From cyberwarfare to drones, the future of conflict is electronic

Innovation can take many forms: Today’s computers are faster. Space travel is cheaper. Artificial intelligence is smarter than ever before. The military is … well …

While the details on Intel’s latest processors or LG’s new OLED technology remain a simple Google search away, the uniquely secretive processes of the United States military make it tough to know what’s truly cutting edge. Much of the work happens behind closed doors, and even when an innovation is made public, layers of classified details often prevent us from ever knowing the full story. We may learn about battery-powered exoskeletons for soldiers from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), or real-life railguns that shoot hunks of metal at blistering speed, but the projects we don’t learn about may be even wilder.

So what has true military innovation looked like over the past decade? How are our soldiers equipped today? And what should we expect a decade from now? Are our armed forces really as advanced as Tom Clancy novels would have you believe, or is reliance on an antiquated procurement process dramatically holding it back? What would military technology look like if a company like Apple or Microsoft were in charge?

To understand it all, you’ll need to step back more than 10 years, to one fateful day in 2001, to witness the genesis of modern conflict, and the technology the military uses to fight it.

New enemy, new strategies

In the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, then-U.S. President George W. Bush took less than a month to declare war on Osama bin Laden’s militant Sunni Islamist organization, al-Qaida. A coordinated attack that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people, 9/11 heralded a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy that would send ripples throughout our country’s armed forces for years.

Following 9/11, the United States mobilized a military that simply wasn’t ready for threats, like IEDs, that it encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photos: Wikipedia)

The United States entered Operation Enduring Freedom, as it became known, with the strongest, most technologically advanced armed forces on the planet. From state-of-the-art jet fighters and automatic grenade launchers to mammoth personnel carriers and tanks, it seemed as though the U.S. military would have an enormous advantage over an army equipped with Soviet-era leftovers and Toyota Land Cruisers.

Yet that technology didn’t prepare the United States for what it would actually encounter once it stepped foot on Afghan soil.

“Threat at that time directly informed innovation.”

“The United States lacked a real threat,” former naval aviation Cmdr. Ward Carroll, who now serves as editor-in-chief of military news outlet We Are The Mighty, told Digital Trends. “We were fighting an asymmetrical war after 9/11, and had to adapt to who we were fighting.” And as Carroll put it, the “threat at that time directly informed innovation.”

The prevalence of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) transformed the battlefield: Decades of technological advancements and military might were no match for $10 worth of explosives, shoddy wiring, and a cell phone today’s teens would be embarrassed to carry. These crippling booby traps changed the course of what was under development at home, leading to significant upgrades in body-armor technology and paving the way for sand-resistant gear, improved night vision, and a host of advancements for Humvees and other armored vehicles.

Foster-Miller-TALON-robot
The Foster-Miller TALON can disarm bombs without putting the lives of servicemen at risk. (Photo: U.S. Army Research Laboratory)

The Almighty Dollar

Innovation during the 2000s meant adapting to a new enemy, and a new landscape — one that included Iraq by 2003 and Pakistan by 2004. But defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and others always face a bigger obstacle than merely engineering solutions: procurement budgets.

“Because the Pentagon is so constrained by its budget, it’s always looking to do more with less,” Carroll continued. “This is why drones are so huge today, the tech saves millions of dollars. And unfortunately, sometimes decisions on what to develop are made arbitrarily — there’s always a huge political factor — or by third parties.” Innovation, Carrol says, takes a back seat when you’re working with taxpayer dollars.

Dr. Lawrence Schuette, director of research for the Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR), agrees. “What holds us back is that we are one of the great stewards of taxpayer’s dollars,” he told Digital Trends. “We are resource constrained, as is everybody, so you really don’t want to be spending money on things at the wrong amount. But we definitely saw the IED threat in the 2000s, and worked very hard with what we had to go after it.”

Born from this threat were sand- and IED-resistant armored vehicles and weapons, efficient body armor capable of protecting soldiers while remaining lightweight, and strategically placed forward operating bases (FOBs). As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq plodded on, so did the ways of dealing with IEDs. The Foster-Miller TALON allowed soldiers to destroy IEDs from up to 1,000 meters away. Why put soldiers in harm’s way when a remote-controlled robot could sift out danger instead?

But the IED still ruled both conflicts. According to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count website, roughly 1,509 Americans have been killed by IEDs in Iraq since July of 2003. Clearly, there was a problem – and we threw money at it.

In 2001, before Bush launched operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, the United States’ annual defense budget sat at roughly $335 billion. It was a staggering figure, but as the years went on and America became embroiled in desert conflicts, the military budget ballooned. After entering Operation Enduring Freedom, the military’s budget rose just slightly to $362 billion for the 2002 fiscal year. Each subsequent year saw a significant increase — anywhere from $60 to $70 billion — with spending topping out at a whopping $721 billion by 2010, more than double where it had been at the beginning of the decade.

Boots off the ground

As far back as the Cold War, the United States has employed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more popularly referred to today as drones. Though the first batches of these devices were used strictly for surveillance, a prevailing desire to get soldiers out of harm’s way led to weaponizing them as well.

“Why shoot one of something when you could shoot four?”

Enter the Predator drone, an unmanned aerial system from General Atomics introduced in 1995, but first armed with Lockheed Martin-manufactured Hellfire missiles in 2001. Predators and similar UAVs carried out swarms of coordinated attacks in Pakistan against al-Qaida and the Taliban: 2,341 fighters with these groups have reportedly been killed by drone strikes since 2004. By 2009 — President Barack Obama’s first year in office — drone strikes in Pakistan became as normal as any other operation carried out by the military.

“This goes back to the Pentagon always wanting to be able to accomplish more with less,” Carroll explains. “They think, ‘Why shoot one of something when you could shoot four?’ Drone technology perfectly fits into this line of thinking.”

Though drones had been used sparingly since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, their perceived effectiveness — though controversial — kept the program thriving into 2010 and beyond. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, more than 400 drone strikes have been carried out inside Pakistan’s tribal areas since 2004, with the majority coming between 2009 and 2014.

The U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper, also known as a Predator drone, has become a backbone of the military’s operations in the Middle East. (Credit: United States Air Force)

Just as researchers saw a need for technology to take soldiers out of harm’s way when dealing with IEDs, they saw drones as a way to take pilots out of potential danger. Operators on the ground could fly the drones without putting themselves in harm’s way.

We don’t need no stinkin’ tanks

As drones become staples in the skies above the battlefield, tanks are getting harder to find. But other new weapons are filling the void.

“People are going away from the tank a bit, but still want an armored vehicle,” Jarrod Krull, Orbital ATK communications manager, told Digital Trends. “Tank-on-tank warfare is likely going away, but having the ability to defeat hardened targets and operate in a somewhat urban terrain is still necessary. This is why we have precision weapons like the XM395 Hatchet, for instance, which is a small, very precise gravity weapon.”

Capable of being dropped directly from a UAV, the Hatchet is deadly accurate. Armed with a laser-guided and laser-seeking navigation system, it’s an optimized warhead that provides a lot of punch in a very small package. Orbital began developing the weapon after seeing a need for small, propulsion-less weapons that are easily carried — and dropped — by UAVs, helicopters, or bombers. The Hatchet weighs no more than six pounds, so it’s as easy to deploy one as it is two or 10, depending on the size of the target and the goal.

“While soldiers might have eyes on a moving target, it’s hard to get assets on it quickly,” Krull explained. “The target is gone before they can get to it. ATK came up with this weapon [the XM 395] that can see the target and get to it immediately.”

Though Orbital is reacting to the almost inevitable transition in warfare away from armored vehicles toward drones, the company does still manufacture weaponized solutions for tanks. The Mk44 Bushmaster Automatic Cannon, for instance, is a 30mm chain gun capable of firing a variety of ammunition types. It can even be modified to fire a 40mm round, a new area of ammunition Krull said Orbital has shifted into. Boasting low life cycle costs and supreme reliability, if the military does need to be on the ground, the Mk44 is considered bleeding edge.

F-35 fighter
The troubled F-35 has become the poster child for rampant military spending. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

A $1.5 trillion eye in the sky

Even as reliance on drones grows, the military hasn’t moved away from its jet fighter program — quite the opposite, in fact. When Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract to develop and manufacture the next great aircraft, dubbed the Joint Strike Fighter, it was supposed to serve as the revolutionary next step for fighters and supplant the decades-old F-16. The project has taken some time: Lockheed won the contract in 2001 while the Air Force declared the new plane combat-ready on August 2, 2016.

Lockheed’s F-35 Lightning II was to feature a combination of strong computational power, complete sensor fusion, unprecedented stealth capabilities, and an innovative new helmet to create a first-of-its-kind fighter experience. In other words, this is the futuristic military tech you were looking for.

“(The F-35 helmet) basically allows who’s flying to become the pilot and the machine; it achieves ultimate synergy.”

“Having come over from other fifth-generation airplanes, I was incredibly curious to see what ‘state-of-the-art’ meant,” F-35 chief test pilot Al Norman told Digital Trends. “We’ve seen a tremendous transition and acceleration of capabilities over the last five years. It’s been an enormous leap in tech capability.”

To make the project adaptable to different environments, Lockheed’s F-35 comes in three different variations: a conventional takeoff and landing variant (F-35A), a short takeoff and vertical landing variant (F-35B), and a modified F-35A that boasts larger wings with foldable wing tips (F-35C). Norman was quick to point out that each model only takes off and lands differently; once they’re in the air, the computer systems that help fly the jet, as well as the pilot interface, are all the same.

Short takeoffs and vertical landings are interesting, but the tech of the F-35 is where the craft truly shines. The new helmet is as innovative as they come, giving pilots a full range of view outside the jet. Furthermore, the head-up display from previous fighters has been completely upgraded to integrate fully with the new helmet.

The F-35 will replace the decades-old F-16. (Credit: United States Air Force)

“It basically gives pilots the ability to see through the eyeballs of the airplane,” Norman continued. “An image is projected in a binocular sense through the visor of the helmet once it’s plugged into the airplane, and this image is projected anywhere they look. It’s got night vision, infrared, all sorts of sensors that switch seamlessly with one another. It basically allows who’s flying to become the pilot and the machine; it achieves ultimate synergy.”

By simply looking around in the helmet, pilots have the ability to easily designate targets or waypoints. The whole contraption is as if someone were plugging themselves into something out of James Cameron’s Avatar.

That laundry list of state-of-the-art technology also comes with intense concerns from both Congress and the Department of Defense over inflated costs, performance issues, and changes in leadership. To date, the U.S. military has dumped roughly $1.5 trillion (yes, with a T) into the Joint Strike Fighter program, with each variation of the jet costing anywhere from three to five times more than the decades-old F-15 and F-16 planes. This isn’t necessarily surprising — we’re talking about cutting-edge tech versus something manufactured in the 1970s, after all. But even the Pentagon has admitted to the program’s failures.

F-35 helmet

Throughout its life span, Lockheed Martin has maintained the F-35’s competency, even going so far as to say it’s “400 percent more effective in air-to-air combat capability than the best fighters currently available.” Perhaps so, but in 2015, an investigation conducted by the Pentagon also found that the Joint Strike Fighter  program inaccurately counted aircraft failures to boost statistics and neglected to address “wing drop” concerns, while the helmet continued to trigger too many false alarms and showed stability issues.

“Part of the job of flight tests is to test design to see how it’s going. You know, ‘What do we need to tweak or fix?’” Norman told us. “It’s no different than making software and beta testing to refine it with better software. Many times we hit the nail right on the head — which is by and large what we find — but you just don’t know some things until you test it. You can’t replicate it until you put the craft through its paces.”

Despite a projected annual cost of roughly $12.5 billion, the Department of Defense is pot committed to the Joint Strike Fighter program at this point. Whether it will help battle the enemies of today and tomorrow remains to be seen.

The military tech of tomorrow

Based solely on Hollywood’s portrayals, you’d surely picture future military squadrons stock full of robotic soldiers — and their drone counterparts, of course — equipped with concentrated laser weapons capable of incinerating anything on contact. It’s not even that far-fetched to think the U.S. military might soon consist of super soldiers outfitted with brain-enhancing drugs or wearable exoskeletons.

This shift from boots on the ground to fingers on a keyboard means military innovation could see yet another dramatic transition.

In reality, however, this question of what military tech might consist of over the next decade boils down to politics, and the threat at hand. As the last decade in the Middle East has shown, the tech we invested in wasn’t always at the forefront of what’s possible but rather, what was necessary.

But with laser-guided precision rockets, futuristic fighter jets, and an increased reliance on drones proving to be imperative fixtures of today’s military, it’s clear there’s now a renewed interest in emerging technology. In the past, heavy-handed process had an uncanny knack of striking down innovation at every turn because there just wasn’t a day-to-day need for it. Today, we have one. For the first time in 15 years, the U.S. military is utilizing science fiction to fight an asymmetrical enemy — and it just might work.

Though the conflict following 9/11 shined bright lights on the inadequacies of relying on old strategies and old technology, the battlefield of tomorrow already appears to be bringing an entirely different threat altogether.

All signs point to cyber warfare

When attempting to forecast a future U.S. military threat, it’s hard to avoid mentioning cyber warfare: digital attacks from abroad that can spill secrets, disable weapons, hijack key systems, or even shut down power grids. The means may be electronic, but the damage can be quite real.

Though the biggest battles are yet to come, back-office preparation for the change has reportedly been underway since George W. Bush’s residency in presidential office. In an apparent effort to derail Iran’s nuclear program, the United States (along with Israel) allegedly developed a piece of malware geared toward targeting programmable logic controllers — i.e., the type of computers used for automating assembly lines, light fixtures, and in this case, nuclear centrifuges located in Iran. Dubbed Stuxnet, this malware-based cyberweapon was manufactured to destroy the centrifuges, sabotaging Iran’s nuclear enrichment. Though neither the United States or Israel have publicly verified their involvement, various U.S. officials all but confirmed its suspected origin to the Washington Post in 2012.

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As electronic threats emerge, the Pentagon has begun to prepare for the prospect of cyberwarfare. (Photo: David B. Gleason)

Obama’s administration also says it’s currently considering elevating the status of the Pentagon’s cyberspace defense outfit, Cyber Command – which is currently just a branch of the National Security Agency. Essentially, it would become a sixth branch of the military. With NATO officially deeming cyberspace a potential “battlefield,” the U.S. government granting more operational control to a division like Cyber Command seems like the logical next step.

Not only would this open the door for widespread development of cyber weaponry with fewer hurdles, but an elevation in status would also tighten network security across other Department of Defense branches.

“Just imagine operating at 160 IQ during your entire day at work and what that would mean for productivity.”

This shift from boots on the ground to fingers on a keyboard means military innovation could see yet another dramatic transition over the next 10 years. Instead of developing the next autonomous robot capable of sniffing out IEDs or flying over an enemy camp unsuspected, a hardened focus on strengthening information systems and thwarting cyberterrorists may take precedence. The U.S. military, particularly the U.S. Navy, is already seeing a spike in jobs surrounding cyber warfare, so preparation for this future threat is underway.

On that battlefield, brains may be more important than brawn.

“Instead of focusing on creating a supersoldier that’s capable of increasing his strength, what’s more likely to happen is a push to increase cognition and cognitive ability over an entire group of people,” ONR’s Schuette added. “Just imagine operating at 160 IQ during your entire day at work and what that would mean for productivity.”

A dramatic increase in cognitive ability assures you’re seven or eight steps ahead of the other side — think Bradley Cooper in Limitless without the terrible side effects. Futuristic? Check. Necessary? On a cyber battlefield, quite possibly.

DARPA Sea Hunter
DARPA’s Sea Hunter can patrol the high seas totally autonomously, thanks to 31 computers aboard. (Photo: United States Navy)

Tech from today that’s built for tomorrow

Outside of wild theories and closed-off research, a few of the technological advances of today have specifically been built for use in the future.

DARPA’s Sea Hunter, an autonomous submarine-hunting surface vessel, for instance, is essentially a drone for the open seas. A roughly $23 million project, this first-of-its-kind craft only began open-ocean testing this past year. It may still be a couple years from service, but it’s loaded to the gills with futuristic tech.

“(The ACTUV) launches an entirely new class of unmanned vessel with vast possibilities for the future.”

For starters, the rig (dubbed ACTUV) has an abundance of sensors, antifire mechanisms, and fuel tanks that would make some think it was ready to launch into space as opposed to navigating the open ocean. An onboard computer made up of 31 blade servers is the only thing responsible for piloting the rig. Considering it can be out on the open ocean for up to three months at a time, it’s paramount this computer works and works well.

“The ACTUV doesn’t just answer one of the biggest challenges the Navy faces today, it launches an entirely new class of unmanned vessel with vast possibilities for the future,” says Leidos — the company formerly known as Science Applications International Corporation that was contracted by DARPA to build Sea Hunter.

Soldiers, though less relied upon, will find themselves with new tools as well. Orbital’s XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System, designed for the U.S. Army, allows soldiers to engage enemies behind cover or targets at range without cover. It uses a 25mm “air burst round” that sends shrapnel in different directions, striking combatants a soldier might not even be able to see.

“Our idea was ‘how can you engage a target that was in a defilade, or hiding behind a wall or rock or car?” Krull explains. “Or perhaps a sniper firing from a window, or crouched down below a window.”

Striving for a functional future

After the dramatic rise of IED use in the 2000s, many returning veterans have faced a new battle: missing limbs. Finding a way to properly fit modern prosthetics to help them re-enter civilian life is another ongoing area of research.

“Right now, I have an effort with a program officer that attempts to answer this question: ‘How do you put a prosthetic limb on someone and actually have the mounting surface be titanium that works itself right into the bone?’” Schuette explained. “A prosthetic without a leather cup resting on the stump but rather something that goes right into the bone. Right now, we have departments analyzing the nanomolecular level and working to develop antirejection materials.”

ONR Prosthetic
The Modular Prosthetic Limb uses more than 100 sensors to approximate human-like dexterity. (Photo: United States Navy)

Though Schuette and ONR are searching for solutions to this issue in 2016, research and development of suitable prosthetics has occurred for more than a decade. Once again, however, innovation in this field transpired as a direct response to a need generated by the U.S. military’s threat at hand. If roadside bombs weren’t as common, amputees — and the needed prosthetics that go along with such an injury — wouldn’t have experience a similar widespread demand.

Utility over novelty

Conventional wisdom would suggest the U.S. military has tech readily available to it that an ordinary person wouldn’t even be able to fathom; a weapon so destructive and mind-blowing it seems ripped straight from the pages of an Isaac Asimov novel. That may be the case behind closed research doors, but what’s actually put into the hands of soldiers has much more to do with necessity and budget. Driven by the decisions made in Washington, a soldier in Afghanistan is given only what money allows and what the decision-makers deem a requirement.

The next big military contractor could be Pfizer, not General Dynamics.

In an ever-changing sea of could-be innovation, necessary armaments, and fluctuating budgets, signing off on something shiny and futuristic doesn’t always make sense. How do you prepare for the enemy of the future when you have a hard time fighting the enemy of today? Perhaps this is why military procurement often seems like a Catch-22.

Could a billion-dollar tech company like Apple do better? Maybe for comic-book fans. X-ray vision or a strength-enhancing supersuit would be astonishing and groundbreaking, no doubt, but if it didn’t serve a direct purpose against the military’s current threat, it would gather dust. For better or worse, our military’s acquisition formula often quells innovation in favor of safety and current demand. For that reason, the next truly groundbreaking and awe-inspiring military innovation could have some application off the battlefield — think Schuette’s comments about an IQ-boosting superdrug. In this world, the next big military contractor could be Pfizer, not General Dynamics.

Our military doesn’t lack the tools (or minds) for innovation, but in a practical world, being on the bleeding edge often means finding a way to bleed less.