September 20, 2005

Future Shock and Awe

Hatched by Dafydd

The following is a repost from my post of the same name on Captain's Quarters back in July.

Extree, extree, getcha red-hot future combat today!

As has been the case for, oh, a few thousand years, the violent tendencies of human beings are leading the way to tomorrow's technology. War is not only good for business, it's good for science. Here are just a few of the goodies that await us in future battlefields.

Warning! This is a very long post, nearly all of which is tucked into the extended-entry section. Forewarned is four-armed!

Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation

The weak link in the combat chain is often the human body. We run slower than horses; we carry less cargo than a camel; our skin is more fragile than a rhinoceros; we can't even jump like a gazelle.

But all that is going to change, if DARPA has any say in it. Joe Pappalardo of National Defense Magazine writes that the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has been hard at work for several years now on the Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation (EHPA) program. The idea is to create a tough and powerful exoskeleton that would surround the soldier's body and augment his own native abilities.

At the moment, political correctness rules. Ever since the public-relations fiasco of the Terrorism Information Awareness futures market, DARPA has been almost paranoid about bad publicity... which can lead to investigations, budget cuts, and in a pinch, mass firings. So all they will admit at this point is the utility of exoskeletons for loading and unloading cargo:

“This is a fairly boring transportation program,” [DARPA project manager John] Main said, with a small grin. “We’re not jumping over buildings. We’re getting into rough terrain that is denied to Humvees.”

But the combat implications are obvious: a man who can carry 200 lbs of fuel or MREs can also carry 200 lbs of body armor or a 200 lb weapon (or a mix: a hundred devoted to armor, and the other hundred to weaponry). Although they're not really willing to speculate, it's hard to see, once you have the basic idea of exoskeletal augmentation, how you can fail to think of putting jets in the boots, heavy weapons that can be fired by merely pointing the hand, or all the other accoutrements of Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers.

Stepping way, way out on a limb, the head of the UC Berkeley robotics engineering lab, which is working on a DARPA grant, Homi Kazerooni, reluctantly admitted the possibility:

Kazerooni conceded that robotic enhancements worthy of combat were feasible, given a system design that could keep up with soldiers’ reflexes. “Can the machine shadow our reflexes? These are not voluntary, and sometimes 200 microseconds is not fast enough.”

The first key is acceleration: no matter how well a soldier is armored, a fall from 100 feet is a fall from 100 feet, with the same sudden stop at the end. But if DARPA can control the acceleration -- for example, by using boot-mounted, gyro-controlled attitude jets -- the soldier can "leap" high into the air, then "land" safely.

The second key is psychological: will the American people accept Starship Troopers style "Mobile Infantry?" Or will the princes of the Senate strangle the technology in its cradle? As the song says, only time will tell.

Brain Machine Interface

But perhaps we don't need anybody in those suits at all -- if the human can stay safe several miles away, controlling the empty suit by a direct brain-machine interface.

Thoughts are not ghostly apparitions made out of ectoplasm, it turns out; they are electrocolloidal impulses that travel from neuron to neuron across the synaptic gap. And that slight spark is readable... if you have the code.

That, not coincidentally, is exactly what another DARPA project aims to do: crack that neural code, so that machines -- or weapons -- can be controlled by thought alone.

Some research projects funded by DARPA have already achieved significant success, according to a 2003 article in the National Journal, written by Bruce Falconer. Duke University neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis headed a team that planted "100 hair-like sensors" in a South American owl monkey (coincidentally, the same owl monkey that has been directing the recent reactionary political reaponses by the Democratic Party). As the monkey used a joystick, the scientists could monitor its neural activity and program the impulses into a computer-readable code.

The monkey repeated the motion - only this time, two robotic arms (one in an adjacent room and another 600 miles away in a Boston laboratory) also moved in response to the wireless signals sent straight from the monkey's brain.

In a similar, more recent experiment, the same scientists taught a macaque to direct a cursor to illuminated targets on a computer monitor. When scientists disabled the joystick, the monkey gradually stopped moving its arm altogether and learned to do the experiment just by thinking.

The article in the National Journal notes some of the uses. Right now, the biggest limitation on military aviation is the inability of the human body to take stresses much greater than about nine Gs, nine times the force of gravity. A typical 185-lb pilot in a 9-G turn feels as if he tops the scales at a cool 1,665 lbs. At that force, it's so difficult even to raise his hand that modern jets use fly-by-wire systems that require only slight finger movements for the pilot to guide the craft. Grayouts and blackouts are commonplace -- and can lead to death.

But if a pilot could sit on the ground and control the plane by his thoughts, then the rest of the airplane could withstand far greater stresses; this means an aircraft that could outmaneuver any plane in the sky that carried human cargo, such as a pilot and flight officer.

The same is true with a tank. Rather than relying upon a true "ogre" tank, which is completely artificially intelligent (a daunting computational task, considering that we cannot even design an AI car), a gigantic, solid tank can be controlled by a full crew... who sit safely back behind the lines in a simulator, their thoughts controlling the tank via a satellite uplink. With the absence of the most vulnerable part of the weapon, the human crew, the tank itself would be virtually unstoppable, short of dropping a tactical nuclear weapon on top of it.

There are civilian uses too, of course, notably in the area of prostheses for amputees and paraplegics. But the subject of civilian spinoffs from military research is big enough to warrant its own post. Or article. Or multi-floor library.

Smart Bullets

We have smart missiles that find their targets by several methods. Some are literally connected to a wire that trails out behind them, allowing the missileer to guide the bomb to its target. Others home in on a laser dot "painted" on the target by a forward spotter. Cruise missiles actually have topographic maps programmed into their brains, so they can swoop and swerve through gullies and across mountains to find a target by its GPS coordinates.

So why can't we do the same with rifle and pistol ammunition? Imagine bullets that can literally chase the target, racing around corners and over obstacles to hit the poor terrorist in his own trench, as in the 1984 Tom Selleck movie Runaway.

Well, it turns out that United States Air Force (and likely other branches of the service -- and I wouldn't rule out DARPA) has not only been imagining such a thing, it has been actively trying to develop them for more than eight years, according to the 1997 article "You Can Run, But You Can't Hide...", by Justin Mullins, published in New Scientist (reproduced here by

The Air Force calls the program Barrel Launched Adaptive Munitions, or BLAM, in an unusual display of wit. The researchers agree that the guidance technology is the easy part; it's already available for missile systems and only needs to be made smaller. The difficult part is designing a bullet that can turn in mid air and can become aerodynamic to prevent falling towards the ground as it moves towards the target, in accordance with our ancient enemy, gravity.

Some programs have experimented with tiny attitude jets on the bullet to steer it. But BLAM uses a more exotic, science-fictiony method: the front of the bullet actually flexes to create lift in various directions. Lift on the bottom keeps the bullet flying at the same altitude it was fired, without dropping; lift on the right steers the bullet left, and so forth.

The mechanism is simple. The nose is connected to the body by a ball-and-socket joint, and held in place by a number of piezoceramic rods, or tendons, which change length when a voltage is applied to them. Increasing the length of a rod on one side of the bullet while shortening its opposite number changes the angle of the nose (see Diagram). The nose can move by up to 0.1° in any direction.

Snipers are the ideal persons to use smart bullets; slithering into enemy territory on their bellies, becoming invisible via ghillie suits, then drawing a bead on the target enemy personnel are pretty much the same skills needed to paint a target with a laser dot (which can be invisible to the naked eye, preventing premature target panic). The invisible dot would guide a smart bullet for a targetted assassination from an astonishing distance -- several kilometers, for example. Unless every bad guy spends all day, every day, in a room with no windows (or wears American power armor), he will be vulnerable to just such a "bolt from the blue."

In another arena, the New Scientist article notes that airplanes fitted with smart bullets can bring down bogies with just one or two well-directed shots, rather than the hundreds typically used to destroy a target. This can lead to cost savings, even though smart bullets would not be cheap:

Aircraft bullets cost more than $30 each. [Ron] Barrett [who tested the BLAM system] says the piezoceramic materials would add $10 to this while the microelectronics would cost another $100. But he argues that the increased strike rate would lead to cost savings. "You'd only fire one when otherwise you'd fire hundreds."

Smart bullets would also lead to less collateral damage, because there would be less lead (or depleted Uranium) flying around.

But I'm still holding out for small, man-portable and firable rail guns!

Heat Rays

Finally, bringing us up to today's technology, we have a "phaser" -- American style, not that touchy-feelie stuff you see on Star Trek, where the target just falls over unconscious. This version is actually more of a heat ray, manufacturing fake feelings of searing agony, like "touching a hot frying pan or the intense radiant heat from a fire," except it does no actual damage. The pain is all in the target's neurons.

In "US aims Star Trek ray guns at nuclear sites" on, Robert Jaques writes that the Department of Energy has teamed with the Department of Defense to create a milimeter-wave directed-energy weapon system with the catchy title of Active Denial Technology (ADT). The first use will be to protect critical sites, such as nuclear power plants, from terrorist (or protester) intrusion.

ADT emits a 95GHz non-ionizing electromagnetic beam of energy that penetrates approximately 1/64 of an inch into human skin tissue, where nerve receptors are concentrated.

Within seconds, the beam will heat the exposed skin tissue to a level where intolerable pain is experienced and natural defence mechanisms take over....

The sensation caused by the system has been described by test subjects as feeling like touching a hot frying pan or the intense radiant heat from a fire. Burn injury is prevented by limiting the beam's intensity and duration.

Sandia labs have already tested a prototype, and they believe a smaller model will be ready to deploy by 2008. Perhaps it can be used in the White House briefing room whenever an MSM feeding frenzy erupts during the next presidential campaign.

So there you have it -- the three of you who managed to make it all the way to the end of this excruciating post: four windows into the brave new world of continued American military dominance over the rest of the world. And if you think that is a bad thing, well I suspect you're reading the wrong blog.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, September 20, 2005, at the time of 8:38 PM

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This piece was originally posted at Captain's Quarters on July 7th, 2005; I subsequently reposted it here on Big Lizards -- the future is in the past! I'm posting it a third time because it fits the theme of the... [Read More]

Tracked on July 31, 2006 3:45 PM


The following hissed in response by: Not_Todd

The Navy isn't sitting on it's hands, either.

The above hissed in response by: Not_Todd [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2005 10:13 PM

The following hissed in response by: RBMN

Somewhere along the line, Americans should ask ourselves how the balance of power (inside a nation) changes when the military (an instrument of the government) is one-million times as powerful as any organized group of armed citizens, and what it means if the financial cost to "the government" of using that power (the damage to infrastructure) is nil, nothing. I don't know what the answer is, but somehow I don't think the Founding Fathers ever thought much about that day, coming sooner than we think, when the standard rifle will be as militarily useless and obsolete as the bow and arrow is today.

The above hissed in response by: RBMN [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2005 10:18 PM

The following hissed in response by: Linh_My


As a retired soldier, I fear that thew time when your concerns would have been relevant passed some time when I was serving in Viet Nam. The equipment available to me as a National Guard tank commander in the early 1990s was mind boggling.

I still believe in the Second Amendment. But I don't believe the Second Amendment is still especially relevant in defending our personal freedom. The disparity in equipment is just too great.

The above hissed in response by: Linh_My [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2005 6:16 AM

The following hissed in response by: Not_Todd

Linh, it's not my post you're responding to.

The above hissed in response by: Not_Todd [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2005 8:32 AM

The following hissed in response by: Linh_My


Sorry. I am new to this blog. That leaves RBMN

The above hissed in response by: Linh_My [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2005 9:17 AM

The following hissed in response by: harkyman

I've actually spent a lot of time thinking about direct control vs. remote control of combat machinery. Clearly, the ultimate weapon would be one that trained individuals could control remotely, while sharing the augmented sensory input provided by the weapon itself. That opens you up to a whole host of problems, though.

With current technology, if a determined and sophisticated enemy breaks your encryption (not likely, but still...), they have all of your communications. If they have the right equipment, they can jam you. If the weather conditions are significantly adverse, it can cause wireless disruptions. Now, put these problems into the mix when you have your wireless connection controlling a weapons platform.

The cost of having an enemy crack your encryption in this case is that they get to take over your weapons and control them against you. Remember, they've already wasted one of your remote controlled robots a month ago, and managed to salvage some of the electronics, etc., that weren't completely destroyed, and that you didn't have a chance to recover. They've reverse engineered it, and now your weapons platform is a severe liability.

You need to keep a human being inside the thing, or it becomes fairly trivial (just create an event that disrupts wireless communications) for a determined enemy to neuter your force.

If I were a jihai, I'd be analyzing every bit of comm traffic I could capture between our C&C and UAVs, then renting time on the worldwide network of virus-zombified PCs to crack the encryption and take those suckers over.

The brain-machine interface stuff is cool, but the question needs to be asked: has the eyes->brain->trigger-finger loop cost more lives because of the time it took for that impulse to make it's way down the arm, or has it saved more lives at the hands of adrenelized soldiers/Marines whose brain is twitching that finger like crazy, but whose gut and training is telling them something else? It's great for the disabled (including people under hi G forces), but I'm not sure how desirable those few extra milliseconds are.

On a final note, I'm surprised you didn't point to NASA's research on inaudible speech. The upshot is that human beings' throats and mouths make the motions of the words they are thinking, even if they are not actually voicing them. Try deliberately thinking a sentence and you'll see what I mean. NASA is working on ways to capture the electrical signals that create this nonaudible speech, and synthesize the voices. Using a networked system like this, soldiers on a night-time raid, etc., could communicate by thinking the words they want to say and have it play into everyone's headphones as if they had actually said the words out loud. Now THAT would be a combat advantage!

The above hissed in response by: harkyman [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2005 10:01 AM

The following hissed in response by: Linh_My


As a retired Tank Commander, I have a few points to add to your post.

Tank Commander is the most dangerous position on a tank. This is because we run around with our heads and shoulders sticking out of the TC hatch. As marvelous as thermo-imaging is, the Mark I eyeball, Mark I ear and Mark I nose is still the best general service sensing equipment that has ever been invented.

The other stuff works miracles in supplementing the Mark I equipment. But it only supplements. 20 years from now could be another story.

The above hissed in response by: Linh_My [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2005 10:26 AM

The following hissed in response by: matoko kusanagi

The defens R&D operates on about a ten year cycle. In Gulf I, the paradigm was smart vision, multisensor capability, smart targetting armament. In Gulf II the paradigm was C4I. The next cycle will be teleops and telepresence like Dafydd says.
I've loved mecha ever since the Robotech of my childhood. So i don't really think anyone my age or younger will have problems accepting the idea of powered exoskeletons. One of my old bosses has moved on to DARPA. I don't know exactly what he is doing now, but before he did the robotics for the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park Universal Studios theme park. Godzilla mecha anyone?
Of course, i personally prefer partial-to-full cyborg technology. We are better at everything but free diving. ;-)

The above hissed in response by: matoko kusanagi [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2005 11:55 AM

The following hissed in response by: Linh_My

Powered exoskeletons are coming. So is telepresenscense. With in 10 years, I expect that cheap simi-disposable and disposable battle vehicles will be viable on the battle field. Where I disagree is in being able to replace the Main Battle Tank (MBT) in less than 20 years.

For starters the operators VR would have to be, if not indistinguishable from the real world, very close to it. Also the machinery would have to function better than humans it replaces. One of the many reasons that an M-1 can clobber anything in the Russian/Chineese inventory is that we still use a human loader. Automatic loaders still do not work nearly as well as human loaders. Don't believe me ask anyone who has gone tank to tank with an M-1.

Now to replace a human operated MBT you need "perfect VR" including tactile. The driver and other crew members need the "seat of the pants" feel of the MBT. The Tank Commander and driver need to have full human normal vision. For the TC this means in all directions. The automatic loader needs to work as well as a human loader.

I think that we are at least 2 cycles of development away from the goal of a battle field viable MBT. I remember reading in the 1950s that the F-102 was a missile with a man in it and that we would be able to replace the pilot in a few years. It is fifty years later and the technology is just starting to get there. We are actually starting to replace the pilot in some cheap simi-disposable and disposable aircraft.

The above hissed in response by: Linh_My [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2005 12:36 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


I remember reading in the 1950s that the F-102 was a missile with a man in it and that we would be able to replace the pilot in a few years. It is fifty years later and the technology is just starting to get there. We are actually starting to replace the pilot in some cheap simi-disposable and disposable aircraft.

1956: F-102 Delta Dagger goes into widespread usage in the Air Force.

1958: Air Force puts Northrop Snark cruise missile into service (and that wasn't the first, either, even not counting the V-1). 6000-mile range, inertial navigation system with stellar correction.



The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2005 2:08 PM

The following hissed in response by: Linh_My


Exactly. If I remember correctly the experiments started in the WWI era or slightly later.

Honest to God fighter planes are still maned. We are starting to do a lot of our reconnaissance and some ground support work with remotely piloted aircraft. I expect this trend to continue.

The Snark, V-1, Baka etc. were one shot munitions in the form of disposable aircraft. I do remember seeing some recoverable simi-desposable target drones in the 1950s. Their were even civilian Radio Controlled model airplanes. Getting back to tanks, one can buy radio controlled model tanks today. You could likely have bought them in the 1950s.

The point is that while we are getting closer to having workable remotely operated fighter planes and MBTs. Based on my experience as a tank commander, I believe that we are still at least 20 years away from placing remotely operated MBTs in general service. With 50+ years of work we are just starting to get there with combat aircraft.

The above hissed in response by: Linh_My [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2005 3:06 PM

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