2012 was an action-packed year and it doesn't look like the world is showing any signs of slowing down. Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, and focus has shifted away from Iran, Russia, and China due to the elections and fiscal cliff dealings, it is only a matter a time before we cease to be at each other's throats and begin eyeing the necks of our frenemies across the sea.
While we've been distracted by the talks about how we spend too much money, our Department of Defense and its civilian associates have spent tons of money. Acording to usgovernmentspending.com (not affiliated with the U.S. government), $925 billion was spent on defense in fiscal year 2012, roughly 15% of the federal budget. In 2010 we spent roughly $79 million on just research and development (about 12% back then).
So what are we getting for our money?
We all remember the "chicken walkers" being crushed by logs on the planet Endor in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, as well as the elephantine AT-AT's that assaulted the rebel base on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. The big, clumsy, boxy machines were kind of cute and not terribly effective. Real life isn't like Star Wars.
For the last few years, Boston Dynamics has been leading the charge in developing walkers for the U.S. military.
In 2008, video footage of their prototype, named "Big Dog" took YouTube by storm. Many compared the all-terrain robotic pack mule to armed robots from games such as Metal Gear Solid.
Since the release of that video, Boston Dynamics, with funding from DARPA has continued to develop several varieties of walking robots. Some more sinister looking that others. For instance, "RiSE" a lizard-like robot that scales walls, and "Cheetah" which will be chasing down insurgents in a third-world country near you.
To round out the mechanical menagerie of horrors are MIT's Meshworm, an earthworm like robot that can find its way almost anywhere for purposes ranging from espionage to delivering explosives. Also, a jellyfish that is powered by a rat's heart, and an array of mechanical bugs sneaking into a bedroom near you!
Also, of course, "Petman," the grandfather of the Terminator, who is currently being used to test mobility in Hazmat suits. He is joined by REEM of PAL Robotics from Spain, who are developing a human-like robot that can enter buildings, identify faces, and navigate furniture and obstacles. These two technologies combined and all we'll need is a super-smart global military computer network... oh wait.
2. Electromagnetic Guns
No weapon article these days is complete without this titan of a weapon (as envisioned by Michael Bay). An old concept in physics, the first railgun was patented in 1918 and they have existed for experimental purposes ever since, but it wasn't until the last few years that the dream of weaponizing a high school science project became a reality.
The railgun works on a basic principle of elecrticity. When two conducting rails are connected by a power source and a conductive bridge is laid between them, the resulting magnetic force pushes the bridge forward.
In the case of a railgun, the bridge is a projectile. Massive capacitor banks store up power and rapidly discharge it across two rails, propelling the projectile forward at up to 10 times the speed of sound!
The Navy estimates that a fully operational demo model will be ready by 2016. The newest fleet of destroyers are all electric in preparation to be fitted with railguns once they are ready. The weapon has several advantages that make it worth the money. Being a kinetic weapon, (a weapon that does its damage by impact, not explosives, a cannon ball, for example) the ammunition is smaller and non-explosive, making it easier, cheaper, and safer, to transport. The high velocity means that the gun is much more accurate, and is accurate for up to an estimated 50 miles!
The railgun also has possibilities as a handheld weapon. Having no shells or gunpowder, rapid-fire railguns would shoot even more quickly and reliably, since there are much fewer moving parts, and no need to take the extra steps to eject a spent shell before chambering the next round. Some hobbyists have already taken the steps to make this a reality. In this video, a hobbyist demonstrates their homemade coil gun (also called a Gauss rifle by the extra nerdy), which operates on a very similar principle.
3. Hypersonic Weapons and Orbital Bombardment
"Mr. President, we've found Hans Gruber, but he'll be gone in an hour, we need to strike him now." -General Smith
"Do it." -President Chris Christie
Ten minutes later, the safe house Hans Gruber was hiding in is a crater on the other side of the world.
Such a scenario will be possible sooner than you may think, thanks to advances made in SCRamjet technology. SCRamjet stands for "Supersonic Combustion Ramjet" a Ramjet is a type of engine that compresses its intake air through by ramming into air quickly, rather than the whiring blades of a compressor like you see on airliners.
A Ramjet can travel in speeds up to Mach 3 or even 4. However, as airflow is subsonic inside the engine itself, there is a maximum speed it can attain. A SCRamjet allows shockwaves to travel through the engine, assisting, rather than hindering, the engine's ability to compress air. The result is engines that can propel aircraft and missiles anywhere from Mach 12 to possibly as high as Mach 24! To put this in perspective, the SR-71, the fastest manned aircraft to date, travels at a pokey Mach 3.2.
The benefits of hypersonic speed aren't difficult to guess. Imagine being able to travel from New York City to London in an hour (at Mach 6) ... or even less! If scientists can reach Mach 24 with these engines, the trip could take less than 15 minutes!
Like its cousin the Ramjet, SCRamjets must first be accelerated by another means before their own engines can fire and carry them the rest of the way. DARPA has launched them piggyback on ballistic missiles and has carried them up to speed as payload on B-52 bombers.
With current methods, it could still take well over an hour for a Scramjet missile to hit a target, especially if its begins its launch on American soil. However, the Navy maintains a large fleet of ballistic missile subs, secretly located all over the world, ready to respond at a moment's notice. It is likely a missile fired at Hans Gruber's compound in ... say the Congo, could originate from a much closer location.
But if the government is willing to look past its treaties to never weaponize space (a treaty Iran has signed but not ratified), it could be even more effective. Unmanned space vehicles, like the X-37b could theorteically carry SCRamjet missiles as payload. Open a door and drop one from orbit, and gravity and/or an extra throwaway booster rocket will quickly bring the projectile to the speed necessary to fire its engines and be on its way. Satellites in low orbit, take only 90 minutes to circumvent the entire globe. Five or six X-37's in space would ensure that at any given moment, all spots on Earth are within striking range.
Also playing on this concept is the space based laser. The program got its start originally as Reagan's famous Star Wars plan, which was a flop due to the lack of technology to make it feasible ... not anymore.
The SBL's original concept was to shoot incoming ballistic missiles out of the sky. A concept that has been proven possible with ground-based tests already. The Army is preparing to roll out the HEL TD, a truck-based laser platform to shoot down incoming missiles and enemy UAV's.
Further into the future, we will begin to see longer range energy weapons. In 2008, construction began on a $40 million Ion Beam Laboratory at Kirkland Air Force Bace to begin research on particle beam weapons. Weapons such as these could possibly be ideal candidates for space-based platforms, enhancing our already non-existent, but nevertheless impressive, orbital bombardment capabilities.
5. Super Soldiers
The concept of super soldiers is as old as the concept of soldiers themselves. Both in reality and in fiction, mankind has constantly dreamed of humans that are bigger, stronger, and smarter than that of themselves. Famous super soldiers of the mutated variety include Captain America or the Uruk-Hai from Lord of the Rings.
Bionic soldiers are even easier to find, both in fiction and in real life. One of the earliest bionic soldiers was Marcus Sergius, a Roman general, who after losing his hand in battle, wore a metal prostethetic designed to allow him to continue carrying a shield. More contemporary bionic soldiers include ... our current U.S. soldiers.
But these soldiers aren't necessarily, super soldiers, though anyone whose had a leg blown off and is ready to go back for more is super in my opinion. What about soldiers that can do more than regular men?
Our soldiers can already move quietly, survive in extreme temperatures, and see in the dark, but what about carry 200 lbs up a mountain?
To help with that Lockheed Martin has developed the incredible HULC. An exoskeleton designed to help soldiers carry heavier loads up the mountains and hills of Afghanistan. The HULC is already beind tested in theater and further improvements are coming.
Also in the works: nanosensors implanted in soldiers that monitor their health remotely. In the future every soldier will have their health monitored in real time by medical staff. The immediate benefit will hopefully be diagnosing and treating illness early, helping to eliminate the number one reason for taking soldiers out of theater. Also possible, and I'm speculating here, the nanosensors will also likely be able to monitor stress, adrenaline, and other phsycological factors that can help match soldiers with counseling before they come home and tragically end their lives.
One of the drawbacks of all these technologies (especially the railgun) is the amount of power they require. The HULC is powered by heavy fuel cells, the railgun requires significant energy to fire a single shot. However, the very act of marching will soon be able to help offset those needs with the Power Walk, being developed by company Bionic Power in conjunction with the Department of Defense. Power Walk uses the motion of the user walking to generate energy which could be used to charge phones, gps devices, flashlights, and all the other bits of electronic gear our modern soldiers carry.
Super soldiers, electronic and laser weapons, orbital bombardment ... the wars of the futures are terrifying to consider. Albert Einstein once said that World War III will be fought with the most fearsome weapons mankind has ever known. All indicators point to him being right.
However, another brilliant scientist, Tony Stark, once pointed out that military research doesn't just further the science of killing people, but of saving people. Because of these technology programs, the drones that put missiles in terrorists' homes will also rescue people stranded in the mountains.The ability to travel anywhere in the world in a couple hours will bring people of all cultures together, the nanotechnology monitoring our soldiers vitals will someday monitor our own, and the prosethetics that help them return the war will help us return to the soccer field, or to the construction site.
Military spending is nothing to take lightly, to be slashed without consideration as many on the left (and some on the right) would have you think. The "military industrial complex," as bloated and inefficient as it is, is and has been one of the primary drivers of all human development over the last century, and continues to do so. The very internet connection you are reading this article on, a connection which has allowed Americans and Europeans to pressure the Indian government to prosecute rapists, and to help Arab citizens unite and end their oppressive regimes, and to help the citizens of our own country wrestle the microphone back from the pundit elites who've told us what to think for 50 years, is all directly linked to U.S. military spending.