Welcome to the Weekly Geek, your weekly note on some of the most exciting, innovative, or just plain weird war technology people are talking about online, seasoned with just a dash of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
Perhaps you’ve seen this viral clip of President Obama joking with reporters that he’s brought together a team to build Iron Man? In fact, his Administration has spent years funneling tens of millions of dollars into the development of the Tactical Assault Light Operators Suit, known as TALOS.
Nearly 100 corporations and government agencies contributed to the effort, and as early as this year we could see a prototype that would not only greatly enhance the physical performance of the wearer, but provide full body ballistic protection, scan the environment for threats, and monitor medical status. While soldiers donning TALOS could conceivably enjoy Tony Stark-esq combat performance, it’s yet to be determined whether each suit comes with a case of bourbon and a rock star attitude.
The concept of exoskeletons are nothing new, and as usual, the video game industry leads the charge in visualizing the future tools of war. Check out this review of the exoskeletons featured in 2014’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which rather hilariously blows DARPA’s original video pitch for the TALOS out of the water.
Just like the private military contractors featured in the series, the Call of Duty creators identified exoskeletons as a likely feature of futuristic warfare. If you’ve ever wondered how they do this, tune in on January 26th for our live-stream interview with war futurist Peter W. Singer, who consulted for the Call of Duty team.
If this all seems rather pie-in-the-sky, take a second to think about how many of the components that make up combat exoskeletons already exist. The medical field has given us advanced prosthetics like this thought-controlled robotic arm and plant-based gels that can stop bleeding in seconds, both of which could be integrated into smart armor. Bring it all together, and you’ve got yourself version 1.0 of TALOS (and probably a beefy DARPA check).
Exciting as the concept may be, there’s still some major hurdles to overcome. The most pressing, as skillfully elucidated last week by Defense One’s Peter Tucker, is power supply. You may be able to build a fully functioning exoskeleton, but how do you power it when deployed in the field? Even the most cutting-edge battery packs for test exoskeletons have run times ranging from 20 minutes at full operation and up to 5 hours with limited operator speed. Anyone with a smartphone knows the feeling of searching desperately for an outlet, and that’s not something soldiers want to be doing in the middle of a firefight. So where can exoskeletons operate with access to a near unlimited power source? Tucker makes a convincing argument for the use of exoskeletons by the Navy, where users can plug directly into on board power supplies.
Despite these limitations, it’s a solid bet that with the continuing development of miniaturized power supplies, we’ll see something like the TALOS on the battlefield before long. In the meantime, join the cool kids, and call them “exos.”
Autonomous Ghost Ships
To little fanfare earlier this year, DARPA and defense contractor Leidos successfully fielded an autonomous anti-submarine drone. The Anti-submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) is designed to autonomously track super-quiet and relatively inexpensive diesel-electric submarines.
Diesel-electric submarines are of the most widely-produced submarines models in the world (Iran claims to have 17), the United States has to dedicate enormous naval material and manpower to track them, so an autonomous option is extremely attractive. The prototype fielded by Leidos managed to track targets for six weeks in littoral waters and avoided erratic behavior like running into rocks, shoals, or improperly targeting friendly units (a standard of performance also recommended for office happy hours). The ACTUV would follow a target at a distance of one kilometer and could track the target for months at a time. Leidos argues that the autonomous boat is capable of complying with laws set forth in the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, a rip-roaring text that provides hours of endless entertainment and intelligent comedy. Maybe.
David Blagden at War on the Rocks wrote an eye-opening analysis of what the ACTUV could do to the balance of power on the open seas, but before we start tipping the scales, we should reliably establish that this cool-looking contraption can avoid collisions outside of a strictly controlled testing zone. Commercial drones have collided with power lines, buildings, other drones, and even been chased down by dogs. While military-grade hardware seems to fare better, collisions are still a reality of autonomous operation, hence a major effort to build more effective sense-and-avoid systems. Just this morning the Washington Post revealed that a record number of US drones crashed during operations last year, due to “mysterious” electrical faults.
The inherent risk of collisions is exacerbated with submarines, where even a minor blow can cripple the boat. While it’s undoubtedly upsetting to destroy that expensive quadrocopter someone gave you for Christmas by flying it headlong into your garage door, submarine collisions have taken the lives of hundreds of submariners in recent decades.
Unlike surface ships, rescue can be all but impossible for a foundered submarine, so serious consideration should be given to the deployment of any drone that could malfunction and cruise right into a manned vessel. If you don’t think this is such a big deal, take a look at Red November by Craig Reed, and be prepared to read with sweaty palms.
As with air-born drones, we’re just starting the discussion over responsibility for the unwanted actions of an autonomous system, and even with a system as advanced and impressive as the ACTUV, it cannot be deployed until a state has fully considered whether its use could violate international humanitarian law (see last week’s geek). Tests on the ACTUV are scheduled to continue later this year, including some with simulated enemies. Let’s hope the prototype avoids dogs, garage doors, and the maritime traffic of the high-seas.