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The Most Important Future Military Technologies

Super lasers, binoculars that read minds, manipulating the "human terrain"...

By Sharon Weinberger
Oct 4, 2007 5:00 AMJul 13, 2023 3:52 PM


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The total proposed American defense budget for 2008 is more than half a trillion dollars—with $75 billion of that set aside for research and development. For decades, the Pentagon’s investment in science and technology has produced widely hailed achievements like the Internet and the Global Positioning System. It has also backed quixotic and costly failures, like space-based lasers. And sometimes it has gone off the deep end, funding such things as psychic spies and weapons that defy the laws of physics.

The Department of Defense began systematically funding basic and applied research in a big way after World War II. Today the Pentagon’s investment in science R&D remains a cornerstone of the country’s national security strategy. Yet in the aftermath of the low-tech attacks of 9/11, the growing insurgency in Iraq, and the threat of worldwide terrorism, technology experts both within and outside the Pentagon are questioning whether Defense Department research is producing the results that America needs.

So what are we getting for our money? That $75 billion budget covers a vast array of projects, from perfecting new weapon systems like the Joint Strike Fighter plane to studying pure physics. Focusing on the research side of R&D, DISCOVER looked at four key areas where the military is placing its bets: hypersonic vehicles, laser technology, using information technology and neuroscience to combine human and machine on the battlefield, and employing sociology and psychobiology to combat terrorism.


For two decades, unconfirmed press reports have speculated that the United States has been developing Aurora, a top secret hypersonic aircraft, sometimes dubbed the SR-72. Rumors of such “black,” or classified, research programs are hard to squelch: How do you prove something does not exist? As recently as June, an article in Defense News, a trade publication, reported that the Air Force was developing “a stealthy 4,000-mph plane capable of flying to altitudes of about 100,000 feet, with transcontinental range.”

In comparison, the state-of-the-art SR-71 stealth reconnaissance plane, which flew from 1964 to 1998, topped out at about an airspeed of 2,200 mph and 85,000 feet, while the Concorde, the fastest commercial jet ever built, flew at a maximum speed of about 1,350 mph and an altitude of 60,000 feet.

The Aurora speculation has been fueled, in part, by the Defense Department’s classified budget requests, estimated by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., to total $30.1 billion for 2007, with about half going to classified R&D. That black budget has at times led to wild speculation, despite independent analysis indicating that much of the black money flows into satellites and other intelligence assets.

According to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (also based in Washington, D.C.), a frequent critic of government secrecy, it would be hard in today’s world—though not impossible—to hide such a large classified program as a hypersonic aircraft. “In principle, it is possible to conduct a large black program,” he says, but the reality is that the larger the program and the more people involved in it, the harder it is to keep totally secret. “I suspect Aurora involved a small grain of truth, and lots of wishful thinking,” he adds.

Mark Lewis, the Air Force’s chief scientist, laughs about the persistence of the Aurora story. “That’s right, we got the technology from Area 51,” he jokes. In fact, Lewis says, hypersonic research really is progressing in notable ways, just not in the direction of an airplane. Lewis is particularly enthusiastic about the X-51 WaveRider, a hypersonic flight-test vehicle funded by the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s research and development arm. The WaveRider gets its name from its unique approach to coping with hypersonic shock waves that form in the air as it drills through the sky. Rather than fighting shock waves, the shape of the X-51 allows it to maximize those waves to provide lift and funnel compressed air into its scramjet engine.

The X-51 will most likely lead to missiles, which are substantially easier to construct and fly than piloted airplanes. In such applications, hypersonic technology could be important for the war on terror: According to Richard Hallion, who once served as the Air Force’s historian and is a former senior adviser for “counterintelligence and special programs oversight,” hypersonics could result in a missile capable of reaching its quarry before it has a chance to escape. “You might go after a fleeting target, a Zarqawi or an Osama bin Laden,” he says.

Death Rays

Like hypersonics, laser weapons involve boundary-pushing technology that has been in development for years. After more than two decades and billions of dollars of investment, there are still no deployed laser-weapon systems, which fall under the broad category of “directed energy weapons.” But even as expectations have fallen, some progress has been made. Gone is the 1980s vision of huge energy beams that would fell ballistic missiles in midflight, and fighters equipped with high-energy lasers still exist only in the realm of ambitious PowerPoint presentations. Currently most of the research focus is on more modestly powered beams. The Army, for example, is investing in an effort to develop solid-state lasers and says it will soon reach 100 kilowatts, about the minimum power needed to produce a deployable weapon. The signs look good that they will meet that goal; in February, the Solid State Heat Capacity Laser, built at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, hit the 67-kilowatt mark. DARPA is looking at more efficient technologies, like fiber lasers and liquid lasers, which could lead to smaller, more compact devices, while the Navy is researching a Free Electron Laser, an experimental technology that uses high-speed electrons to generate an extremely powerful focused beam of radiation. The Free Electron Laser is still in the lab, though, and probably will not be ready until after 2020.

The Missile Defense Agency for its part is focused more on chemical lasers, which draw prodigious energy from chemical reactions. One such device, the megawatt-class Airborne Laser currently installed on a Boeing 747, is intended to shoot down ballistic missiles. Air Force researchers are also slowly developing a less powerful chemical laser, called the Advanced Tactical Laser, designed to go on C-130H gunship. Mark Lewis of the Air Force acknowledges that even the Advanced Tactical Laser is not ready to deploy: “I’m not sure it’s even the right laser system,” he says. “Ultimately, you probably want to do solid-state [lasers].” Still, he feels that some elements of the system are providing a useful test bed for future weapons.

Despite many years of failed efforts, directed energy weapons are worth the investment, Lewis argues, because they fall into the high-risk, high-payoff category: They may fail, but if they work, they will provide a tremendous capability. “If we’re not failing a little bit, or every so often, then we’re not being bold enough in the research that we’re doing,” he maintains.

But how does the military guard against ideas that are so impossible or improbable that they’re not worth a single dime? A few years ago, DARPA, which prides itself on promoting far-out projects, proposed spending $30 million on a “hafnium bomb,” a type of nuclear weapon intended to release energy from atomic nuclei without either fission or fusion, using an approach similar to how energy is extracted from electrons in a laser. DARPA pursued the project even after outside advisory panels criticized the physics as bad science, and independent researchers were unable to replicate the basic results the research was based on. The agency abandoned the project only after Congress intervened.

DARPA, through its spokeswoman, Jan Walker, declined an interview, but Walker answered written questions. “A DARPA program can be very hard, but it can’t violate the laws of physics (or if so, have as its purpose the discovery of new phenomenology which may in fact cause the current laws to be reconsidered),” she wrote.

What Walker’s parenthetical bureaucratese appears to be saying is that sometimes DARPA will fund projects that violate the known laws of physics. So if current science can’t be used as a filter in such cases, how does DARPA decide which projects are worth funding? “The issue of ‘worth’ goes more to whether or not the proposed program will enable revolutionary change,” Walker replied.

Lewis, who has been at the receiving end of some strange research proposals, agrees that it’s not the subject per se that defines something as crazy, but the approach to it. “I have my own litmus test,” he says. “First, does this violate the laws of physics? That’s the gatekeeper.” Second, he says, is “what is the capability that it brings to bear, and is that an important capability?” By Lewis’s criteria, some ideas that seem wild are worthwhile to fund initially—as long as sponsors are willing to drop concepts that don’t appear to be living up to their promise. “For me, the difference is that the hafnium bomb violated the laws of physics, and we had lots of really smart people who said it violated the laws of physics,” he says. “Making the initial investment, one might argue, isn’t so bad,” he continues. “It’s knowing when to bail.”

Warriors and War Machines

Tanks and missiles are the most obvious fruits of military research, but some defense analysts argue that information technology is the weapon that has most revolutionized warfare. Modern generals never face the command and control problems that plagued, say, Napoleon. Surveillance technologies like radar and spy satellites can warn of an approaching enemy, troops can be given orders in real time from thousands of miles away, and GPS navigation ensures they don’t get lost. These technologies allowed the U.S. military to sweep aside initial opposition in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Philip Coyle, senior adviser for the Center for Defense Information and the Defense Department’s top technology tester during the Clinton administration, in recent years the Pentagon has increasingly relied on information. “Basically, you substitute electrons for armor,” he says. “The idea was if you had enough information, that would make up for armor.”

Research in advanced information technology is feeding ideas like Future Combat Systems, the Army’s ambitious $200 billion program to field a series of manned and unmanned vehicles linked by a common communications network. But Coyle now believes relying on information technology so heavily is at least partially misguided. He notes the lesson learned from the later combat in Iraq—where homemade bombs have proved deadly to U.S. forces—is simple: “You never have enough information to substitute for armor.”

That’s not the only problem. Building that heavily linked network has proved daunting. Costs have grown, particularly as engineers realized the limitations of their technology. Thomas Killion, the Army’s chief scientist, defends this work in much the same way Lewis defends the Air Force’s high-risk ventures: The important thing about Future Combat Systems was that the Army defined “a vision and stuck to it [and then over time] calibrated it with technical reality.”

In fact, the Pentagon is now extending its desire to manage information all the way to a soldier’s brain, where DARPA and other research agencies are seeking to exploit neuroscience in pursuit of better battlefield technology. This year DARPA started a project called the Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System—more catchily dubbed Luke’s Binoculars (a reference to Luke Skywalker from Star Wars)—that combines advanced optics with an EEG system that monitors brain wave activity in the prefrontal cortex. Certain patterns of activity suggest that the brain has subconsciously detected a threat, and the system will alert the soldier immediately instead of waiting for his conscious mind to finish digesting the entire scene. DARPA anticipates field-testing a prototype in 2010.

Luke’s Binoculars is only one step into the world of neuroscience. The Pentagon is also trying to expand its understanding of the brain in order to detect foes. In an interview, William Schneider, the chairman of the Defense Science Board, a panel that advises the Pentagon’s senior leadership, says that neuroscience can offer a window into the minds of terrorists. “By being able to collect and process a lot of information about individuals that can be leveraged with understanding how the brain operates, there may be things we can do that had not heretofore been possible.” This would include being better able to predict where an individual might be found or to anticipate his behavior.

Schneider’s suggestion is one part of a broader report by the Defense Science Board on 21st-century “strategic technology vectors.” Released earlier this year, the report highlighted “human terrain preparation” as one of the key areas for Pentagon science and technology. This new piece of jargon has rapidly entered the military lexicon, with commanders and technologists alike talking about the “human terrain” to describe the interaction of culture, groups, and people that can, for example, lead to military forces being treated either as liberators or as unwelcome intruders.

The Pentagon does not just want to study this problem, however; it wants to develop a system to combat it. How can it manipulate group psychology so that insurgents, not U.S. forces, are seen by local civilians as the enemy? What interrogation techniques will produce the best results without alienating the local population or international allies? The sorts of technologies this might draw upon are diverse, Schneider says: everything from sensors that monitor the activity of people to software that would guide the actions of military commanders in the field by taking social and psychological factors into account. The Pentagon is funding social scientists to develop “a tool kit that helps combat teams understand the cultural context in which they must operate.” This kit might include handheld devices that will cue soldiers to behave in a culturally attuned manner.

According to Rear Admiral Bill Landay, who heads the Office of Naval Research, the question for this new area of research is: “How do you pick out unusual activity out of a very long, broad view of things you see? We’re putting a lot of emphasis in decision tools that focus on patterns and pattern differentiation, anomalies in behavior of people, the behavior of crowds, the behavior of organizations.”

The Pentagon’s vision of the future harks back to the past. During the Vietnam War, the Defense Department tried to use social sciences—particularly anthropology—in the service of national security. Though the most infamous of these efforts, called Project Camelot, focused on preventing insurgency in Latin America, other projects looked more broadly at using social sciences to help guide military actions, and like current efforts, they included quantitative and predictive uses of social science models.

The current research has resurrected some of this social science work. DARPA’s Integrated Crisis Early Warning System is nearly identical—at least in name—to a DARPA project of some 30 years ago that sought to forecast political instability. The current work describes “state-of-the-art computational modeling capabilities that can monitor, assess, and forecast, in near real time, a variety of phenomena associated with country instability.” The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has also joined in this pursuit, with research focused on tracking WMD networks. The Army, Navy, and Air Force (as well as the Department of Homeland Security) have all launched programs aimed at predicting group behavior. The goal, which one early participant called the “widgetization of social science,” was perhaps best summed up in 2005 by Starnes Walker, then the Office of Naval Research’s chief scientist, who said he wanted a Star Trek–like detector that could scan for evil intent.

Is this kind of analysis and manipulation possible? A memoir by one Pentagon official closely linked to the Vietnam-era cultural research concluded that the military should avoid funding social science. His warning has been forgotten: Human terrain research is growing, with the Pentagon estimating that in the 2006 and 2007 financial years, $74 million was allocated in this area.

Longtime national security analyst William M. Arkin is skeptical of much of the human terrain work, calling it a “dream counterterrorism program” that seeks to create a silver bullet to solve the problem of terrorism. “Those technologies are interesting and worthy of pursuit, but my guess is that they are a poor replacement for examining why it is that terrorism exists in the first place,” Arkin says. He points to the billions of dollars being poured into developing a biometric database in Iraq that will be used to identify and track individuals. This sort of approach, he says, is based on “the belief that they can make a database of the entire planet, and thereby that will set us free.” But he cautions that “9/11 was successful because it was a diabolical plot using the most conventional of weapons. It was not successful because of some technology they acquired.”

Human terrain research goes to the heart of the question of whether defense research is grounded in good science, or good policy. Not everyone in the Pentagon is convinced. “I’m going to be very candid on this one,” says Lewis, while noting that the Air Force Office of Scientific Research is funding work in this area. “I think it’s something we should be looking at. I’m also maintaining a healthy skepticism.” Ironically, Lewis’s skepticism is inspired in part by the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, whose Foundation novels center on researchers who use advanced social science to predict the future, based on the behavior of large groups. “There’s two important lessons that I think Asimov got right,” Lewis says. First, the technology failed when a dictator arose, creating a “wild card that throws all the predictions off.” Second, “in the end it turns out [the forecasters] were cheating. They hadn’t actually predicted it all in the past, they were broadcasting it live and updating their predictions.”

Lewis shrugs. “We couldn’t figure out if Ohio was going to go Democratic or Republican, and that’s the society we’re supposed to understand?”

For Arkin, the Pentagon’s emphasis on futuristic science runs smack against the reality that no amount of science and technology can solve the problems of today. “Our future security is not going to be created by a force field,” he says.

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