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.
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.
Fernandez's aggressive approach has put the agency in the center of the creation of the new military. He volunteered his agency's efforts in developing the Future Combat Systems (FCS) project, which Lt. Gen. Paul Kern says, with understatement, "requires a culture change within the whole Army."
The clunky, traditional army designed to counter invading communist hordes is being replaced by a fast, light, and dangerous reaction force. Unmanned tanks, robot pilots, and bunker-penetrating missiles are the warriors of the future. The 30 days needed for a U.S. Army deployment, the then-tough standard set by the Gulf War, is to be reduced to 96 hours. Four teams led by consortiums of various military-industrial and academic giants (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, Northrup Grumman, Carnegie Mellon) are drafting competing concepts for development. It's a big-brain science fair, with the future of military philosophy at stake.
How badly does the U.S. Army want this new army in the field? During the first day of the conference in Dallas, an announcement was made: The Joint Chiefs had pushed the 2012 deadline forward. The new deadline for concepts is 2003, when the Army will sign contracts to mass-produce the new hardware. The units--tanks, infantry equipment, software, and aircraft--must now be ready for battle by 2008.
"If you don't feel challenged, I do," Kern told the crowd. "You have the answers we're looking for."
Much of the conference went into the technological advances that make modern warfare possible: microtransistors and nanoelectronics, software programs to ease logistics logjams, reliable gauges on increasingly complex machinery, equipment that uses photons instead of electrons to run. Some have a direct impact on the FCS project, others are stand-alone.
The convention presentations represented only about one quarter of DARPA's projects. DARPA efforts include "black" projects that are as secretive as the agency's stealth project once was--the testing of which was done on a base the government claimed did not exist.
One by one, project managers from DARPA told the crowd what they were working on, making clear they wanted to be contacted with any ideas that could be applied to their projects. The projects ranged from the mundane, like new models for gauges on warships, to mind-bending, such as the possible uses of a new material called "amorphous metal" that becomes stronger under stress.
Program manager Abe Lee presented the "Bioflip," which could read a soldier's vital statistics and medical condition via sensors and micro-needles. If a soldier were exposed to biological weapons, the sensors could do a rudimentary analysis, and researchers could plan for treatment.
Project managers stay with DARPA for only three to five years, which inspires them to push the envelope and get rapid results, and prevents bureaucracy and stagnant thinking. Some of the managers said they wisely choose the three-year tour of duty at DARPA as a career-ender so they can get the retirement benefits, and possibly leave a permanent mark on defense science.
"The best DARPA program managers have always been in the category of freewheeling zealots in pursuit of their goals," reads the description on DARPA's Web site. Only the U.S. government has the lack of business sense to fund things that either won't make a buck or have little chance of success. When a project is over, it may spawn new research or be replaced with other research. The risks of this "blue sky" approach are minimized by the high payoffs of radically new technology.
Hemi Sathe came from California to attend the Dallas conference. As the chief engineer of Alien Technologies, which manufactures flexible film electronic displays, he wanted to see where his company's products would fit the military's future needs. He envisions a battlefield where infantrymen unfurl Alien's displays like scrolls, plug them into a computer, and get instantly updateable maps. He even sees the tough, flexible screens used as camouflage; images from a camera filming the background terrain could be piped into the thin material affixed to vehicles like wallpaper, making it invisible.
Military contracts are a tiny percentage of Sathe's company's business, but the DARPA research money can be focused on cutting-edge projects that Alien would hesitate to approach. The rights of any breakthroughs remain with the company, with all the attendant commercial possibilities. The U.S. government, now armed with that technology, can contract with Alien to make their displays if they want.
"It's a good bargain for the military, and I get to do research on new technology," Sathe says. "Everybody gets something."
Dr. Thad Starner walked through the lobby of the hotel, navigating past clusters of glad-handing researchers and uniformed officers. On his face sat a humming set of safety goggles with a black rectangle stretched across one eye.
Starner fit the stereotype of the disheveled young researcher, with ill-fitting clothes and a goatee and ponytail. The 30-year-old assistant professor came from Georgia Institute of Technology to patrol for interest in some of the projects on which he's working, including wearable computers. The screen is displayed on the lower left-hand side of his vision field, freeing him to walk, talk, and schmooze without breaking the link to the computer. He's been wearing the beat-up safety-goggles computer rig daily for more than four years.
"In 1996 I was unknown to this DARPA community," Starner said. "They didn't know anyone crazy enough to wear a computer all the time. This year, enough have seen me before, and I'm no longer such an oddity."
Starner sees military applications for all kinds of projects on which he and his students are working at Georgia Tech. His lab is working on 3D imaging and sensors that recognize hand gestures. He envisions soldiers and commanders knowing when another is pointing his weapon, as part of an overall monitoring system.
Four years ago, as a graduate student, he didn't inspire any DARPA interest. This time he hoped for a sliver of funding. "The question is, does the stuff I do match what DARPA wants?" he said. "I'm here to see what their vision of the future is."
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DARPA's vision of the future is centered on technology, but it has to concentrate on people first. Lately it has had problems attracting people to the agency; the dot.com brain drain has depleted the defense contracting industry.
That's scary news for the defense department. DARPA has always been used as a security blanket to comfort national fears; it was established in 1958 as the first U.S. response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik. Today's bugaboos are the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons, friendly fire, attacks on our electronic infrastructure, and a public that will only tolerate zero-casualty combat.
The DARPA projects all work to assuage these fears, from unmanned tanks to electronic defense software to the production of genetically engineered vaccines.
Fernandez quoted General George Marshall, who had been asking for a modern military before the United States got involved in World War II: "'First we had the time but no money, now we have the money but no time,'" Fernandez said. "Well, now we have the money and the time. Apparently."