The MRAP — mine resistant ambush protected vehicle — is a fortress on wheels. When the U.S. military invaded Iraq in 2003, there were only a handful of these vehicles in the inventory. Now, the Defense Department is on track to acquire several thousand. The hulking MRAPs — which have V-shaped hulls — are the only military vehicles other than the Abrams tank that can protect occupants from the roadside bomb attacks that have killed and maimed thousands of U.S. troops.
Unfortunately the Pentagon didn’t start buying them in large numbers until 2006. Thanks in part to the MRAP, by June 2008, fatalities from roadside bombs had dropped by 90 percent. Stories abound of troops being hit by an IED and living to tell about it because they had the protection of an MRAP. The vehicles were hailed for being able to take full-on hits that would have killed soldiers in humvees.
The V-shaped hull serves to deflect explosions away from the vehicle and the passengers inside. Thousands of pounds of armor also help. Rollovers have been a problem, since the center of gravity is high and the structure is heavy and bulky. At times it has been known to make roads cave under its massive weight, causing the vehicle to topple over. And the question remains as to how the hefty vehicles will be used after Iraq, or even if the military will bring them back at all.Battlefield Energy
Hulking generators. Thousands of fuel tanker trucks. Massive loads of batteries. The gargantuan energy demands on the battlefield have been a logistical nightmare for the military for a long time. But it became even more of a predicament in Iraq, where the convoys that deliver the energy must travel hundreds of miles on mined roads.
Power can be extracted from vehicles, but they are already taxed by the multitude of electronics and other functions that suck the juice from their batteries.
In 2006, the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center began a two-year, multimillion-dollar research and development project to study fuel cells. But so far it has not solved the military’s battlefield energy woes. Besides the myriad of technological complexities, a vehicle propelled by fuel cells cannot provide enough power to go up and down hills.
Research money has also been spent to find ways to propel vehicles with hydrogen. But the problem is that the Army uses jet fuel, and converting it to hydrogen is an ultra-complex process. The military would have to bring more energy to the battlefield than it currently does if it wanted to run vehicles such as humvees entirely on hydrogen.
Lithium ion batteries — used to power cell phones, laptop computers and MP3 players — offer high performance. But they are safety hazards. The battery can catch fire if overcharged. Bomb-Detonating Robots
It is hard, if not impossible, to find an explosive ordnance disposal specialist who doesn’t appreciate this technology. Bomb squad robots were deployed shortly after the beginning of the Iraq conflict. For the EOD crews, it was a far better alternative than donning a bomb suit and walking down range in 110-degree heat to face an improvised explosive device, and possible booby-traps and snipers. The Navy had large, cumbersome EOD robots on hand, but something more nimble and easily transportable was needed as the roadside bomb became the Iraqi insurgent’s weapon of choice.
Three small, lightweight remotely controlled robots that could be easily transported and unloaded from humvees were sped into the field. One model, manufactured by Allen-Vanguard Inc., didn’t perform well, and was pulled out of Iraq. Foster-Miller’s Talon, and iRobot’s Packbot, remained, though, and began proving their worth on a daily basis.
Operators had some complaints. They likened their preference for the Talon or the PackBot to a car lover’s preference for Chevrolets or Fords.
They want better grippers, view screens and attachments that allow them to perform more tasks. Industry has responded with several new features that have been added quickly during the conflict. One is a PlayStation-like computer game controller that allows a specialist to more easily operate the robot. Manufacturers have moved toward new plug-and-play software that makes it simpler to add new features.
“They most definitely saved people’s lives,” said Navy Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Bryan Bymer.Directed Energy
Where are our high-tech laser weapons that can take out an enemy tank, missile or aircraft without a traditional warhead?
Decades of research have gone into making science fiction weapons into science fact, but it’s hard to see where they have made any impact on the battlefield at all.
Laser dazzlers, a nonlethal weapon that is designed to warn motorists at checkpoints to slow down or stop, could be considered a “hit.” But that’s small potatoes compared to the billions spent to develop high-flying concepts such as the airborne laser program, which seeks to mount a high-power chemical laser on lumbering 747 aircraft so it can shoot down ballistic missiles.
The airborne laser has cost taxpayers almost $5 billion since 1996, noted a July 2007 Congressional Research Service report.
“Program skeptics continue to raise several issues,” the report said. “Their questions include the maturity of the technologies in use in the ABL program and whether current technical and integration challenges can be surmounted.”
A lethality test is scheduled for August 2009, just about six years after its originally scheduled date.
Active denial technology, a nonlethal beam of energy that heats up the surface of skin and is designed to be used on crowd control or perimeter defense scenarios, seems to work — as long as it’s not mounted on small trucks. But it’s another case of the military not working out the tactics, techniques and procedures, treaty considerations and public perception problems before sinking millions of dollars into the technology. For now, it’s sitting on the shelf. iPod Translators
A shortage of Arab-speaking interpreters has been a huge hindrance for U.S. troops in the Middle East. The Army tested several translation devices, but none was as successful as the iPod.
Orlando-based Vcom3D Inc. two years ago developed software that teaches soldiers Arabic phrases and cultural gestures. The company then loaded the software on Apple iPods, which can display Arabic script. Soldiers can scroll through specific phrases that are archived by mission such as vehicle checkpoint and cordon and search. They select the phrase in English and the corresponding Arabic script appears next to it. An avatar, or computer-animated character, speaks and gestures the phrase according to customs.
The translators are now being offered on the new iPod Touch. Not only does it have a more advanced touch-screen interface, but it also boasts very clear visuals, says Carol Wideman, president of Vcom3D. The company also has developed a solar-powered battery so that troops can keep their devices running indefinitely.
Vcom3D has sold about 1,000 units to the Army. It has expanded the number of languages offered to five — Iraqi Arabic, Kurdish, Dari, Pashto and modern standard Arabic, for use in the Horn of Africa. Gun-Toting Robots
If a bomb disposal team can attach a gripper to a robot and use it to dismantle roadside bombs, can a soldier attach a machine gun to a similar device and use it to remotely fire a weapon?
Sure. Is the military ready to take this step? Apparently not.
The special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action systems (SWORDS) robot, developed by the Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center was featured on a Discovery Channel documentary and three units were eventually deployed to Iraq in 2007. But they were immediately placed behind sandbags and users were ordered to keep them in fixed positions.
“Involuntary movements” was one of the reasons cited.
A kid sneaking up and wielding a baseball bat could easily defeat the robot. Or by tossing a blanket over it, critics pointed out. Others wondered why insurgents couldn’t drive up in a truck, toss it in the back and haul it away as war booty.
The idea to send a robot into an urban canyon and lessen the exposure of soldiers to enemy gunfire has merit and could save lives, SWORDS proponents said at the time. Futurists said this is a “coming wave,” as robots become more sophisticated.
As for SWORDS, it may be a case of the technology leapfrogging ahead of acceptance. Tactics, techniques and procedures for using armed robots have not been thought out.
Meanwhile, ARDEC is pushing ahead with a new armed robot called the modular advanced armed robotics system, said Kim Jones, lead of the remote armament systems business area at ARDEC. This version may address some of the vulnerabilities.
“We’re very proud of SWORDS,” Jones said.Biometrics
Using attributes of the human body to identify crime suspects has been a law enforcement tactic for more than a century.
Until recently, fingerprints and mug shots were the means most employed to identify individuals, but today voice recognition, palm prints, vein and iris patterns and even DNA have been thrown into the mix. An added bonus is the digital revolution that makes collecting, storing and transmitting biometric data easier than ever.
Biometrics-based sensors and data-mining systems have been welcome by the U.S. military in Iraq, where insurgents hide among the population and separating friend from foe is tough business.
Some Iraqi villagers have submitted to fingerprint and iris scans to create secure identity cards so they can keep strangers out of their towns.
Special operators and other covert teams are coupling biometric with forensic science to take down bomb-making networks. Using a 22-pound kit designed by Cross Match Technologies, they can enter a suspect’s house, take his fingerprints — or lift latent fingerprints if no one is there — and transmit them back via a small satellite dish to a massive database in West Virginia.
The goal is to find out if the fingerprints match within 15 minutes. More often than not, operators receive responses in as little as four minutes, said Konrad Trautman, an intelligence expert at U.S. Special Operations Command.
The kits have helped teams capture or kill an average of two bombmakers per day during the last two years, he said. “How many bombs would have been made by those individuals?” he asked.Radiation Monitors
When casting around for technology programs developed by the Department of Homeland Security, it’s hard to find any “hits.” The list of “misses” is long and includes the transportation worker identity credential, the Project 28 virtual border fence pilot program and failed attempts to collect the data of those leaving U.S ports of entry under the US-VISIT program.
The mandate to screen 100 percent of shipping containers at U.S. ports or foreign ports has given the department the biggest headaches, though.
The first generation was rushed to duty and infamously detected harmless radiation found in kitty litter, bananas and from other benign sources.
False alarms slow down commerce, but failing to detect nuclear or radiological material is far worse.
One nongovernmental investigation conducted by two experts in nuclear weapons and published in the April issue of Scientific American showed that a 15-pound slug of depleted uranium could be successfully smuggled from overseas into a U.S. port as it passed through a network of radiation portal monitors. Enriched uranium, which could be used to assemble a nuclear bomb, is even harder to detect, the report noted.
Since then, the Government Accountability Office and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office have been sparring over how to effectively test the new generation devices — the advanced spectroscopic portals.
“Very little testing has been done to evaluate [advanced spectroscopic portals] reliably in an operating environment,” according to report written by the Homeland Security Institute, a federally funded research center.
Congress mandated in 2007 that the DHS secretary personally certify that the ASPs are significantly more accurate than the current generation of radiation portals. More than one year later that certification has not been issued.Haptic-Friendly Gadgets
Remember that old AT&T jingle that concluded with “reach out and touch someone?” Now we really can, thanks to advances in haptic technology.
Aerospace, defense and other security-oriented industries typically have avoided touch-screen technologies because of the lack of tactile feedback. But recent advances in touch-based sensors are changing previous aversions to the technology.
In the medical industry, haptics-based simulations are training doctors to make incisions without having to cut open cadavers. As they wield computer styluses shaped like scalpels, surgeons feel force feedback as they exert pressure to “cut” into the skin and navigate scopes through the body. Deployed medics in the military have been training on such simulators to learn how to open up obstructed airways in troops.
Research is underway to further develop haptic technology. In Japan, scientists are exploring methods to convey different types of textures, such as smooth silk or rough sandpaper.
The wider use of haptics in touch-screen devices is having a dramatic impact in the electronics industry, says Mike Levin, vice president of Immersion Corp., based in California. For example, imagine if you press a touch-screen button and it feels as if you actually depressed a button.
“You’re really adding a whole other dimension to the experience,” says Levin. Space-Based Radar
Back in the pre-9/11 era, when the Pentagon believed it could monitor its enemies from space, it seemed like a cool idea — a constellation of orbiting spy satellites that could deliver images of geographic areas that typically would be inaccessible to aircraft. The satellites also could cover areas for long periods. The radar would be able to track moving targets and provide maps and imagery to military forces and to the intelligence community.
But after more than a decade and billions of dollars spent on studies and preliminary designs, the project that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld listed among the top-five technology priorities for the Pentagon perished without fanfare. It had been estimated to cost up to $30 billion.
In retrospect, even if the SBR had survived the bureaucratic and budget turf wars, it was doubtful that the technology was ready for prime time. Although other countries currently operate commercial variants of space-based radar, the U.S. military was asking for far more complex technology than what is available today.
According to GlobalSecurity.org, space-based radar is more challenging than other radar systems because of the strict weight, size, and power limitations imposed by the satellite and launch vehicles, as well as the extreme thermal, radiation, and vibration conditions created during launch and exposure to the space environment. If the Defense Department wanted to ever resurrect the program, it will necessitate substantial advances in existing technology.‘America’s Army’
America’s Army is one of the most popular video games today and is gaining status in the industry as one of its most recognizable brands.
It also has been a valuable Army recruiting tool. It is the first computer game developed by the U.S. military specifically to catch the attention of America’s teenagers and turn a selected few into future soldiers.
Launched in 2002, it boasts more than 8 million downloads since its inception, according to Imagine Games Network. The game has spawned a number of chat rooms, such as America’s Army Forum, which reports 246,691 registered members, and America’s Army Internet Relay Chat network, which has received more than 2 million visits.
It has gone through several iterations and is available for PC, Xbox and PlayStation. The brand has been expanded to include cell phone games. It has also been used as a training tool within the military and government.
Players must complete basic training before accepting missions. This includes using the rifle range and finishing an obstacle course. The environments are based on the layout of Army bases such as Fort Benning, Ga. So when new recruits go to basic training, they might recognize these from the game.
Players are bound by rules of engagement. Missions emphasize teamwork and adherence to the Army’s seven core values — loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. The game also has been criticized as propaganda and for not depicting the dark side of soldiering, such as seeing your buddies shot, killed or maimed. Liquid Explosive Detectors
Two years after London authorities thwarted a terrorist plot to blow up transatlantic airliners by using liquid explosives, passengers still are banned from carrying water bottles onto planes. The reason? A lack of explosives detection technologies that allow security officers to screen liquids inside carry-on bags.
The silver bullet technology has not yet materialized for the Transportation Security Administration to withdraw its “3-1-1” policy, which limits the amount of liquid-based products that can be brought through the passenger checkpoint.
But the government is testing several detection systems and investing in those that pass muster. One of them is a handheld bottled liquid scanner called the Fido PaxPoint, made by ICX Technologies. The unit works by detecting vapors emanating from a container. It can be used at checkpoints to test explosive liquids, or for random screening on the backside of the airport. TSA plans to deploy 900 units to airports countrywide by the end of next year. However, this is not an adequate solution, says Bob Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute. The scanner benefits security checkpoint officers more than passengers. The liquids have to be out of the bags, he says. “What we really need is something that operates automatically in line.”
Such systems do exist, but are cost-prohibitive. Unless TSA gets a windfall of money, we still will have to kick off the shoes and dump the liquids before flying.
ROVER Video Receiver
ROVER stands for remotely operated video enhanced receiver. It is a laptop computer that allows ground forces to see what an aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is seeing in real time by receiving images acquired by the aircraft’s sensors. Troops and commanders can review images captured by a UAV to make critical decisions such as whether to strike a target or hold fire if innocent civilians are in the area.
The initial ROVER was developed in 2002 to allow ground forces to view video feeds from Predator UAVs or AC-130 gunships. The device was so large it was carried in a humvee. By fall of 2004, the terminal was reduced to backpack-size. A new version of ROVER that will soon be deployed is expected to be compatible with other aircraft and also allow interaction between ground controllers (who identify targets) and close-air support pilots. With current ROVER systems, ground controllers have to talk the pilot to the target since they only see the image the aircraft transmits. The newer variant will use GPS navigation to allow the controller to click a target they would like the aircraft to engage or the UAV operator to focus on. “This is especially useful when the air controller and other observers do not have line-of-sight to the target and therefore cannot determine its location by lasing,” said a Rand Corp. study. “Moreover, it eliminates the need for a verbal description of the target, which can be time consuming,” the study said. Also, considering the price tags of military hardware these days, the ROVER, at $15,000 per terminal, can be deemed a bargain.Mission Control Centers for Unmanned Vehicles
The military is now flying hundreds of unmanned surveillance aircraft over Afghanistan and Iraq. While the aircraft and sensors have advanced rapidly, the workstations that pilots on the ground employ to operate them are archaic.
Pilots who fly the popular Predator and the newer, heavily armed Reaper, in particular, complain that the ground control stations they use make it difficult for them to hit their targets accurately.
They say that the stations lack ergonomic features for lengthy combat missions, and require tedious processes of mouse clicks and button presses to deploy laser-guided bombs and missiles.
The operators are experienced fighter jocks and would like the control stations to resemble the cockpits of F-15s or F-16s rather than an office computer screen. “I want to be able to fly and employ this airplane just like I fly and employ a manned asset,” says Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
The original ground control station for the Predator was designed about 15 years ago, says Chris Ames, director of business development at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., which makes the Predator and Reaper aircraft and ground control stations. In response to these complaints, the company is redesigning the control station to be more cockpit-like.
Other companies also have developed similar advanced ground control stations, but the Defense Department has yet to buy any. Tiny Spy Aircraft
Miniaturized drones — which come in a wide variety of designs and brand names — have finally given soldiers and Marines on the ground their own “eyes” on the battlefield. Mini-drones were once seen primarily among U.S. special operations forces, but they are now becoming mainstream, and are increasing their presence in all branches of the military. The newest models that troops have deployed in combat have received praise for their ease of use and their convenient size. They are foldable, so soldiers can stuff them in their rucksacks. That makes them popular with troops who don’t need to be saddled with more heavy gear.
Mini-drones come with forward and side-looking cameras so they can be flown over and around buildings to help troops see who’s inside. Because they fly at low altitude — 100 feet or less — they can see things that much larger aircraft flying at higher altitudes sometimes miss. Military officials and analysts predict a growing market for these micro-air vehicles. Over time, they are expected to shrink even further — from backpack-size to futuristic designs possibly as tiny as a bug. If the bug-sized drones deliver on their promise, both as spying instruments and even as weapon carriers, they could truly become what the military likes to call a “game changer.”Mobile Broadband For Troops
It is rather shocking that in today’s wired culture, troops in combat zones do not have easy access to information. The military has spent billions of dollars during the past decade building high-tech networks and communications systems, but that wealth of technology does not necessarily flow down to low-level troops.
The problem often is described as a “digital divide” between the technology haves — the upper echelons of command — and the have-nots — the platoons and squads that are deployed in remote areas. The small units for the most part are disconnected from the main tactical networks and only are able to communicate with short-range voice radios. At the top echelons, commanders can tap into loads of data — maps, satellite images, video feeds and reams of intelligence reports.
But soldiers out on patrol cannot always receive or send important and potentially life-saving messages. Army officials have acknowledged that it will be difficult to achieve their ultimate goal of deploying a “network-centric” force until they can figure out how to provide essential networking services to the lower echelons. A networked force is more important to the Army than ever before because it is fighting an unconventional war where information is at a premium.
Some of the needed networking technology already exists in an Army experimental soldier ensemble known as Land Warrior. But the Army canceled Land Warrior two years ago and is now looking at other options. The technology exists, but the Army lacks a coherent plan for deploying it. One of the lessons from the war is that mobile networking on the front lines is harder than everyone thought. “We really need to get the soldier into the network,” said the Army’s director of force development Maj. Gen. David Halverson.