TAMPA, Florida — Soldiers on patrol in future wars won’t have to wait for air reconnaissance missions to give them crucial information on targets over the next ridge. Instead, small, portable drones able to launch on a moment’s notice will provide real-time data.
Divers will be propelled to enemy shores by state-of-the-art Iron Man-style boots, allowing them to conserve energy and move faster than human evolution alone would allow.
Military teams in the field can carry with them light, inflatable “satellites” capable of establishing clear communications in a matter of minutes.
And special forces operators busting through doors will be “hyper-enabled,” provided with all necessary facts on the enemy, their surroundings, and even their own vital signs. Operatives working behind enemy lines will have lightning-fast, rugged computers that can extract huge amounts of data from terrorists’ thumb drives, tablets and cell phones in a matter of minutes — with no training whatsoever.
The very essence of war, military and industry insiders say, is getting a full high-tech makeover. The nation’s fighting men and women will not only be better connected to one another than ever before, but they’ll also work seamlessly with machines and artificial intelligence in ways that fundamentally alter how America fights.
That’s one overwhelming conclusion given the technology on display and the talk in the air here last week at the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC).
As tensions with Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and even China continue to mount, leaders across the military-industrial spectrum gathered to plot how the U.S. and its allies will carry out the campaigns of the 21st century. Already it’s clear the next major conflict will be fought with technologies and techniques that are light years ahead of what was employed last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Experts say the military’s tools of the trade have matured to a level that will make future wars utterly unlike those of the past.
“We want to make the fight unfair — as unfair as possible,” said David Ray, president of government and defense at FLIR Systems Inc., a company that made its mark producing top-of-the-line sensors but that now makes small robots, drones and a host of other products capable of communicating with each other as technology and artificial intelligence bring a science-fiction edge to combat.
“Keeping the soldier out of harm’s way and making them the central operator around assets that can go prosecute missions is where this business is going,” Mr. Ray told The Washington Times on the SOFIC convention floor. “Technology is really enabling that, … which they didn’t have back in Gulf War one, or even Iraq and Afghanistan.”
U.S. military leaders said in multiple interviews that they’re in the midst of an unprecedented effort to find and fund the most ground-breaking,outside-the-box ideas. Traditional heavy hitters in the defense contracting world — Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and others — remain at the forefront, but they are being pressed here by a host of small, upstart companies specializing in everything from drone-detection software to the next generation of night vision to revolutionary “flash bangs” that virtually eliminate the possibility of harm to the operator.
“We are in an era of technological development more momentous than Gutenberg’s printing press,” Gen. Richard D. Clarke, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said during an opening-day speech at the conference, which turned downtown Tampa’s convention center into a temporary command-and-control center to map out U.S. strategy to fight and defeat any an all potential challengers.
The revolution of military technology centers not just on producing better guns, planes, bombs, missiles and vehicles. Instead, insiders say, the fights of the 21st century will be waged by connecting every fighting man and woman to ground headquarters, while futuristic drones hover overhead and even space-based data hubs contribute to the battle.
“It’s going to be connected and lethal at a level nobody could even imagine in Iraq or in [Syria],” said retired Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” J. Carlisle, now the president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association.
Such a fundamental overhaul of how the U.S. wages war would transform how ground operations can be conducted in the Middle East. A theoretical war, for example, with Iran — which looks increasingly plausible, especially after President Trump’s move last week to send 1,500 more troops to the region as a warning to Tehran — would look radically different than the combat missions seen in neighboring Iraq in 2003.
While military leaders emphasize that humans will always remain the backbone of the fighting force, technology will make their jobs far easier, while keeping more men and women out of harm’s way. For starters, soldiers, sailors and pilots will be working with much more accurate data as military imagery transforms from grainy footage to near-perfect photo and video that gives a full picture of the target area and eliminates nearly all the guesswork in assessing the battlefield.
“The imagery that you’re seeing today is going to be so much better, so far superior to what it was in 2003” in Iraq, said Steve Schultz, director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems business development at Raytheon.
Not only will there be more data, but there’s a second revolution underway in how commanders and troops can analyze and exploit what they are learning.
Teams in the field increasingly will work with machines, robots, drones and AI to produce a more lethal force that requires fewer American lives on the front lines.
For example, industry leaders say troops will be aided by “swarms” of aerial vehicles and tanks controlled by a handful of operators. A platoon of tanks could be controlled by just one team of men and women in a single vehicle, with the rest unmanned in a new approach that can reduce human error and save lives.
Those tanks themselves could each be equipped with a small drone that can be launched in seconds, enabling technology-driven ground forces to conduct their own aerial surveillance.
“You could have hundreds of those vehicles with that capability, or even thousands of them. That is an enormous paradigm shift,” Wahid Nawabi, president and CEO of the leading drone and missile-systems company AeroVironment, told The Times.
For military leaders, the big-picture view of coming conflict revolves around how to pair such revolutionary technology in traditional combat with cyberwarfare campaigns, space-based weapons, disinformation campaigns and a host of other new arenas unimaginable when the U.S. invaded Iraq 16 years ago.
The technology will be crucial in any war, including a relatively smaller-scale fight with a nation such as Iran. But if America’s major war foe is a peer, such as China or Russia, the military overhaul and technological advantage will be even more important.
Preparing for just such a traditional rival is at the heart of the new U.S. strategy doctrine drafted under former Defense Secretary James Mattis and endorsed by the Trump White House in early 2018.
Those “near-peer” nations are pursuing the same types of military technology, and the Pentagon in recent years has repeatedly warned that the traditional American military edge dating back to the end of World War II is beginning to erode.
“Our unfair advantage is narrowing,” Gen. Carlisle said.
In a full-blown war with a country such as China or Russia, military leaders say, the explosion in technology would dissuade both sides from immediately rushing large battalions into the field for ground combat. Such a scenario would make it all the more important for the U.S. to perfect its cyber, space and information components.
“I think a future conflict also looks something like this: It’s going to initially be fought at large distances, scales we’ve never seen before,” said retired Army Gen. James C. Boozer, now chief of staff at the National Defense Industrial Association. “Why? You want to touch your adversary as far away as you can — through cyber, through space, through [super-fast hypersonic weapons]. … Then you want to be able to take that long-range punch away, then you get inside and give them the uppercut.”
The 21st-century tool kit
Wherever the next war is fought, the people fighting it will benefit from transformational leaps in technology, much of it seemingly borrowed from once-futuristic comic books or the latest superhero blockbuster from Hollywood.
Military divers moving underwater toward enemy targets no longer will move solely at the speed of their own power, thanks to Virginia-based Patriot 3’s jet boots.
“They’re like Iron Man underwater,” said company CEO Charles Fuqua, adding that the propulsion boots would serve the U.S. especially well if conducting operations on a battleground accessible by water.
“When you look at Iraq vs. Iran, Iran is obviously a lot more water-capable,” he said. “Iraq [in 2003] was not. That was more of a sandbox kind of thing. Iran, South China Sea — all of these areas, you’ve got all of this water.”
The next generation of planes and land vehicles is impressive, but the American armed forces also will have at their disposal much smaller-scale products that could make a big difference in a firefight. Colorado-based Liberty Dynamic has unveiled what it dubs the next generation of flash-bangs — a reloadable, smart, diversionary device that can be programmed to go off seconds or minutes in the future.
The device’s noise-flash “event” occurs in free space, the company says, rather than traditional products that explode on the ground and can kick up dust and debris or become a fire hazard in close quarters.
“This does not have a chemical or pyrotechnic fuse. It’s a digital fuse,” said co-founder and CEO John M. Chapman. “When the operator has this in their hands and they go to operate it, the orientation of where the event comes out is away from his hand.”
In the highly unlikely event of an accidental discharge, he said, “that operator is still coming back with his hand.”
On patrol, soldiers can establish nearly instant communications headquarters through an inflatable terminal manufactured by defense and technology contractor Cubic.
The device weighs 100 pounds or less, meaning it’s able to be transported by a team of men and women, rather than relying on trucks or other vehicles to haul much larger equipment.
“You’re able to inflate it in five minutes, point to a satellite, lock it down, and you have comms,” Armin Gierow, a member of the company’s sales team, told The Times.
When dealing with intelligence assets inside hostile countries, military or CIA teams now can provide rapid-imaging technology able to download massive amounts of data in minutes. The SPEKTOR Ultra device, manufactured by the U.K.-based digital forensics firm Evidence Talks, can capture the full contents of computers, phones, tablets, thumb drives and other devices at previously unimaginable speeds.
Such technology could prove vital in instances where untrained intelligence assets need to download huge quantities of data from an enemy hideout without being detected.
“This gives the forensic capability to the front-line police, the front-line intelligence agent, the front-line military people, and they don’t need any skill to use it,” said the company’s chief technical officer, Andrew Sheldon.
Armed with those and countless other cutting-edge products, military officials are confident in America’s ability to win any conflict, despite the progress of foes such as China. Beyond technology, they say, lies the one most crucial advantage.
“It will always come down to the people,” Gen. Carlisle said.