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The High-Tech Military -- Now and in the Future

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Updated April 04, 2004
By Gerry J. Gilmore, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON– Scientific innovations developed by the Defense Department and in the private sector are helping to prosecute the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq while helping DoD to realize its transformation goals for tomorrow.

DoD research conducted over the past 30 years has produced innovations such as the global positioning system and stealth and night-vision devices, Ronald Sega, director of defense research and engineering, told a House subcommittee here March 25.

The department's science and technology programs, Sega said in a prepared statement to the House Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, continues to "be vital to the support of our troops and is simultaneously developing the capabilities of our future forces."

For example, the thermobaric bomb that was used in Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda and Taliban members in their mountain hideouts, Sega said, "is directly linked to the basic research in DoD."

Ceramic armor, said Tony Tether, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is another S&T innovation that's being employed to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tether, who accompanied Sega at the House hearing, noted that boron carbide -- ceramic material used in today's upgraded body armor -- was once expensive to make.

"DARPA's investments eventually led to inexpensive plates of boron carbide," Tether explained, which helped "to clear the way for the improved interceptor body armor."

Other DARPA items developed for troops' use in Iraq and elsewhere, Tether noted, include the Phraselator -- a hand-held device that translates spoken English phrases into foreign speech -- and a compact water-sterilizing device.

Tether said DARPA also is working on miniaturized unmanned aerial vehicles, improved digital communications systems, and more precise sensor systems that could be used to detect and destroy hidden surface targets.

The U.S. military, Tether said, also looks to develop remote-controlled vehicles for the transport of supplies and other uses. He noted that DARPA sponsored a March 13 competition called "Grand Challenge," run on desert roads between Barstow, Calif., and Primm, Nev., that featured 21 civilian-developed, robot-controlled concept vehicles.

"Our goal was to reach out and involve people who would never ordinarily be found working on a problem for the DoD," Tether explained.

Other DARPA research conducted under the Human Assisted Neural Devices program, Tether said, seeks to use the human mind to run machinery.

"This program is finding ways to detect and directly decode signals in the brain so that thoughts can be turned into acts performed by a machine," he explained. The concept, he noted, "has actually been demonstrated, to a limited degree, with a monkey that was taught to move a telerobotic arm simply by thinking about it."

The ability to transmit thoughts into mechanical actions would have an "enormous" impact on military art, Tether acknowledged. Near-term benefits of such technology, he noted, could be applied "to our injured veterans, who would be able to control prosthetics in a natural way never before imagined."

Unmanned aerial and terrain vehicles and increased use of robotics will be a part of tomorrow's military, Tether noted. However, he maintained, "the idea is not simply to replace people with machines, but to team people with autonomous platforms."

This, Tether explained, will "create a more capable, agile, and cost-effective force, and one that also lowers the risk of U.S. casualties. "The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq," he pointed out, "clearly demonstrates the value of this idea."

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