Future technology

The Army has embarked on a 200 billion dollar project to increase the technology that it uses and has some interesting implications.

When we talk about security we often talk about defense in depth. In computers it is a series of rings which become more robust and also restrictive as you move towards the kernel of the operating system. Armies work on a different model but all the same similar. The outer rings (farthest from the populace) have got to be hard and they have to be powerful. Force projection through big bombs carried by bigger bombers, and rapid response like armor and mechanized infantry. You need the outer ring to be the chainsaw in the forest. As you move closer to the populace you are protecting to step down through infantry and the power requirements finally end up being Officer Barney and one bullet for his well shined never shot gun.

Technology has a tendency to unbalance these characteristics. We use technology to get Barney Fife on the highly mobile battlefield, or use the strategic air-bomber to monitor traffic patterns downtown Mayberry. Much of this has to do with a misunderstanding of what technology is about, or what appropriate technology means. Sure you can do something with technology but should you do something with technology is rarely asked. Whether it is replacing and displacing hundreds of factory workers with automation that results in an economic slump that closes the factory for lack of customers, or it is the infantry man replaced by a wandering robot who becomes the ultimate private snuffy no brain. The relationship between man and technology is fraught with issues.

The act of infantry combat in several thousand years across the world has not significantly changed. Actual ground pounders don’t move much faster today then did their Roman forebears. We’ve mechanized them and upped the speed to 15 or 18 mph (as long as fuel and mechanical failures are kept to a minimum). The 21 foot active defense radius of the infantry man circa 2000 years ago has been extended to about 250 yards in modern day combat. The technology to reach out that far hasn’t really changed that much in the last 50 years since John Browning made the first repeating rifle. The close in weapon of the Marine is still a fighting knife. Strategic air or technological warfare has a place on the modern battlefield much like the archer became the sniper. Each new technology has to be adapted to duty without laying off the infantry. When I look at the combat robots I see technology grasping for purpose and the design is the portent of failure. In many ways UAV’s are replacing highly trained redundant on the ground reconnaissance with single points of failure, highly vulnerable, resource intensive and moderately effective drones. Further until the robots take on organic form and don’t look like some kids erector set the technology is a failure as function over form is valid but function without form is invalid. Form has a way of telling us that something that has been designed is done.

Technology has a place on the battlefield whether it by the mythical dragon skin armor, truly functional heads up displays, prosthetic breathing apparatus for working in hostile atmospheres, exo-skeletal body support mechanisms, or refined “smart” communications each technology doesn’t replace the infantryman but makes the infantryman smarter and better. Like it or not the Air Force role is to prepare a battle field for the infantry as at some point we are going to hold and maintain that ground. Clearing IED’s is part of the EOD job category and using robots to facilitate that mission is perfectly fine, but removing the EOD technician from the task completely creates some concern over losing that specialty and the ability to extend upon the knowledge. Which is a key concern. When you replace individuals and either out source or automate a task you effectively stop the internal process refinement and adaptation elements of that task. A robot is not capable of making refinements outside of the programming it has. An analyst in a vacuum is one person looking at a task not 100’s or 1000’s of infantryman making lessons learned across the organization. When you replace the “do’er” of the task you replace the learning and refinement phase of the process and are stuck on implement.

There is a sincere and substantial risk of technology run amok. Not that I think the robots will go “Terminator” on us, but that cost and return on investment will not be aligned with realizable goals. The technology purchased must meet the needs of the military now and the future soldiers who take the battlefield. There is also the resource and manning issue. With some of these combat system the human capital required to keep a specific technology running can be enormous. When every soldier is an investment the impact of a technology must be substantial or be accused of squandering a resource. We must maintain a fully functional military and not “rob Peter to pay Paul” with technology, COIN or capability. That the United States has the most expensive military is easily proven, but that the United States is the most powerful and no other nation can stand is a bit of a misnomer. Technology does not mean invulnerability and as we see now with the current operational tempo the largest military can rapidly become the tiredest. When you look at the political landscape that was designed by treaty to promote wars of nation-state versus nation-state, and now that battlefield is morphing to non-state actors versus the nation state, the infantry becomes the scalpel of diplomacy.

The budgetary wrangling and gadget envy of the forces is pathetic. A unit commander does not need his own UAV. What he needs in unencumbered access to the ones already in the air. A valid area of study for DARPA is how to make the barriers to the needy and between collection mechanisms gateways to information. Let the Air Force have all the UAV’s as long as they provide raw available data and proper support to the military members on the ground as 100 percent available and sustainable. Otherwise they are expensive toys and those who are selfish get no more toys.

DARPA has always been about the absolute future, but there is traction in DARPA and the National Science Foundation, to fund only working near term concepts. That means some of the really cool technologies we’ve gotten in the past aren’t replicated in the future pipeline. There is no really cool “gee whiz” technology hiding in a DARPA project. The UAV concept is really nothing more than a highly refined children’s radio control toy. Also, the scope of the implemented technologies seem to mix between some ultra strategic bomber and giving Barney Fife a new way to polish his bullet. There are some neat projects but they seem to be “safe” rather than mind boggling. Toss into this mix of convolutions the political process and what we will accept as risk and you end up with techno-fascism and anarchy.

If we wanted to answer some very specific technology issue questions we could start thinking about these:
1) Why does an infantryman carry as much stuff as he weighs?
2) Why haven’t we gotten cartridgeless bullets yet?
3) Ablative and thicker is better armor slows everybody down where are the new materials?
4) Why do any LAV’s still have wheels?
5) Why are most of the materials in a soldiers uniform based on 18th century era materials?
6) Why can a low level manager in a multinational call home to his kids from the streets of Baghdad with one touch dialing and a soldier has to be patched in through numerous operators to talk to his battlefield commander?
7) Why would anybody compare the volatile insecure Internet with highly available secure communications?

These are all simple questions. When the basic infantryman no longer looks like a two legged pack mule, and the number of support personnel to front line fighters is reversed as a ratio then we can look at gee-whiz gadgets. Then again in COIN everybody is on the front line.

COIN is the interesting intersection of the technologies where more can create a drag. To often technology is a barrier to the “touchy feely” side of COIN. A tablet voice translation system is a great gadget but what does it say about the cultural sensitivities of the soldiers? What is the unintended message when using such a device? When the soldier looks like a walking arsenal and can be identified by the ever-present packhorse gate as they walk how can the true mission objectives be met? I believe that the highly trained, exceptionally educated, superior morality of the volunteer soldier is being ripped off in an effort to create unsustainable technologies at the cost of research into making the infantryman a more effective soldier.

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