exists in some form, largely experimental or conceptual. Networked unmanned submarines is not a new idea – defense companies will happily sell you one of a dozen unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), the key is to make them bigger, more advanced, and digitally tie them together instead of sending them off one at a time on short-range missions. Likewise, cruise missiles already exist, but tripling their range would allow a ship in Norfolk harbor to strike targets off Alaska. Plutonium-powered electronics are occasionally used by NASA to power spacecraft on long-distance missions, but nobody’s bothered to build them in quantity.
Moving troops faster is another crucial action where technology efforts are already ongoing. The Army is running the Future Vertical Lift program to find replacements for the aging traditional helicopters it uses now. Four contenders have stepped forward using more effective versions of TiltRotor like Bell’s V-280 and pusher-propellers like Sikorsky’s S-97.
A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program has begun to search for something brand-new, that can fly more efficiently than an aircraft and hover more efficiently than a helicopter, dramatically increasing range and speed. But even that’s not enough for the Defense Science Board. In a recently-released report (.pdf), panelists say that they want to build on those concepts, doubling the range and speed of those still-notional projects.
The DSB report focuses on how the U.S. military can operate in a world where it is no longer the top dog, and even small states have access to satellite reconnaissance and other advanced technologies. The Board suggests investments in four broad categories: countering a peer competitor (a not-so-subtle reference to China), anticipating surprises, improving the effectiveness of existing forces, and ‘superiority through cost-imposing strategies.’
In many ways the report focuses on the same sort of technologies envisioned during the Bush administration’s ‘revolution in military affairs’ era, envisioning a light, responsive, highly networked force backed by standoff and remote weapons. Longstanding mobility and long-range strike initiatives are “encouraged in the report,” which backs up current investment in the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift and U.S. Air Force’s Prompt Global Strike programs, then calls for them to take a few steps further.
Crucially, the report pointedly mentions affordability as a key goal, a shift away from the traditional approach of building small numbers of highly advanced units. “Quantity,” the report says, paraphrasing Stalin, “has a quality all its own, especially when quantity can be coupled to enhanced operational flexibility.” The theme of affordability and proportionality runs through the report, noting that an adversary should pay more to counter the weapon than the weapon itself costs to use.
The U.S. has traditionally packed each generation of weaponry with the latest in technology, making them overly expensive and consequently built in ever-smaller numbers. The result is a highly capable but often limited force; during the Iraq invasion, the U.S. destroyed Iraqi tanks with ease but never found a counter to groups of people with AK47s. Airstrikes in Afghanistan see the use of advanced, high-performance tactical fighter aircraft firing million-plus dollar missiles at adversaries with rusted assault weapons. A plethora of sophisticated, multi-million dollar electronic jamming systems against remotely-activated explosive devices were largely countered when bombmakers began using simple pressure plates.
The technologies sought by the Defense Science Board (DSB) would be helpful in any conflict scenario, but the Board is clearly not anticipating an Iraq- or Afghanistan-style occupation. Technologies in at similar readiness levels more useful in those scenarios — personal heads-up displays, universal translators, networked drones airborne for years at a time, to name a few — are missing. Let’s hope we don’t end up in one of those occupation scenarios again. [Huh? Is the a “heads up?”]