After two decades of counter-terror operations, America’s Department of Defense, or DoD, is pivoting back toward great power competition with a slew of new programs and proposals that seemingly blur the line between science fiction fantasy and legitimate military capability.
America’s combat operations in places like the Middle East have afforded its defense apparatus a great deal of experience, but that benefit doesn’t come without a price. Aside from the significant wear and tear on equipment (and the associated maintenance costs), America’s defense apparatus has also offered its competition in nations like Russia and China a perfect opportunity to study and assess Uncle Sam’s military capabilities. While neither Russia nor China currently possesses truly peer-level military capabilities when compared to the United States, it’s important to remember that they don’t need to in order to pose a significant risk to American interests, or indeed its very safety.
With America’s combat playbook open for all to see, China and Russia have both devoted significant portions of their defense spending to leverage gaps in the U.S.’s proverbial armor. As a result, the United States now finds itself falling behind the technological power curve in a number of important ways, including hypersonics and potentially even anti-satellite weapons.
But despite the strategic advantage America’s defense commitments have offered its competitors in recent years, it wouldn’t be wise to count the U.S. out quite yet. In fact, the DoD already has a number of groundbreaking programs underway, and in recent months, the Defense Department has gone even further, soliciting proposals for advanced technology so unusual that practically read like science fiction.
Of course, soliciting proposals and even funding programs doesn’t mean every one of these efforts will result in an operational weapon or mature strategic capability. Some of these programs are sure to fail or to be pulled apart and devoured by other broader reaching efforts. Like SOCOM‘s Ironman-like TALOS armor or the stealth RAH-66 Comanche, a DoD program doesn’t have to cross the finish line to benefit the force.
Here are 6 crazy-seeming DoD programs that are currently in development.
Plasma holograms that can fool missiles (and maybe even people)
New technology under patent by the U.S. Navy could shift the odds of survival further into the favor of stealth aircraft by leveraging lasers to produce plasma bursts that could trick inbound missiles into thinking they’ve found a jet to chase that would actually be little more than a hologram.
According to their patent, the laser system could be installed on the tail of an aircraft, and upon detection of an inbound missile, could literally project an infrared signature that would be comparable to a moving fighter jet’s exhaust out away from the fighter itself. Multiple systems could literally project multiple aircraft, leaving inbound missiles to go after the decoy plasma “fighters” instead of the actual aircraft itself.
These “laser-induced plasma filaments,” as researchers call them, can be projected up to hundreds of meters, depending on the laser system employed, and (here’s the part that’ll really blow your mind) can be used to emit any wavelength of light. That means these systems could effectively display infrared to fool inbound heat-seeking missiles, ultraviolet, or even visible light.
You can read more about this effort in our full coverage of it here.
Drone wingmen and “Skyborg”
The 2005 movie “Stealth” depicts a team of 6th generation fighter pilots who are assigned a new wingman: an AI-enabled drone. The movie may not have gotten much right about military aviation, but the premise has proven not just viable, but likely. With programs underway like the Air Force Research Laboratories Skyborg and Boeing’s Loyal Wingman, it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing data-fusing jets like the F-35 flying with their own constellations of support drones that can be used to extend their sensor reach, engage targets on the fighter’s behalf, or even sacrifice themselves to prevent a missile from reaching the crewed aircraft.
Recently, the U.S. Air Force successfully flew a Kratos Valkyrie UCAV alongside both of America’s 5th generation fighters, with an active data link connecting the F-35 to the drone. While still a rudimentary test, this flight was truly just the beginning.
You can learn more about this effort in our coverage here.
Artificial intelligence in the cockpit
In August of last year, Heron Systems’ incredible artificial intelligence pilot system defeated not only its industry competitors, but went on to secure 5 straight victories against a highly trained U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot, without the human pilot even scoring a single hit. It was a significant success for the endeavor to get AI into the cockpits of American fighters, even if the competition was technically stacked in the AI’s favor.
The intent behind the competition wasn’t to embarrass a human pilot, but rather to improve both the AI’s ability to make decisions and develop a level of trust between human operators and future AI co-pilots. By outsourcing some tasks to a highly capable AI, pilots can focus more of their bandwidth on situational awareness and the task at hand.
You can read more about this effort in our coverage of it here.
6th generation fighters
Last September, the U.S. Air Force shocked the world with the announcement that they had already designed, built, and flown a prototype of the next generation of fighters. Details released by the DoD are scarce, but there are a number of assertions we can make about this program based on publicly available information.
In order to justify the creation of a new fighter generation, this new jet will need to offer all the capabilities found in 5th generation jets like the F-35, along with a slew of entirely new capabilities. It seems feasible that the fighter that has already been tested by not be a mature platform destined for service, but may instead be a technology demonstrator used to assess the efficacy of some of these state-of-the-art systems.
You can learn more about what exactly makes a 6th generation fighter in our coverage here.
Using shrimp to track enemy submarines
DARPA’s effort to track undersea life’s behavior as a means to detect enemy submarines has just entered its second phase. In the first phase, DARPA’s Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program sought to prove that sea life would respond to the presence of a submarine in a measurable way. With that seemingly confirmed, the second stage of the program will focus on developing sensors that can identify that behavior and relay a warning back to manned locations aboard a ship or onshore.
Undersea life tends to behave in a certain way when it senses the presence of a large and foreign object like a submarine. By broadly tracking the behavior of sea life, PALS aims to measure and interpret that behavior to make educated guesses about what must be causing it. In other words, by constantly tracking the behavior of nearby wildlife, PALS sensors can notice a significant change, compare it to a library of known behaviors, and predict a cause… like an enemy submarine, even if a submarine was stealthy enough to otherwise evade detection.
You can read more about this program in our full coverage here.
Fusion reactors and “Spacetime Modification” weapons
In 2019, the U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) filed a number of seemingly out-of-this-world patents that could, in theory, revolutionize not only military aviation, but just about everything. Among these filings were patents for a High Energy Electromagnetic Field Generator, which if functional, could produce massive amounts of power with far-reaching military and commercial implications and would practically result in the world’s first highly efficient fusion reactor.
But if near-limitless clean energy isn’t crazy enough, another offshoot of this work led by U.S. Navy aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais would see the creation of a “spacetime modification weapon” that would, in his words, “make the Hydrogen bomb seem more like a firecracker, in comparison.”
You can read a thorough breakdown of Pais’ work, as well as a similar effort led by Lockheed Martin, in our coverage of this story here.
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This article was originally published 2/15/2021
Feature photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center