Life has been imitating art with a vengeance lately in the field of weaponry. A number of weapons and weapons systems now on active duty or in the prototype stage seem to have been ripped straight out of the overwrought imagination of a sci-fi writer. Here’s a trip back to the future to look at some of the latest military and law enforcement hardware.
Vaporizing things and folks with a powerful ray has been a staple of fervid sci-fi imaginations since the beginnings of the genre. Today, we’ve got weaponized lasers to do that for us. Boeing recently offered a powerful proof-of-concept of the lethal capabilities of airborne laser weapons when it blasted a ballistic missile into oblivion from its Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB). The modified B 747-400 is fitted with a Northrup Gruman megawatt-class laser (read higher energy) and a Lockheed Martin beam and fire control system. The ALTB uses one low-energy laser to track the target and a second one to measure and compensate for atmospheric disturbances. Then it unleashes its killer laser that heats the target to “critical structural failure.” That’s defense-speak for oblivion.
Fans of “Battlestar Galactica” will instantly warm to the concept of railguns, which use electrical energy instead of gun powder to fire projectiles at very high speeds, destroying their targets with kinetic energy rather than conventional explosives. It works by sending electric currents along parallel rails, which creates the electromagnetic force needed to fire projectiles at a higher rate of speed than traditional powder-powered cannons. Railguns also have a much great range, as much as 200 to 250 miles. This allows ships to fire deep into enemy territory while staying safely out of harm’s way. Because they don’t require gun powder they are inherently safer than conventional cannons, and free up storage space aboard ship. They also provide a more uniform power charge, which gives them greater accuracy. The U.S. Navy is currently testing early prototype railguns to replace their conventional weapons aboard ship. The service hopes to have a full-capability prototype by 2018.
Harry Potter got a lot of mileage out of invisibility in the “Harry Potter” series. Not being seen is a key tactic in every warfighter’s toolkit. Earlier warriors adopted camouflage to blend into their surroundings. Modern-day hardware relies on stealth technology, design and materials to make aircraft, naval vessels and vehicles harder to pick out by radar, sonar or heat-sensitive sensors. Invisibility, though, is the Holy Grail in stealth. And the British Army claims to have found it, albeit in a rather kludgy way. In secret tests in 2007, they coated a tank in silicon, turning it into something like a movie screen. Video cameras on the tank take footage of the tank’s environment in real time and project the images on the surface of the tank. Voila, an invisibility cloak of sorts. Not to be outdone, the boffins at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have launched their own work to investigate “urban obfuscants” to develop protective shields for soldiers in urban combat situations.
Where Hummers Fear to Tread
Rugged terrain is tough slogging for foot soldiers, even when they’re not fighting. The average equipment load for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, ranges from 97 to more than 135 pounds. Humping those kinds of loads takes a toll. The Imperial forces in “Star Wars” had the AT-AT (All Terrain Armored Transport) walkers to ferry its troops. Not to outdone in our galaxy, DARPA and the U.S. Marine Corps have awarded a contract to Boston Dynamics to develop a prototype for Darpa’s Legged Squad Support System (LS3). The L3 will be a walking quadruped that will augment squads by carrying traditional and new equipment autonomously and will be able to cover complex terrain where tactical vehicles can’t go. It will be able to carry a payload of 40 pounds over as much as 20 miles and provide 24 hours of self-sustained capability.
Superman wasn’t shy about using his X-ray vision to spot evil-doers through the walls of buildings. And Metropolis was a better place for it. This year, the U.S. Army will attempt to give the troops in Afghanistan a similar advantage when it issues hand-held sensors that can see through walls, detect buried explosives and spot enemy combatants crawling through underground tunnels or hiding behind trees. These Eagle5 scanners — an M model and a P model —use low-power, ultra-wideband radio frequency (RF) waves to produce images of what’s concealed by wood, stone, brick, concrete or dirt. The M, which looks like an oversize cell phone and weighs 3.5 pounds, is designed to detect motion and can pick up people more than 20 feet away though eight-inch concrete slabs. The larger P, which weighs 6 pounds, is designed to penetrate the ground and can detect people in tunnels and buried explosives at depths greater than 10 feet.
Bots at War
Robots such as the wise-cracking duo of R2-D2 and C-3PO are a staple of science fiction. And in the real world we’ve grown accustomed to seeing robotic vehicles on the evening news approaching a suspicious package while the humans controlling the device are safely behind cover. It’s a given that bots can save human lives, both in “Star Wars” and in our world. But what if there were a robot that can go on the offensive as well and take the place of soldiers in dangerous situations? That’s just what the U.S. Army is ordering up. Its newest enlistee, the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS), is a robot that can open doors and set explosives or remove objects with a gripper claw. Its turret is fitted with an M24b machine gun, which gives it major firepower, and it has a gunshot detection capability, so it can determine where shots are coming from and return the fire. It also has 360-degree vision, two-way communications, night and thermo vision and lasers. This is a G.I. Joe on steroids, but one that doesn’t bleed.
Even in time of war, there are situations when you do not want to — or need to — use lethal force on a human being. The problem is that it’s hard to shoot someone just a little. Taser has come up with an alternative, the eXtended Range Electronic Projectile (XREP), a self-contained wireless electronic control device that is fired from a 12 gauge pump-action shotgun. It can paralyze a person without pain at up to 88 feet and can penetrate clothing. When it reaches its target, the XREP projectile autonomously generates neuromuscular incapacitation for 20 seconds, long enough for a solider or law officer to determine if the person is friend or foe.