2014's military tech: lasers, drones, and more (pictures)
The Pentagon will be busy on all fronts with newfangled technology, from directed-energy weapons to autonomous aircraft and from 3D printing to cyberdefense.
Gunning for laser weapons
The heart of any military is always its soldiers, sailors, aviators, and myriad support troops. But to get their jobs done, they need aircraft, ships, ground transport, radio systems, and weaponry -- and all of those things need to keep pace with advances in technology. Here are some of the things that the Pentagon has at the tip of its technology spear for 2014.
We're especially keen on seeing what the Defense Department can deliver in the category of directed-energy weapons -- a rather bland and bureaucratic term for that staple of sci-fi cinema, ray guns. For all the money that the military-industrial complex has thrown at the problem, we're still a long way off from phasers and photon torpedoes, but ever so slowly, we do see small gains -- or at least flashy demonstrations. One such moment in the coming year should materialize from the US Navy's Laser Weapon System, or LAWS, a solid-state system that will be installed on the USS Ponce, a former amphibious transport ship that the Navy has reclassified as its first Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim), for deployment to the Persian Gulf "in fiscal year 2014" -- that is, by October 1.
The Laser Weapon System (LaWS), a technology demonstrator, in a temporary installation aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105), from July 2012.
The US military has been making concerted use of unmanned aircraft for the better part of two decades now, but that's really just the beginning. (Consider that two decades after the US Army got its hands on its first Wright Flyer, biplanes were still in widespread use.) Drone aircraft are getting smarter and more capable all the time, like the X-47B demonstrator that this year flew itself onto an aircraft carrier and then off again, several times over. Next year's advance in unmanned aircraft won't fly just yet, but it will take a step in the right direction as the Navy by midyear issues a final request for proposal for the next-generation UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft, after which the likely contenders -- Northrop Grumman (maker of the X-47B) Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, and Boeing -- will all respond, and we should get a better sense of what tomorrow's drone will look like. (Pictured above is Lockheed's UCLASS drone concept.)
It's not just unmanned aircraft that are getting smarter. So too are basic infantry weapons. Consider the XM-25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement weapon system, which for several years has been going through tests -- including real-world evaluations in Afghanistan -- to show off its ability to strike at targets hidden behind walls and inside buildings. It features a combination of laser rangefinder, target-acquisition software, and programmable, air-burst ammo, all of which have been assembled by hand during the experimental phase. But the Army seems poised to decide by about August 2014 on whether to remove the X designation and send the just plain M-25 into initial low-rate production (of around 1,100 weapons), bringing it closer to operational use.
The Army continues to push its battlefield networking capabilities farther and deeper across the tactical landscape to improve "situational awareness" -- the all-important, and often volatile, knowledge of who's where and what they're up to. A crucial part of that is the Warfighter Information Network Tactical (WIN-T), a mobile communications network backbone that delivers high-speed, high-capacity voice, data and video communications to troops in the field, now even down to the company level, and that, in its WIN-T Increment 2 stage, now blends both radio and satellite communications. It'll never get the kind of attention that goes to a new fighter jet or aircraft carrier, which is part of why we mention it here, so that at least you'll know it's out there. WIN-T will get a couple of big workouts in 2014, one in the spring and another in the fall in the Army's semiannual Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) exercises.
The photo here shows a WIN-T satellite terminal in between a pair of truck-based WIN-T communications nodes in a training exercise at Fort Drum, NY, in April 2013.
The US Air Force's B-52 aircraft are no spring chickens. The 70 or so Stratofortresses on active duty are all just over 50 years old, and over the years, they've seen a lot of bodywork and other maintenance to keep them in flying shape. Now they're poised to go digital with the integration of Combat Network Communications Technology (CONECT) systems starting in the latter part of 2014. The CONECT upgrades will bring servers, digital display screens, an in-plane network, and real-time satellite communications links, which means that B-52 aircrews won't have to be stuck with the data they uploaded hours earlier before takeoff, but rather can change mission plans and reset weapons targets in flight. They'll also be able to better communicate with other aircraft and with ground troops.
Said Alan Williams, the deputy program element monitor at Air Force Global Strike Command: "It is taking the B-52 from a rotary-dial phone to a smartphone."
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brittany Y. Auld / Caption by:
No, this isn't the barrel of a laser cannon. It's a refueling boom being assembled for the first of the next-generation KC-46A aerial tankers that Boeing is building for the Air Force. The big defense contractor expects to push the first test aircraft out of the factory in January 2014, and the second in March. (By 2017, Boeing expects to have built and delivered 18 of the aircraft, out of an eventual total of 179 planned by 2027.) Like other systems in the KC-46A, the boom will feature electronic "fly by wire" controls.
In late 2014, General Dynamics' Bath Iron Works will deliver to the US Navy its next-generation destroyer, the USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), the first of the new, three-ship Zumwalt class. The 610-foot ship, with its distinctive tumblehome hull, made its official entry into the water in late October, at which point it was about 87 percent complete. (It's expected to reach initial operating capability in 2016.) Among the new technologies aboard the Zumwalt will be an all-electric integrated power system ("well-suited to enable future high energy weapons and sensors") and an Advanced Gun System designed to send rocket-powered, precision-guided projectiles 63 nautical miles.
One if by land, two if by sea, three if by ... network router? The era of cyberwarfare is upon us, as the Stuxnet virus can attest. But if you like your proof of a more bureaucratic nature, consider the hiring plans at the US Air Force, which in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 plans to increase its staffing by more than 1,000 "cyberprofessionals," over and above the 6,000 or so already toiling away for the 24th Air Force, the service’s operational cyberarm. (Pictured above is the 24th Air Force cyberwarfare center in San Antonio, Texas.) The Army, meanwhile, just graduated the first group of soldiers in its new MOS (military occupation specialty), 25D, cyber network defender. We don't know exactly what all those people will be doing in the coming year, but surely they'll be up to something.
For the Army's Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program, 2014 will be a year of R&D -- road tests, off-road tests, maintenance evaluations, and "blast events" meant to determine the damage that roadside explosives could do. That will pave the way for a contract award in fiscal 2015, the first vehicles being fielded in fiscal 2016, and JLTVs finally making it to operational units in fiscal 2018. As of September 2013, the Army had taken delivery of 22 prototypes from the three contending defense contractors: Oshkosh Defense, Lockheed Martin and AM General. Pictured above is the design from AM General, maker of the Humvee, which the JLTV will be replacing.
Among other features, the JLTV is intended to be of an open "plug and play" nature that will allow for the installation of future networking gear and other electronic devices without a vehicle redesign.
Like just about everybody else, the Pentagon in 2014 will be dabbling more in 3D printing. Researchers at the Army's Picatinny Arsenal, for instance, have been busy using an ink-jet printer and inks that can conduct electrical currents, such as silver, to print items including munitions antennas, fuze elements and batteries. Eventually, 3D-printed sensors or radio antennas could end up integrated into everything from soldiers' helmets to artillery shells. Above, a materials engineer at Picatinny displays a 3D-printed object.
3D printing could also simplify and speed up the manufacture of wings for small drones, or UAVs, with the electronics, antennas and sensors embedded.
Operational missions for the MQ-8C Fire Scout, the Navy's latest unmanned aircraft, seem likely to get under way in 2014. Manufacturer Northrop Grumman says that the new system, based on the Bell 407 helicopter, will have "more than twice the endurance and three times the payload carrying capacity" of the earlier Fire Scout, the MQ-8B, which in its several years of operational testing conducted missions in Afghanistan and in the vicinity of Somalia. Flight tests of the first MQ-8C began in October, a second airframe was delivered to the Navy in November, and Northrop Grumman is set to build a total of 14 under its current contract.
Photo by: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman / Caption by:
X-37B: Perpetual motion
It seems all but inevitable that an X-37B space plane will be in orbit, doing whatever it is that the X-37B does, during some or even all of 2014. The current mission -- the third such to date since the orbital flights began in 2010 -- this month passed the one-year mark in orbit, and the Air Force has given no indication of when the spacecraft might return. (The second mission lasted 469 days, or more than 15 months.) When it does return, the X-37B will do so unassisted: it's built for autonomous flight. And a fourth launch sometime in 2014 would make sense, since the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles (there are two of them), like the larger space shuttles that they resemble, are designed for reuse.
Photo by: U.S. Air Force photo/Michael Stonecypher / Caption by:
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