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Military tech in 2014: Lasers, drones, and cyberops

The Pentagon has plenty of high-tech advances on tap for the coming year. Think drones, of course, but also laser weapons, cyberwarfare, and the ageless B-52.

Navy LaWS laser weapon system
Laser weapon, reporting for duty! US Navy photo by John F. Williams

Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to have a laser weapon aboard a ship in the Persian Gulf.

It won't at all, however, tip the balance of power there. The Navy sees the deployment of the USS Ponce with its single solid-state laser weapon as an "at-sea demonstration" -- and directed-energy gear like laser weapons at this stage continue to be much more about demos than about actual firefights of any consequence. Still, it's a sign of things to come, even if what happens in 2014 is only a tiptoe toward the longer-term future.

And that's the way it is for a lot of the Pentagon's high-tech advances on tap for the coming year: one step here and two steps there, with the end game several leaps and bounds off in the distance.

A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. By midyear, for instance, the Navy will likely have made a key advance on its plans for the forthcoming UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft -- think, for instance, of the bat-winged X-47B, which set the stage in a big way in 2013. But making UCLASS operational? That could be the better part of a decade away.

US Army XM-25 weapon
It's not a laser weapon, but the XM-25 is plenty high-tech. US Army

Meanwhile, an old coot like the B-52 will begin getting a much needed digital upgrade.

On the ground, the Army will continue working 21st-century communications technology into its battlefield networks and will dabble more and more in 3D printing in the lab and, eventually, in the field.

The most intriguing technological developments, though, may be the ones that we can't see, in the shadowy world of cyberwarfare. We do know this much: the US Air Force in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 plans to boost 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. The Army, meanwhile, just a few weeks back graduated the first group of NCOs in its new MOS (military occupation specialty), 25D, cyber network defender. And all those folks will have to be kept busy somehow.

For a fuller, and more pictorial, look at what lies ahead for military technology, check out the slideshow embedded above.