The high-tech future for the Army
Today's incursions by high tech into the ranks of the U.S. Army are just the
The next wave will include a lot more robots and drones, and they'll be
smarter and more autonomous than the current gear. They'll communicate better
with each other and do more and more of the dangerous legwork now done by
flesh-and-blood soldiers, and some of them will be as small as insects.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces will start to field so-called directed-energy weapons:
lasers that can shoot down incoming artillery rounds, and less-than-lethal "heat
rays" designed to disperse crowds.
That's the vision, anyway. The reality isn't so easy. Getting those lasers to
be field-ready, for instance, is "a very hard technical problem," says Thomas
Killion, the Department of the Army's deputy assistant secretary for research
and technology--or more casually, chief scientist.
And the centerpiece of the Army's technological makeover, the ambitious Future Combat Systems program, looks
likely to lose a big chunk of hoped-for funding in the 2008 defense budget,
currently being debated in Congress.
In a nutshell, FCS--with a development
schedule stretching well into the next decade--aims for a complete package of
fully networked and brand-new gear ranging from unattended ground sensors to
manned and unmanned vehicles, common components and a common operating
environment, battle command software, next-generation communications systems and
more. As it stands, the Army in July set out its schedule for the first FCS
spinouts--a "low-rate initial production effort"--of some gear, including ground
mobile radio technology and the non-line-of-sight cannon, or NLOS-C.
Of course, there have been notable tech successes along the way, such as the
robots that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are using to find roadside bombs
and other explosives.
Killion--who has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, a degree from the Naval
War College and work experience for the U.S. Air Force--spoke with News.com this
week about how FCS fits into the larger scheme of the Army's R&D efforts,
how the Army's research efforts tie in with similar work throughout the Defense
Department, and what's up with specific tech projects including gear currently
serving in Iraq, along with upcoming minirobots and solid-state lasers.
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