New Model Army

Can the big-brain boys of the defense community change the way America fights?

INDIA DMZ, 2022--The first mine exploded under an armored personnel carrier. It went up with a bright orange flash and a miserable chorus of faint shrieks. The fire and the cries faded fast.

Cursing the Americans, the Taliban commander ordered his armored column to halt and backtrack, waiting for the engineers to arrive to clear a path. He knew the Americans were able to create minefields by shooting them in random patterns by air, from helicopter-mounted rockets, or specially designed bombs. But how did they know his armored column would be crossing this obscure field? Now his intricate attack would be delayed, and surprise lost. And that meant the coalition forces requested by the Indian government had more time to repel his troops' advance to New Delhi.

The engineers arrived and began their work prying the seven-pound, disk-shaped mines from the ground. They began warily, expecting anti-personnel booby traps to prevent them from doing their job. These heavy mines complied with international laws against anti-personnel land mines, making them easy to pluck from the ground. So the engineers made swift progress, creating a column of safety through the minefield.

Lt. Gen. Paul Kern issues a challenge at a military technology conference in Dallas: Make an invincible U.S. Army by 2003.
Lt. Gen. Paul Kern issues a challenge at a military technology conference in Dallas: Make an invincible U.S. Army by 2003.

A hissing noise interrupted their steady work. The men, fearing unseen death at the hands of American technology, dove face-first into the grass.

Mines were dropping behind them, filling the area they had already swept clean, leaping like grasshoppers to fill the breach. One after another, the mines popped, soaring 25 feet into the air, self-righting on the way down and falling into another random pattern. Sensors within the mines determined how far the mines needed to go. The "thinking" mines reformed their deadly network as the engineers and commander watched, amazed.

The engineers attacked the field again. By the time they'd cut another path, the sun was rising, and their surprise attack had stalled.

Suddenly the troops heard a dull thudding noise. From behind a hill, three unmanned helicopters rose, their rotors engineered for stealth, their weapons platforms loaded with anti-tank missiles. In minutes they had expended their payloads, bursting tanks and APCs open with a furious rocket salvo, heedless of anti-aircraft missiles hurtling around them. The sky became filled with dark oily smoke from crippled tanks and destroyed equipment. The helicopters wheeled and headed back to base.

The surprise attack had become a rout.

(All of the equipment mentioned in this fictional--and improbable--Taliban invasion of Northern India was highlighted by project managers during the recent DARPA conference in Dallas.)

Lt. Gen. Paul Kern stood before the crowd, uniformed and neatly coifed. "There is truly a revolution going on right now, and you are all part of it. Or you will be."

He was speaking to the crowd of research scientists, members of research institutes, corporate investment strategists, and inventors--the heart of America's defense research community--assembled on September 6 at the "DARPATech 2000 Symposium" held in Dallas at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel.

It was a humble location for a weighty conference. One item on the agenda: a total redesign of the U.S. military.

When the military wants to go sci-fi, it turns to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a wing of the Department of Defense that specializes in high-risk projects and radical developing technologies.

DARPA, under the guidance of its ambitious director, Frank Fernandez, has positioned itself to be at the forefront of the post-Cold War restructuring of the military. The new military will not be designed to counter the Soviet Union, but will be one that is mobile, fast, compatible with allied coalition armies, and hard to hurt. The emphasis at the conference on "lethality" and "survivability" was constant.

The United States wants to kill without being hurt, or even seen, when foreign policy requires it.

Kern was asking the collection of scientists, soldiers, and seekers to help hone the U.S. military's technological edge so that future battles will be as one-sided as the Gulf War. Technology is the key; technology so expensive to create and maintain that no known enemy will be able to keep up.

That's what the Joint Chiefs of Staff dream about when they lay their heads down at night.

DARPA's influence has been constantly rising, with such breakthroughs as microwaves and stealth technology in its history. Seemingly, the days when the military establishment feared DARPA inventions are over--at least in the upper-echelon ranks. When DARPA-funded scientists developed stealth technology in the 1970s, the Air Force was hesitant to adopt it because it wasn't their brain boys who developed the idea.

Now things are different. The military has set lofty goals and expects DARPA to make them a reality. We want an unmanned aircraft able to do recon or drop bombs. We want sensors on soldiers to prevent friendly fire. We want new ways to spot enemy subs in shallow waters cluttered with commercial boats. We want a self-healing minefield.

DARPA accepts the challenges and turns to the brains in private companies, universities, and research institutes to make it happen. Those commercial and academic researchers are always eager for funding of their high-risk and cutting-edge studies, and DARPA gives them the leeway to try new things and to fail.

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