Weapon Advances—Science Fiction Becomes Warfare Fact
History documents many evolutionary and revolutionary advancements in weaponry. The bow over the spear, the cap over the flintlock, the cap and ball revolver and breech-loading rifle over the muzzleloader, the metallic cartridge over the cap and ball, the self-loading action over the manually loaded action, gas operating systems over manually-operated systems and so on. The “A-list” of inventors who are credited for these many advances include Colt, Remington, Sharps, Henry, Gatling, Browning, Mauser, Uzi, Kalashnikov, Stoner, etc. Their good ideas morphed into an array of revolvers, pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, machine guns and a derivative class of sporting firearms.
Material and manufacturing advances accompanied or were sometimes driven by arms advances. Alloyed steel over Damascus steel, precision machining over handmade components, production manufacturing over single build, CAD and five-axis CNC milling over blueprints and manual machining operations, etc.
These weapon advances, while vastly American and European in origin, developed the tenets of warfare more generally. Weapons’ lethality drastically increased, as did the need to provide logistical support to maintain warfighting and material readiness. Wars were fought, some successfully, some not, using an array of weaponry, some advanced and much not. The result was a battle theater hodgepodge of weapon types and calibers. Fast-forward to today.
Today’s weapons are a derivative mix of calibers and operating systems that were largely used in wars fought during the 20th century. Most weapons in military use do not possess the future warfighting attributes required to win anticipated theater-size conflicts in the 21st century. While many firearms are newly manufactured, they’re little more than new versions of old technology with cosmetic updates. The analogy here is a 2nd or 3rd edition book that has the same old story, reprinted in a new font with updated cover art. This is to say that the weapons and ammunition in use today are not purposefully designed with the capabilities necessary for today’s warfare, much less the anticipated warfighting demands of the future.
The warfighting requirements of the future should also drive next-generation weapon and ammunition advances. This means thinking ahead in relation to long-range detection and engagement, sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), robotic autonomy, hypervelocity projectiles, stealth, metallic 3D printing of firearms replacement parts, directed energy and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. Even the high-end weapon technologies like hypervelocity projectiles and fully autonomous stealth unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will be part of the total reckoning, both from an offensive and defensive perspective.
The U.S. can no longer claim a monopoly on long-range detection of opponent forces. Open source availability of commercial space sensors’ data has increased to the point that developing nations can easily acquire and exploit it to their advantage using commercially available analysis tools. Correspondingly, the capabilities of nations possessing distributed networked sensor fields, long-range unmanned aerial vehicles, sophisticated weapon and intelligence-gathering space programs can also be exploited by an opponent. The challenge is keeping our technology from the hands of competitor nations and non-state actors.
For example, sensor capability is advancing exponentially faster than the capacity to physically counter an attack. Long-range precision-guided weapons have advanced in speed to the point of hypervelocity; they are stealthy and possess superb lethality. They can be especially effective if brought to bear in swarms against hard or soft targets. Such weapons are capable of evading or overwhelming today’s detection technology and counter-weapon defensive systems’ ability to defeat an attack. This has changed the face of future conflict and thus the capabilities future weapons must possess.
There are seven related categorical assumptions that guide weapon advances: defense, offense, affordability, autonomy, connectivity, logistics and distribution. Many requirements writers and weapon developers fail to understand or fully appreciate the importance of connecting the dots of these characteristics. Here is a brief summary of the thinking (remember, we’re looking at the future) for each:
Defense. U.S. forces will most certainly face opponents armed with formidable new weapons and ubiquitous sensor coverage. This will require that U.S forces possess the capability to operate on a dispersed basis without losing survivability or combat effectiveness. Defensive weapons will very likely include high-volume/high-lethality, highly mobile/portable and compact short-range systems to reduce the cost, platform size and magazine demands of large, long-range defensive systems.
Offense. Our forces must have the capability and proper weapon capacity to inflict immediate offensive punishment rather than managing a time-buying force rollback. Initial offensive operations must be readily available for immediate use and tailorable to adequately counter the range and lethality of the hostile threat. Offensive operations will be largely conducted with long-range missiles and strategically distributed unmanned systems, not by land- and carrier-based manned platforms penetrating defended areas, followed by infantry and armor, as is the current U.S. modus operandi.
Affordability. Today’s uncontrolled federal deficit translates into constrained defense funding in the future. The realistic result is the Department of Defense’s (DOD) purchase of less expensive new weapons and the service life extension and modernization of select existing weapons. The purchase of any new weapon system(s) is always compared to the cost of the system(s) being replaced. New weapons must be comparably affordable, and therefore capability advancement almost always comes second to affordability.
Autonomy. We have become a data-centric world. Increases in both computing power and speed exponentially expand the variety of missions that can be conducted by unmanned (robotic) systems. AI is the key to full autonomy, and it will make us ever more reliant upon unmanned systems as integral warfighting elements. AI will also give our forces speed of action in combat and will fulfill the demand for connectivity while providing the cutting edge in both offensive and defensive operations.
Connectivity. The increasingly complex world in which we live results in an equally complex warfare environment. This drives the necessity to rapidly and correctly disperse friendly forces geographically, while at the same time overcoming the threat to communications satellites and networks. Demands on secure over-the-horizon, high-capacity data fusion and exchange networks that link dispersed units will only increase. High-flying, long-endurance unmanned aircraft and perhaps readily launched constellations of low-orbit cube satellites will be necessary to provide broad-area sensor and communication support among dispersed friendly forces.
Logistics. Historically, U.S. warfighting strategy has focused on far-forward force basing and deployment to augment in-theater allies. It is no secret that survivable logistics must be maintained to successfully conduct and sustain global operations. Our competitors’ focus is precision attack against our fixed bases and capital assets afloat. A distributed supply chain of the future will undoubtedly require the capability to rapidly manufacture most critical repair parts on site. This can only be achieved by having a robust 3D printing capability for parts (or the weapons themselves) to augment the logistics supply chain (and it can be done robotically).
Distribution. To justify force reductions, the U.S. has consolidated more capabilities into fewer assets. This redistribution and consolidation of U.S. warfighting capabilities increases target value and subsequently increases the risk of attack from precision weapons on those targets. The U.S. Navy best reflects this trend by making each new warship class more capable (and subsequently more expensive) than the predecessor. The U.S. Air Force does the same thing with its new fighters and bombers. While this concentrates more capability into a single asset, it also increases each asset’s target value within a theater of conflict, making individual asset loss a potentially greater factor to mission success. At the same time, reducing the number of assets diminishes the capacity for geographic coverage in warfighting. It is a conundrum that will require careful play on game day.
An additional consideration is almost always overlooked. Our forces must be as capable of conducting electromagnetic spectrum warfare as they are of conducting kinetic warfare. This means our forces must be capable of deploying their own signature management and deception measures to limit their identification and targeting by adversaries. Friendly forces operating closest to the threats must be able to employ a mix of both manned and unmanned ground and air weapons with secure C4I linking them to one another to assure critical control of unmanned systems.
Thus, when looking at weapon advances, we should not think in singular terms of ballistic weapons (guns and bullets). Rather, we should think in terms of interoperable weapons systems and how their advances factor into the future warfighting environment.
In an effort to address these issues, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing an AI-based semi-automated system that can identify and draw correlations between seemingly unrelated events. In turn, this analysis will be correlated to create broad narratives about global events of interest that can have a significant impact on national security. DARPA calls this program KAIROS, which is an acronym for Knowledge-directed Artificial Intelligence Reasoning Over Schemas. The AI used in KAIROS is called “schema-based AI.” It works by analyzing multimedia information, correlating complex events and organizing this information into schemas.
“Schemas” refer to units of knowledge that organize events into commonly occurring narrative structures to aid humans’ comprehension of the information. Schema-based AI enables computer-generated contextual and temporal reasoning about complex, even abstract, real-world events and predicts how they will likely unfold. Schema-ordering provides both understandable and actionable predictive analysis of complex events, and the very powerful KAIROS analyzes and makes sense of the all-source picture.
Weapon advances are often defined in the context of weapons development. Weapon advances are usually quantified by using an arbitrary measure of accuracy, destructiveness or lethality. During development, weapons are evaluated by their technical ability to achieve a set of quantifiable outcomes, such as affordability, maintainability, interoperability, availability, reliability, etc. That said, the operational nature of warfare is scenario-contingent. Consequently, any list of weapon advances will always be inherently incomplete. The best we can hope for is to highlight trends in warfare technology and assume they will be with us for decades to come, even though they will only affect the long view of weapon advances for several decades or less.
Sentient unmanned vehicles, or fully autonomous drones, as they are often called, constitute one such advancement. The emergence of unmanned fully autonomous and semi-autonomous air, land and sea (surface and subsurface) vehicles is the single most important development in the defense industry in the past several decades. This technology is intended to take over many of the warfighting roles traditionally occupied by humans. Things like piloting fighters and crewing bombers, ships and mini-submarines, conducting EOD operations, even ground combat operations will someday soon become the domain of AI-controlled fully autonomous robots and drones.
These platforms have no fear, require no rest and don’t suffer from PTSD. Their boundaries are only limited by purpose-built software and mechanical design. Endowing AI with life and death decision-making will, at some ultimate point, replace today’s human decision makers in key mission elements like target acquisition and the split-second decision, based upon best opportunity, to fire. This reliance on AI-operated (computer/machine) warfare will certainly diminish the human psychological threshold for using force and ultimately mean that confrontations will happen exceedingly fast and have devastating outcomes, with clear winners and losers. Thus, the side deploying the most advanced AI-controlled weapons that require the least human interface, human inputs and human decision chokepoints, will most likely prevail.
Electromagnetic (EM) rail guns are also a significant step forward in kinetic warfare. Unlike conventional guns (artillery) that use chemical propellants (such as gunpowder or fuel) to thrust a projectile on its ballistic path, rail guns thrust either a guided or dumb projectile over a long range (currently over 120 miles, even engaging orbiting space targets) at hypervelocity (4,500 to 5,600 miles per hour) by using a magnetic field (32-plus megajoules). The rail gun has numerous advantages that eclipse its range and precision strike capabilities. Because of its attributes, even the most advanced area defense systems are no match for it. Rail guns additionally eliminate the requirement to store the high-explosive propellant materials necessary to launch conventional projectiles.
The U.S. Office of Naval Research has had a working EM rail gun system in development since 2005. The eventual goal is to extend the range to 200 nautical miles by upping the launch power to 64 megajoules. This translates to each shot exceeding the electrical pulse apparent in a naturally occurring aurora. Currently, rail gun capability is only limited by our material science, not by the laws of physics. For example, today’s hardiest capacitors are not capable of storing and releasing that volume of energy, and gun materials that will survive the firing pulse do not exist. That notwithstanding, EM rail gun development is proceeding in the U.S., China and Russia; it will certainly be a factor in any future conflict.
Weaponization of space is outlawed under international treaty, but that hasn’t stopped some of the countries that signed the treaty (and those who didn’t sign it) from continuing to explore technologies that might turn space into the next theater of battle. There are some outlandish weaponization schemes that have been postulated on this subject, ranging from moon bases that can launch missiles at earth to the redirection of small asteroids to impact an opponent’s homeland.
A more achievable plan is to arm orbiting space planes and satellites with nuclear or non-nuclear EMP weapons. When talking about EMP weapons, size matters. EMP weapons work by generating a massive EMP that overloads electrical grids, satellite circuits and just about everything else that relies on digital control. EMP can additionally destroy command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) architecture necessary to conduct military and civilian infrastructure operations.
If appropriately sized, an EMP attack could easily take out large portions of a country or surgically target a specific area of operations. For countries that don’t have space capabilities, an EMP could also be deployed from aircraft platforms at air breathing altitudes or carried by land- and sea-based missile systems. Regardless, EMP weapons, if strategically employed, could theoretically end a war before a single shot is fired, by nullifying adversaries’ C4ISR capabilities.
As rogue states like North Korea and Iran develop or acquire the means to deliver nuclear-tipped intercontinental (long-range) ballistic missiles (ICBMs), interest in developing high-energy space-based lasers (SBL) designed to deactivate enemy ballistic missiles during the boost phase (known as “boost-phase intercept” or BPI) will continue. The boost phase occurs right after launch, during the missile’s ascent. It is the slowest and most vulnerable phase of missile flight and the time when the odds of successful intercept are the highest.
The advantage of space-based laser platforms over BPI theater defense systems (like the Aegis system in current use) is that they can operate at orbital altitudes far exceeding an adversary’s capability to shoot down. Comparatively, to be in striking range, Aegis BPI systems must be positioned close to the targeted missile launchers, and this puts our BPI launch platforms (mostly on board USN ships, although there are several shore-based Aegis launch systems) in range of enemy attack. That said, the greatest remaining challenge in realizing an operational SBL defense system is the development of sufficiently powerful chemical megawatt-laser systems suitable for orbiters. The required science and technology is certainly within our grasp, but the cost is prohibitive.
Keeping the SBL system in mind, there are advanced megawatt-laser systems being tested today on ships, aircraft and land that can defeat incoming sea-skimming hypervelocity anti-ship missiles, both manned and drone aircraft, cruise missiles and ICBMs through BPI. Like the SBL systems, these terrestrial systems also require megawatt power sources, but that is far easier to achieve at much less expense than for their space-borne SBL cousin. These systems show great warfighting promise and are being designed into many future military platforms, such as aircraft, ships and mobile ground vehicles.
The development and use of hypersonic vehicles cruising at speeds of Mach 5+ is now a priority for both the U.S. and its competitors. Warfare has evolved to the point where mere minutes can make a difference between victory and defeat. The cruise missiles we have relied upon over the past two decades are, by future standards, too slow to meet the time on target requirement or survive opponents’ state-of-the-art intercept measures.
The requirement to strike anywhere and do so within minutes of target identification has led to a hypersonic (cruise) vehicle developmental program initiated by the U.S. DOD in 2001, named “Prompt Global Strike.” A multi-agency consortium composed of DARPA, NASA, the U.S. Air Force (USAF), the USAF Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne has centered its combined efforts on the X-51A hypersonic cruise vehicle (HCV). As an adjunct, the U.S. Navy is also reportedly exploring the development of submarine-launched hypersonic missiles.
Our competitors, like Russia, China and India, are also developing hypersonic cruise missiles. Because of their extraordinary speeds, hypersonic cruise missiles can serve multiple purposes, ranging from surgical attacks against command-and-control systems and other key high-value targets, to attacks against ships under way at sea, ports and harbors, critical infrastructure, etc.
The natural complement and response to both vehicle and missile hypervelocity is concealment through stealth technology. Quantum Stealth, also known as “adaptive camouflage,” is one such weapon advancement. While under development by a Canadian firm, it’s still far from operational. The goal is to use light wave-bending materials to significantly reduce or eliminate the thermal and visible signatures of weapons platforms, such as tanks, artillery, aircraft and ships—even individual troops. Its science is right out of a science fiction movie, yet its physics is relatively straightforward. By bending light around an object (quantum mechanics), the cloak renders what lies inside it invisible. The ability to operate unseen in enemy territory or airspace has enormous tactical (and even strategic) military capability implications.
The previously discussed developmental programs are all intended to keep the U.S. military winning in future conflicts, but for some forward-thinking military planners, the future is in sight. They know, for example, that soldier-carried weapons will truly advance when directed energy and hypervelocity weapons are miniaturized and become battlefield-mobile and/or soldier-carried and AI-controlled unmanned space, air, surface and subsurface warfare takes the man out of the loop. That will mark the next “generation” of weapon advances.
Based in California, JetPack Aviation (JPA) has developed a user-friendly ILD for U.S. Special Operations Command, the JB-10 jet pack, that will begin endurance, speed, service ceiling and payload suitability evaluation during the summer of 2019. The JB-10 employs twin air-breathing turbine engines to provide lifting thrust with speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour. Burning commonly available jet-A fuel, the JB-10 currently carries enough fuel to remain aloft for 10 minutes, but that can probably be extended using disposable fuel bladders. It employs an electronic auto-flight stabilizing system widely used in the drone market.
JPA is driving the JB-10 technology in two related directions. The JB-10 is characterized as foot-launched, because the pilot carries the weight of the jet pack. This may work fine for high-speed missions of short duration, but one size may not fit all. When heavier payloads and greater ranges are mission-essential, the company has also developed a prototype ground-based variant that uses a rigid frame which rests on the ground and carries the total weight of the device and payload. This development has led to additional interest from the DOD and even the first responder community.
Weighing in at just 20 pounds, the SLMG is easily configured for either right or left side feed and charging, making it ideal for both dismounted and mounted operation. It comes suppressor-ready with an adjustable gas block, so its pressure can be “tuned” so that it will operate reliably with any suppressor. Reportedly, SIG is also developing a drum-style magazine that could be optionally used to feed the SLMG. SIG has held those details close, as well as those for its side-opening feed tray option that allows the gunner to modify the gun’s loading profile from a top-opening to a less observable side-opening version.
Iron Dome is a comprehensive missile defense network that includes the David’s Sling system, intended to protect against mid-range missiles, and the Arrow Interceptor system, designed to provide defense against long-range ballistic missiles. One of the most advanced features of Iron Dome is its fire-control system, which provides the capability to accurately calculate the incoming rocket trajectory and predicted point of impact and only intercept the incoming projectiles that pose the most meaningful threats.
While Iron Dome batteries have recorded a success rate of over 90% in the past decade, the intercept range to successfully engage is limited to about 30 miles. It was not designed to be, nor is it capable of, defending against the emerging Chinese and Russian hypervelocity cruise missile threat that may soon menace U.S. and allied forces deployed overseas. A hypersonic countermeasure is needed that can “hit a bullet with a bullet.” The technology under development to accomplish this is the railgun and the high-power laser.
The Black Hornet 3 possesses the lowest size and weight of any UAS available today. Weighing in at 1.16 ounces, the Black Hornet 3 has a line-of-sight range of about 1.25 miles at speeds exceeding 20 feet per second. The 6.6-inch-long Black Hornet 3 carries the FLIR Lepton® thermal micro-camera core and a visible sensor that transmit live high-fidelity day/night video and HD still images back to the operator. The Black Hornet 3 also employs a military-approved encrypted digital data link that enables a secure communications and imagery transmission format. This format seamlessly integrates into the military’s Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK) to provide battlefield networks for the distribution of surveillance information to anyone on the network.
The Black Hornet 3 pocket-size field kit consists of two UAV sensors, a controller and a small flat-screen display. It is sold directly through FLIR and available today to military, government agencies and law enforcement customers.
PRL’s ROWS consist of a highly mission-configurable, lightweight, precision-aimed, dismounted remotely-operated weapon system they call the TRAP® T360, which can stand alone or be mounted on unmanned ground or waterborne vehicles. The TRAP® T360 integrates with sniper detection technologies, surveillance systems or other sensors for automatic hand-off and slew-to-cue operation. Its aim is achieved using a ballistic reticle that compensates the aim point for ammunition type, range and camera parallax. It will additionally store multiple target locations for quick recall. It possesses a unique high-speed/precision 360° drive system that allows faster target engagement and effortless tracking capability that provides a broad elevation range of 60° up to 20° down. It can also be equipped with a target tracking option and can be securely networked to multiple TRAP® T360 systems; these can then be networked to indigenous command centers.