The high-tech future for the Army

Chief Scientist Thomas Killion talks about Army R&D efforts, high-tech soldiering and the outlook for robots and drones.

Today's incursions by high tech into the ranks of the U.S. Army are just the first wave.

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 , 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 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.

How do you find that the Air Force and the Army compare in the way they use high technology?
Killion: I think what's interesting is the change over time. The Air Force, in fact, is a technology-based institution. It was built upon the invention of a technology, the airframe and the airplane, that was always a driver and depended very strongly upon technology for the advancement of that capability. The Army has only more recently gone much more of the high-tech route. But I think if you went out today and look at what is in, in fact, the latest version of the Abrams and the Bradley or in the Stryker, and certainly as we're evolving into Future Combat Systems, you'll find the same level of computation, display technology, communications systems that you see in the platforms that the Air Force uses. So technology is as key a driver for the Army now as it always has been for the Air Force.

We're growing a generation of soldiers who see robots as part of their normal way of doing business, and that's how we're going to conduct our business in the future, with a mix of manned and unmanned systems.

What do you think you bring from your Air Force experience to your job with the Army?
Killion: Interestingly, it sort of follows on two specific aspects that I brought from the Air Force, and then a more general one. One specific aspect is, the work I was doing with the Air Force was in electronic warfare and electronic combat--it was all about air crew survivability. What's very useful to me today, and very interesting, is the evolution of our ground platforms to where we are dealing with the same issues on how to ensure survivability for our crews in ground platforms--in terms of constraints on weight and volume and yet using all kinds of techniques and not simply heavy armor to protect the crews--as we've traditionally done with air platforms. We have to use electronic warfare, you try to do signature management, you enhance situational awareness and use various techniques to survive as opposed to simply putting on more armor, which we can't afford any more.

Second is in . I really did a lot of work with the Air Force in that area, and unmanned systems is a major concept for future force operations, both within FCS and elsewhere. And then more generally I think what's beneficial is, I've actually worked for all three services (Air Force, Navy and Army). The good news there is that it really is a DOD/S&T (Department of Defense/science and technology) enterprise, and it's valuable to have that network of people that I know across the services in terms of looking at how we best utilize all of our capabilities.

Looking specifically now at Future Combat Systems, it seems like for the 2008 defense budget, that program is not going to get all the money that the Pentagon was looking for. How does that affect what's going on with the movement toward unmanned vehicles and more electronics, more intelligence in the gear the Army is using?
Killion: You'll have to ask Gen. Cartwright (editors' note: Maj. Gen. Charles Cartwright is program manager for Future Combat Systems, Brigade Combat Team) about the specifics of what the direct impact on this process is. I am not sure of exactly what the contingencies are as to what they will plan to not do given that they don't get full funding. I know that the marks that we have seen to date have provided full funding for our S&T program. We are working some key component technologies that are feeding into things like unmanned systems and active protection and so on that are feeding the Future Combat Systems program longer-term.

It seems like what's going to happen in the near future is what has been termed low-rate spin-outs--some of the gear coming out of Future Combat Systems being applied to current machines like the Abrams, the Bradley, the Humvee.
Killion: Well, they're certainly looking at spin-outs from technologies that were going into FCS and how can we bring those forward in the field today, things like some of the unattended ground sensors.

So the FCS then is a long-range vision and the Army is pulling out pieces as it can?
Killion: Yes, and I think there are several reasons for that. One is, of course, because it provides new capabilities and enhanced capabilities to our soldiers. We want to provide that capability to as much of the force as possible and so that's why you see the spin-outs to the non-FCS brigades, if you will. Another is because we want to allow our soldiers to became familiar with and comfortable with the technology that's coming in FCS, so by the time FCS arrives, they will have seen a number of the components of that system and it won't be like a big bang--all of a sudden everything shows up and everybody has to learn about all of its capabilities and how to use it and be trained on it and everything else. They'll be components that are very familiar to them.

Right now there is the one Stryker brigade in Iraq that's using some components of Land Warrior--not of Future Combat Systems.
Killion: Right, that's Land Warrior. But still, it's a similar concept--you're trying to get to some component of the force as much of the newer technology as possible. One of the things I always tell people about is I'm very heartened to see the proliferation of robotics today. There are now literally thousands of little ground robots, primarily things like PackBot and so on that our soldiers are using in theater, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that's important for several reasons. One, because the robots allow us to do tasks without putting soldiers at risk.

Second, it gets people comfortable, it demonstrates the capability of the technology, what can be done with robotics, and as robotics evolve even more will be done with it. And certainly last but not least is that we're growing a generation of soldiers who see robots as part of their normal way of doing business, and that's how we're going to conduct our business in the future, with a mix of manned and unmanned systems. The degree to which our soldiers are comfortable with and see the benefits of utilizing robotics to do their job, it lowers the barriers to implementing that vision in the future.

How do you see the role of robots and evolving over the next couple of years and then farther out--say, five or 10 years?
Killion: In the near term, of course, we have them doing a lot of ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) roles. Things like Predator do reconnaissance and so on, and it can even carry lethal weapons in some cases with very clear control over the use of these weapons. That will continue to proliferate. What's going to happen over the next four or five years is an increase in the level of autonomy those systems are capable of using--that is that they can do more tasks on their own and become less of a burden on the soldier who has to operate them.

Featured Video

Why do so many of us still buy cars with off-road abilities?

Cities are full of cars like the Subaru XV that can drive off-road but will never see any challenging terrain. What drives us to buy cars with these abilities when we don't really need them most of the time?

by Drew Stearne