Today's Exploration Launches 2001: A Battlespace Odyssey

December 1999
By Maryann Lawlor
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Next-century defense systems employ technical innovations to protect combatants and deter potential adversaries.

Communications, computer and material technologies will deeply impact future military and peacekeeping missions by empowering warfighters at every conceivable command level. Smart computers will sift through mounds of data to deliver knowledge directly to a combatant who is clothed in a modern-day suit of armor. Today’s scientists predict that a combination of imagination and analytical work conducted at the end of this century will lead to 21st century warfighters who respond quickly and accurately to defeat enemies.

Tomorrow’s high-technology tools will pack a powerful punch that is mightier than the sword as the conversion of sensor data provides phenomenal situational awareness. Though not the overbearing, intrusive Big Brother sentinel described by George Orwell in 1984, these future capabilities could, in and of themselves, convince adversaries that attempting a strike would be futile. Data, not detonation, will become the deterrent.

Military researchers believe technological developments have implications that also will reach inward and influence the traditional military command structure. As individual soldiers become independent information nodes in the battlespace network, they will have the most immediate access to critical data and could be making the decisions that once only came from above. Commanders will transform into strategists, leaving the tactical moves to the warfighting units.

The technological leaps that occurred during the last several decades have created challenges for the military and commercial communities. Military and business leaders are struggling with the glut of information that can now be accessed with a click of a mouse button. Geospatial information systems, or GIS, makes data about troop movements or munitions build-ups easy to obtain. However, an overabundance of data, while easy for computers to handle, can cause sensory overload for humans. Enter technology to solve the problem and present only pertinent information so humans can carry out the decision-making process.

Stephen P. Welby, program manager of the special projects office for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), believes technologies being developed today will close the gap between pixels and pupils. By interpreting imagery data, algorithms will provide commanders with knowledge, not just data. Armed with the capability to evaluate massive volumes of data quickly, intelligence-gathering satellites will be able to make broader sweeps of larger areas, and analysts will view this data in context to decide whether a change in activity is significant.

Welby uses medical applications to analogize data filtering. In the case of pap smears, for example, if machines review all test results and determine the ones that appear abnormal, then doctors can take a closer look at only those that show abnormalities that can signify life-threatening conditions rather than waste time screening all the specimens.

Applying this technology to the commercial realm is not far fetched. Items that the military develops and uses are of interest to industry and could be used in security, biometrics, medicine and even the entertainment field, Welby offers. The enabling technologies such as high bandwidth networks and compression technologies drive research and product manufacturing, and this synergy promotes advancements in both arenas.

Automated data exploration will lift the fog of war, enabling soldiers to not only see what is ahead of them, but also understand it. “The computer will be a trusted adviser and present the human with needed information,” Welby predicts. The technologies will allow for timely attacks as warfighters respond faster to data that is sensed from the battlefield and deny opponents the ability to do whatever they will. At the same time, this capability will facilitate precision strikes, saving ammunition and avoiding unintended casualties. The result will be action planning rather than crises response, Welby says.

“The military will come to think of sensors as an equal partner on the battlefield,” he explains. The ability to know where the opponent is and understand and analyze the data rapidly will decrease the time needed for the decision-making process. “Just being able to know and analyze what an opponent is doing and tell him that you know what he’s doing could prevent conflicts before they arise,” he adds.

Once this data is gathered and evaluated, the next step is getting it to the soldier in the field. Work being conducted at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), Arlington, Virginia, as well as at other facilities, is aimed at doing just that. According to Dr. Lawrence J. Rosenblum, program officer for visualization and computer graphics at ONR, augmented reality and three-dimensional visualization is becoming important for the U.S. Defense Department and society at large. “One of the great thrusts during the next 20 years will be moving information to where people want it … all kinds of information availability. This will bring fundamental changes to how people live,” he predicts.

While handheld computers are currently available, the products from research being conducted by Dr. Rosenblum’s team, combined with concurrent efforts at facilities such as Columbia University in New York, the University of Southern California, Rockwell’s research laboratories, DARPA and MicroOptical Corporation among others, will allow soldiers to view information without putting down their rifles. The see-through display will enable warfighters to work where they have not been able to work before by providing them with information about their surroundings right before their eyes. In addition, improvements in natural language technology will also permit soldiers to call for a medic or artillery fire by accessing a computer menu and saying the specific words.

Responding to the expectation of more urban-area conflicts, the military also is searching for technology that will provide soldiers with immediate information about these surroundings. With the aid of a visor and datalink, combatants will simply look at a building or surrounding area and be provided with labels for the items they are viewing. For example, if a sniper is spotted by other intelligence-gathering technology, this information would be sent to the soldier, alerting the warfighter to the precise location of the shooter. If a unit arrives in a city where buildings are burnt down or street signs are destroyed, the technology will allow soldiers to identify the items by looking at them and seeing the labels superimposed on them. Dr. Rosenblum calls this information “tied to the world” and says that 20 years from now, visitors to Gettysburg could use this same technology to “see” Civil War soldiers fighting a battle on a hill. The combatants would not be holograms projected onto the hill, but rather pictures appearing before the tourist’s eyes.

This technology is beyond the infancy stage and is well on its way through toddlerhood and adolescence as engineers wrestle with problems such as georegistration, field of vision size limitations and human-computer interaction.

Putting the information label on top of the appropriate building, for example, involves attaining both the location of the user and the designated object. While current technologies make it relatively easy to determine the position of the person wearing the equipment, determining where he or she is looking is more difficult. In addition, while identifying a large object can be simple, fine-tuning this capability to identify the location of a sniper in a window, for instance, is more difficult and could have disastrous results if incorrect information is provided. Researchers are working on this problem with techniques such as inertial sensors and fine-scale alignment.

Because the field of vision is relatively small on a projected visor screen, scientists are examining how to present volumes of data in a limited viewing area.

Another research goal is allowing users to interact with augmented or virtual reality spaces in natural ways. While the computer mouse technique is appropriate for two-dimensional computer monitor use, this method does not work as well in three-dimensional applications. Current work involves perceptual operations using touch, voice, pointing and the sense of smell, and incorporating these into a multimodal approach, which is the most natural way users would operate.

The changing mission of the military makes augmented reality technology important, Dr. Rosenblum says. “They predict there will be less large wars, and we will see more missions of peacekeeping. So there will be a combination of friendly, neutral and enemy forces in the same specific area. Soldiers will need to be able to distinguish quickly and accurately between these. The development of this technology is in response to the changing nature of the battlespace,” he offers.

Dr. Andre van Tilborg, division director of mathematical, computer and information sciences, ONR, believes this particular project is a key example of the need for the information-processing methods that DARPA is exploring. “Intelligent software agents will be a key technology and will have an enormous impact for the [U.S.] Navy,” van Tilborg offers.

The ONR is making significant investments in this area because individual soldiers equipped with augmented reality technology will need the most comprehensive data possible. The issue is no longer information superiority but knowledge superiority. “I can give you the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and you would have information but not necessarily knowledge,” he says.

While computer capabilities will certainly increase in the future, particularly as they relate to analyzing data, van Tilborg does not believe there is a danger of making human participation obsolete. “Yes, computers will do things that we hire people to do, but moreover computers will do the things we don’t do now at all,” he explains.

This growing reliance on computers will continue to bring information security issues to the forefront, van Tilborg offers. “The vulnerability will be vastly greater. In the defensive area, there are a lot of ideas and approaches to make wireless [communications] resistant to interference. Without the assurance that the information being received is accurate, it doesn’t do any good to have these capabilities. Unless the warfighter feels confident and assured that the network is secure and can be confident that the information cannot be interfered with, you can’t have network-centric warfare,” he says.

But if in the coming years the Natick Soldier Center in Massachusetts succeeds in outfitting warfighters in the land warrior uniform it is designing, all missions will be network-centric, at least in terms of individual soldiers forming the network.

According to Lt. Gen. Paul J. Kern, USA, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army, acquisition logistics and technology, “If we are really good, and we are, the soldier of 2025 will be as effective as the tank of 1995.” With not-so-unattainable visions of future fighting gear, the center is working on the technology that will make warfighters nearly as indestructible as Superman and as invisible as Hollywood’s Predator.

Unlike today’s combat uniform, which consists primarily of protective and functional layers, next-century battle attire will feature integration as the tie that binds it together.

Philip Brandler, director of the Natick Soldier Center, describes a comprehensive outfit that will do everything from monitoring the physiology of the soldier to offering chameleon-like camouflage.

An increased number of missions conducted in urban settings means a growing possibility that warfighters will be exposed to fires. The uniform’s flame-retardant properties will protect the soldier, while specially designed material would also shield against chemical and biological agents. Not only will these future fabrics keep dangers out, but they will also be designed to fight off bacteria from within, preventing infections and preserving hygienic conditions.

Active camouflage would allow combatants to move from one environment to another without changing clothes and still blend into the new surroundings. Brandler believes initial work on this technology will begin in the 2010 to 2015 time frame.

Active ballistic protection in the uniform could mimic capabilities already being examined for armored vehicles that take the impact of a shell and provide an opposite reaction or deflect the point of the projectile. Perhaps, Brandler surmises, a system within the uniform could cause the bullet to turn and hit sideways. While this is an improvement, future gear would also be designed to disperse the kinetic energy so that it will not even down a soldier, which could allow the enemy to capture a combatant. The goal is to enable soldiers to continue to fight. “The aim is not to have attractive corpses so you can have an open casket,” Brandler offers.

Body-worn computers will connect soldier to soldier and give each extensive situational awareness, while eliminating the need to carry around cumbersome radio equipment.

To scan the physiology of soldiers, the uniform will feature monitors that report information back to a single location about heart rate, stress or fatigue as well as the extent of injuries if a soldier is hit. This data will empower commanders to evaluate the conditions of the troops while at the same time tell them when mission conditions are changing. These same sensors will allow medics to triage the wounded from a distance and determine the necessary medical assistance.

This vision for the future body armor still has a number of hurdles that must be overcome. Connecting the various systems must be done without tethers that can get in the way or get caught while maneuvering. A single source for all connections would make it a prime target for bringing down all of the systems with a single hit.

Providing substantial power for this omnipotent bodysuit is another challenge. An important criterion is standardized power supplies so that the energy required can be drawn from one standard battery, or the 21st century equivalent of a battery. Because troops are likely to be in the field longer, up to 72 hours on each mission, replenishing arrangements would have to be made. This will require improvements in logistics procedures. One possible energy source is human-generated power. By capturing the soldier’s motion with an energy collector in a boot heel, for example, power would be generated constantly. “Don’t think that we’ll light a city as the Army marches through, but enough energy would be generated to run the items he has on his body such as the physiological monitors,” Brandler explains.

Weight is also a concern. Unlike today’s uniforms that allow soldiers to leave unnecessary items behind, a total bodysuit would have to remain as a single unit to operate properly. The many features of the attire themselves will add to the weight of the uniform. This along with the necessary power supply would render the soldier system too cumbersome for practical use. To address this issue, Brandler’s group is looking toward advances in the miniaturization of components.

Brandler agrees that arming the individual combatant with so many capabilities will affect the command structure. As the big picture gets even bigger with the addition of this empowering environment for the single soldier, there could be times when a sergeant, for example, knows more about the immediate situation than a commander who is farther away from the action. While this equality of knowledge allows more independent decision making, it could lead to debate on the battlefield, a situation that is unacceptable and dangerous, Brandler says. Training is one way to address this issue. Also, as generations pass and future fighters are accustomed to the capabilities, the command structure will change to reflect the new abilities, he adds.

Soldiers as an information node in the battlespace also present increased opportunities for adversaries to conduct information operations by capturing a warfighter and using the uniform to disseminate bogus information. This issue is being tackled with options such as coding the information-gathering equipment and changing the codes once the physiological monitors show that a combatant is down.

John E. Munroe, warrior systems integration team leader at the Natick Soldier Center, offers yet another possible solution to the security concern. “If the computer is linked to the soldier’s individual physiology, then someone else couldn’t just put on the uniform and pretend to be a friendly,” he offers.

The U.S. military community is not alone in its pursuit of a comprehensive soldier system. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and United Kingdom researchers are also conducting work in this field. Brandler believes this international effort is important because it will lead to standardization. In addition, constructing such body armor will no doubt be big business and should not be a matter of “just buy American,” he says.

While current ideas might seem extraordinary, they might not be a long way from what generations of future fighters will take for granted. “Once something has been visualized, it’s not so far fetched to believe you will see it in the future,” Brandler states.