FUTURE BATTLEFIELDS WITH MORE TINY ROBOTS

Fox News on August 28, 2012, published an InnovationDailyNews article that “Star Wars” battlefields may seem imminent given the U.S. military’s enthusiasm for testing laser weapons on planes, ships and vehicles. But a Pentagon workshop found that lasers, cyberwarfare, 3D printers and biological tools seem unlikely to revolutionize the battlefield by 2025. Excerpts below:

Only one futuristic technology tended to stand out — swarms of tiny robots that could act as sneaky spies or clear enemy-held buildings without risking human lives. Still, that represented just one of many ideas considered during war games held among military officers and scientists at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., from Aug. 14-15.

The NeXTech workshop represented the second in a series focused on identifying game-changing technologies for tomorrow’s battlefields. A first workshop held in Washington, D.C., looked at the broader questions of what should count as a “game-changing” technology .

‘The Predator [drone was] … the Wright brothers flyer of this technology — the first generation.’

– Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute

The first scenario imagined a U.S. armored brigade assaulting a fortified city defended by enemy troops, tanks and armored vehicles. Fighting house-to-house in cities has historically led to a high number of deaths and injuries among attackers.

The big game-changer — voiced by many workshop participants — involved small robots or drones that could enter buildings and hunt down enemies without putting U.S. soldiers or Marines at risk. One expert even suggested tiny drones capable of injecting enemy soldiers with anesthetic drugs, rather than diverting their limited power supplies to mounted lasers or similar weapons.

Smaller, more powerful batteries or similar energy storage could also give the U.S. military freedom to move around without guarding vulnerable fuel convoys — a huge Achilles heel in Iraq and Afghanistan. But an energy expert said he did not see any game-changing technology for energy storage coming within a decade.

A second scenario put the U.S. military in the position of having to prevent an enemy invasion force from landing on small, inhabited islands surrounded by rich resources and claimed by several countries. That scenario resembled a worst-case result of the real-life drama involving small islands disputed by Asian countries such as China, Japan, South Korea and others.

Robots rode to the rescue once more in the Pentagon workshop’s collective thinking. Participants envisioned tiny robot spies listening in on conversations aboard enemy warships, or helping hack into the enemy fleet’s systems.

The future U.S. Navy might even send out a huge submarine as an underwater mothership for deploying a “family” of swimming or possibly flying robots, rather than risk more vulnerable aircraft carriers and their accompanying warships

A fourth scenario envisioned a “limited strategic strike” to neutralize an imaginary country’s biological weapons program or the program’s scientists. The details more or less mirrored the real-world dilemma confronting the U.S. in its attempts to discourage Iran’s nuclear weapons development.

Participants suggested a wide range of possibilities such as surveillance and espionage based on robots, cyberattacks or biological contamination. One possible “game-changer” arose from the idea of whipping up a vaccine that could be rapidly produced in huge quantities to protect military and civilian populations — a possibility limited by today’s vaccine production methods.

The workshop wrapped up with Singer reflecting upon possible mismatches between modern U.S. military values — using game-changing technologies to save the lives even among enemies — and the values of future commanders who may not have such self-restraint.

Singer also pointed out possible mismatches between what the workshop found to be truly game-changing and what the Pentagon invests in today. In that spirit, military planners may want to consider funding tiny drones research rather than focusing on aircraft-size drones or laser weapons.

Finally, Singer said that game-changing technologies have historically sped up the pace and chaos of warfare, but observed how most workshop participants had assumed future game-changers would enhance the U.S. military’s control over the battlefield.

The workshop scenarios had assumed the U.S. military would have the game-changing technologies and the enemy would simply react in a conventional manner. But many participants voiced the warning that the “enemy has a say” in how the battlefield turns out — a reminder of an upcoming Pentagon workshop that will consider the enemy’s viewpoints and reactions.

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