TAMPA, Florida — The increasingly futuristic nature of war calls for a new generation of tools for the American military — including heat-sensing cameras that can detect enemy machine gun nests miles away, cutting-edge inflatable boats that can be dropped from helicopters, and handheld underwater controllers capable of operating drones overhead.
U.S. officials say the particular risk that tension between the United States and China could one day explode into a military clash in the Pacific has expanded the need for more advanced, sea-based weapons and reconnaissance capabilities.
The Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa last month brought together military leaders and their defense industry allies, including companies from partner nations such as Australia, that would find themselves on the front lines of a clash with the Chinese Communist Party’s war machine.
As China invests billions of dollars into building a military capable of squaring off against American forces, U.S. defense sector leaders are crafting capabilities that would give the Pentagon an edge.
Some of the most advanced tools are those that will be integrated into camera imaging systems aboard various war-fighting vehicles.
“The sensor can look so far, we can look at the whole bridge. We can scan it with thermal and zoom in, and then if we do find a signature with someone on there, [we can] see if they’re carrying a weapon or if they’re manning a machine gun station or something like that,” said Douglas Pillsbury, CEO of the tactical video solutions firm Aries Defense.
His company’s products, along with top-of-the-line digital imaging equipment crafted by the U.S. firm Teledyne FLIR, were outfitted on the groundbreaking Whiskey Project tactical watercraft. A prototype was displayed in Tampa. It was designed and built by battle-tested Australian navy veterans and billed as the next stage in the evolution of the military boat.
“This enables us to take the surprise element out from the war fighter so they can see what they’re about to engage from distances far greater than our adversaries’ weapons can engage us,” Mr. Pillsbury told reporters as the Whiskey Project craft raced across Tampa Bay at speeds reaching 40 knots, all. At the same time, onboard cameras and sensors captured stunningly clear video from the surrounding seas and shores.
“The idea for us is to sense first, see first, strike first,” Mr. Pillsbury said of the industry’s approach to a maritime conflict.
The Whiskey Project’s multimission reconnaissance boat is just one example of new maritime vehicles, weapons, equipment and cameras that either have been deployed or are deep in development.
Industry sources say the U.S. and its key Indo-Pacific allies could rely heavily on such cutting-edge technology to combat China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its growing arsenal of military capabilities.
Pentagon war planners have spent years preparing for such a conflict. Defense officials commonly refer to China as America’s “pacing challenge.” The term is a nod to the massive investments of time, money and resources that China has made in its armed forces.
National security analysts say Beijing’s goal is either to compete militarily with U.S. armed forces or to use its military buildup for deterrence by appearing so powerful that Washington may be dissuaded from intervening should the PLA engage in any significant offensive operation, such as a full-scale invasion of Taiwan.
China’s strategy centers on “anti-access and area denial” (A2/AD).
The approach relies on a combination of defensive systems, artillery, radar and other tools intended to deny an enemy the ability to occupy or move through a specific area of land, air or sea.
For U.S. war planners, the possibility of battling China marks a major shift away from the strategies of the past two decades, during which American troops have focused mainly on land operations, counterterrorism and urban special operations missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa.
The dynamics of conflict in the Pacific would be radically different, and U.S. forces would need to move rapidly through the sea to contest Chinese defenses.
“In the event of war, inside forces would exploit the region’s maritime geography to form an initial defensive barrier that could immediately challenge Chinese military operations,” Thomas G. Mahnken, a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in a recent analysis posted on the U.S. Naval Institute’s website.
“These forces would contest Chinese air superiority, sea control, and information dominance; delay and deny the ability of Chinese power projection forces to achieve their objectives, such as seizing the territory of U.S. allies or partners, while blocking China from projecting power beyond the First Island Chain; and degrade key Chinese systems to create gaps in A2/AD networks,” Mr. Mahnken wrote.
Tools of war
Unlike great-power wars of the past, a U.S.-Chinese conflict wouldn’t involve two massive armies battling on land. Instead, U.S. special operations capabilities at sea and in the air would be crucial and could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Central components of American military strategy in any war would be communications systems, which could allow U.S. forces to share information across domains in real time. One such system is the MPU5, built by U.S.-based company Persistent Systems and billed as “the world’s first smart radio.”
“Imagine this as the internet without wires,” Jack Moore, the company’s vice president of business development, told The Washington Times on the sprawling convention center floor at the U.S. special operations conference.
“You can connect things to this — anything,” he said. “It’s way beyond a radio’s capacity.”
The radio looks relatively traditional, but it’s capable of handling multiple data sources from around the world and is equipped with an onboard Android computer system.
Once it’s paired with the company’s Rugged Display and Controller device, service members in the field would essentially have an internet’s worth of controls at their fingertips. The controller resembles a modern gaming console, making its operation easy for the new generation of warriors.
Divers could use it to control a drone overhead or another small craft.
“You can dive it. You can jump it from 30,000 feet or 20 meters under water,” said Mr. Moore. “All of the data is here, but this is the common controller for you to have multiple robots, multiple sensors.
“It’s very standardized, especially for the younger generation,” he said.
In a theoretical maritime campaign, small groups of U.S. personnel also would need to get to shore quickly and safely. That would put a premium on smaller, inflatable boats that can be inserted into a war theater either by submarine or by being lowered from a helicopter.
Jacob Heimbuch, vice president of government sales for the California-based Wing Inflatables, said his company’s cutting-edge “combat rubber raiding craft” provides that capability. Its V-bottom design, he said, allows for a much smoother ride and safer transport for whatever equipment the mission requires.
“It has a dead rise to it that allows for shock mitigation. It’s not like a standard boat,” he told The Times. “It cuts through the water instead of being flat.”
“No other boat has ever been able to take eight guys with their equipment, with fuel, to get in and out with this older technology,” Mr. Heimbuch said. “With this newer technology, you can fit everybody in the boat. You can get to where you’re going, and you can get out with your full squad.”
Wing Inflatables was recently awarded a five-year Marine Corps contract to provide up to 900 boats, Mr. Heimbuch said.
Such high-dollar contracts for maritime capabilities will only increase, and leading Pentagon officials readily acknowledge that their approach needs to keep evolving.
“There’s some things as we modernize that we’ve done over the last 20 years that, quite frankly, need a bit of a refresh,” Jim Smith, acquisition executive at U.S. Special Operations Command, told an audience at the convention in Tampa.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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