Technology has been part of warfare since the first club was fashioned from a branch. For thousands of years, clubs, slings, stones and spears were Man’s weapons of war. Advances in metallurgy by the Egyptians around 4000 B.C. led to bronze, a combination of copper and tin, replacing relatively soft copper swords, knives and shields. The Bronze Age ushered in a new level of battlefield carnage; stronger and more durable iron weapons replaced bronze around 1200 B.C.
Gunpowder weapons in the form of cannons began to appear on the battlefields of Europe in the middle of the 14th century. Cannons were a huge technological leap forward, and brought an end to fixed defenses such as castles. Artillery ruled the battlefield for more than 500 years until it was finally surpassed by airpower, especially heavy bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II. The terrible zenith of technological development was thought to have been reached when the U.S. dropped two city-destroying nuclear bombs on Japan to end the war.
A decade after the U.S. won the Cold War it was hit by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001. Although the attack was not particularly hi-tech, it did turn American jetliners into WMD, killing 3000 people. America’s and its allies’ response was relatively hi-tech. A month after the twin towers were toppled, laser and GPS-guided bombs and missiles began raining down on Osama Bin Laden’s training camps and mountain top caves in Afghanistan.
Humanity is always trying to outdo its previous efforts. Here are 10 hi-tech weapons being developed that will decide future wars.
10. Smart Bullets
Bullets have remained pretty basic since the invention of gunpowder weapons centuries ago. What’s fired from the barrel is simply a piece of lead. Changing from a ball to a conical shape, with the addition of lands and grooves in the barrel to impart spin to the bullet, increased accuracy considerably.
Firearm design has reached a technological dead end, but ammunition is undergoing a renaissance. Advances in miniaturization and information technology has produced brilliant bullets – essentially, individual bullets that are fitted with tiny computers. Instead of just hitting a target head-on with blunt force, these bullets can adjust course based on conditions like wind and humidity. Another type of ammunition can be programmed to detonate a small explosive over a target.
9. Micro and Stealth Drones
Drones, more properly known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) first caught the public’s attention when the U.S. military started releasing video footage from Predator UAVs attacking Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets with Hellfire missiles.
Predators and their larger cousins, Reapers, are essentially scaled-down, remotely piloted airplanes, but a whole new generation of smarter, smaller vehicles are being deployed or are on the drawing board. UAVs the size of large model airplanes used by the military for reconnaissance have been around for years, but the cutting edge designs can be as small as birds and even insects.
Imagine a UAV the size of a hummingbird or a dragonfly buzzing around an enemy position with tiny cameras and other sensors. Such a vehicle could get close enough, not only for surveillance, but to target individuals with advanced weapons.
8. Hypersonic Missiles
Traveling at unimaginable speed to deliver devastating blows with little warning, missiles are scary weapons and are about to become even scarier. Thirty years ago, millions of people feared the world would be destroyed in a hail of nuclear missiles launched by Communist Russia and the United States. While that fear has mostly subsided today, missiles with conventional warheads have become much more sophisticated and deadly.
The U.S. Air Force is working to deploy intercontinental hypersonic missiles that approach their targets at speeds up to Mach 10 or 10 times the speed of sound. Combined with a shallow angle of attack, these missiles would be very difficult to intercept. A missile could be launched from the U.S. and a hit a target on the other side of the globe in a matter of minutes.
Some researchers are calling hypersonic speeds “the new stealth” as countries like Russia and China race to counter U.S. dominance in traditional stealth weapons like the B-2 bomber.
7. Mechanical Combat Suits
Perhaps the earliest example of a powered suit of armor was in Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi classic, Starship Troopers, published in 1959. He envisioned soldiers encapsulated in a suit that protected them from enemy fire and put powerful weapons, including nukes, at their fingertips. The protection, firepower and mobility would essentially turn every soldier into a flying tank.
This type of suit is on the drawing board at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s research arm. YouTube videos show test subjects lumbering around wearing an exoskeleton suit that allows them to haul heavier loads. These are only baby steps and as the technology matures, a tough, computerized weapon system will be the result.
The Army’s version may never be as cool as a Marvel superhero, but that hasn’t stopped them from referring to their ambitious project as the “Iron Man” suit.
Lasers have long been the stuff of science fiction, from Flash Gordon’s ray gun to Han Solo’s blaster. But now, the U.S. Navy is making them a reality in warfare with its Laser Weapon System (LaWS.)
In December 2014, the USS Ponce conducted “operational demonstrations” of the laser, shooting down drones and sinking small attack boats. In an era of shrinking defense budgets, lasers promise to be an effective and inexpensive alternative to weapons such as the increasingly expensive hypersonic missiles.
The Air Force also has plans to use laser weapons to compliment the missiles and guns its planes already carry. The early Air Force programs tested large lasers mounted into specially fitted transport planes, but the technology has evolved sufficiently to soon allow lasers to be mounted on fighters like the F-22 or on UAVs.
5. Orbital Vehicles
The U.S. Air Force describes its X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle as an unmanned, reusable space craft to transport payloads and conduct experiments in orbit. If this sounds familiar, it’s because these were the same missions performed by the scrapped space shuttle program.
The programs appear to be living up to expectations with one orbiter remaining in orbit for 674 days on a mission the Air Force won’t disclose. Although the Air Force goes out of its way to say it is an unmanned program, some aerospace analysts belief the X-37B is actually the beginning of a manned combat vehicle. Such a vehicle could be launched from Florida atop a rocket, separate, orbit the planet and land troops anywhere on Earth in a matter of minutes. The Marine Corps takes this concept seriously and has a concept called Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion (SUSTAIN.)
Man’s best friend is soon to be a soldier’s best friend as well with the arrival of dog-like robots. These four-legged friends, officially dubbed the Legged Squad Support System (L3) are billed as cargo haulers to small numbers of infantry on patrol who often have to carry 100 pounds of gear. The L3 could carry extra ammunition and food and water and significantly lighten the soldiers’ loads. The current version of L3 can carry about 400 pounds of equipment and supplies on its back while traversing uneven ground and rubble strewn streets. Other kinds of robots with tracks or wheels instead of legs are being tested to act as armed sentries to patrol base perimeters and guard expensive weapons like aircraft. Current regulations would still keep humans in the loop so robots couldn’t open fire on their own.
3. Nano Weapons
It doesn’t get much more cutting edge than the strange world of nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on the molecular level to create new materials and devices. It may even conjure up images of microscopic submarines battling deadly pathogens inside a person’s bloodstream like in the classic 1966 sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage.
The submarines are on hold, at least for now, but the Pentagon’s DARPA is working to use nanotechnology to combat deadly bioweapons like anthrax. Microscopic soccer ball-shaped spheres nicknamed “Bucky-balls” are being touted as hunter-killer molecules that could be unleashed to target and destroy injured cells without damaging healthy cells. Defensive measures can be retooled into weapons and research continues for finding ways to weaponize molecules.
2. Quantum Computers
Like nanotechnology, quantum computing involves manipulating energy and matter on the smallest of scales. The National Security Agency has high hopes for quantum computers to replace classical computers and is spending tens of millions of dollars to develop quantum code breakers.
As fast as current computers are, the complexity of modern encryption makes many codes virtually unbreakable today. Tomorrow’s computers will use a principle known as “quantum superposition.” This is the strange, but apparently true notion that an object exists in more than one place at the same time. This fact would allow these super computers to perform calculations “exponentially faster” than today’s best digital machines.
In theory, quantum computers would be capable of breaking any code no matter how complex.
1. Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence makes people uncomfortable. The idea that machines created by man could rival man for supremacy hits us on a primordial level. The HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Skynet in the Terminator film franchise are nightmare visions of technology run amok. But we don’t have to unplug the machines just yet as most of us enjoy the benefits of rudimentary examples of AI such as the cellphone program known as Siri.
The Pentagon has an optimistic view of AI: the military is starting to use the technology on advanced weapons like the F-35 fighter, which uses automation to fly the plane better while choosing targets more quickly than a person could by themselves.
The issue will always arise: just how much control of our national defense are we willing to concede to the machines?
popsci.com, army.mil, washingtonpost.com, sputniknews.com