DARPA's future war looks like a video game

Real goals of DARPA's next-gen military rely partially on virtual reality.
Credit: DARPA, U.S. DOD

The future of warfare, according to the Pentagon's skunk works, looks like an augmented-reality video game that helps ground troops identify targets, the source of gunfire and may even allow U.S. troops to talk to each other on the radio.

The Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) announced yesterday it would hold an in-person conference Feb. 27 in Arlington, Va. to brief companies or individuals who might be able to suggest ways to give U.S. troops "overwhelming tactical superiority at the small-unit level" by gathering and presenting data that would help them maneuver in a real battlefield the way most have learned to maneuver in 3-D virtual ones.

The "Proposer's Day" conference is designed to give tech and defense companies a little extra help crafting proposals that would meet the requirements of a DARPA program first announced in May of 2013 called Squad X Core Technologies, (SXCT).

The goal of the program is to build communications systems that are easy to use in infrastructure-deprived war zones, but make it easy for one infantry squad to another, pick up a video feed from a passing U.S. drone and signals from cameras, microphones, chemical sensors and other surveillance equipment that could be dropped into or installed in an area they plan to patrol.

DARPA put out a request in July for research papers proposing innovative systems that would give U.S. ground troops access to information  from  ground sensors, build a three-dimensional picture of the battlefield that could be displayed in their heads-up displays and give infantry squads a whole sheaf of potential weapons and technologies to help fight on land, sea and, oddly, in space.

This is the second Proposer's Day dedicated to SXCT. The previous Proposers' Day – a two-day affair in May of 2014, was designed to give potential proposers a better idea of how to work with DARPA's Tactical Technology Office (TTO), insight from DARPA TTO-program managers in what kinds of super-advanced systems they're actually looking for and one-on-one meetings with program managers to pitch ideas.

This month's edition is just one day, but still encourages academics, small businesses and others from outside DARPA's normal pool of proposal providers to pitch ideas, which could be rejected, approved for development, or could get seedling development deals up to 18 months long and worth as much as $1 million.

The titular goal is to produce major advances in battlefield tech that would help U.S. ground troops outmaneuver and outshoot the enemy, provide ways to detect threats underground or hidden in buildings, ways to shoot the enemy at extremely close range without the risk of shooting friendly troops or civilians and ways to keep the enemy from using nearby buildings as hideouts.

It also includes elements that would allow front-line door-kickers to stay farther away from the action by putting autonomous or semi-autonomous drones and robots up front, while stopping the enemy from using their own UAVs or robots.

All the capabilities rely on fast, ubiquitous wireless networks and rapid, on-site analysis of huge amounts of environmental data – from satellites, remote sensors, taps into local phone or data networks, all of which could be used to map out territory the squad had not yet seen and identify targets, enemies and other potential threats to help keep them from becoming too real.

"SXCT aims to help dismounted infantry squads have deep awareness of what’s around them, detect threats from farther away and, when necessary, engage adversaries more quickly and precisely than ever before," according to a quote in the announcement from Maj. Christopher Orlowski, DARPA program manager. "We are working towards advanced capabilities that would make dismounted infantry squads more adaptable, safe and effective."

Though the program, its managers, sources of information and approach to technology development are all different from the Army's expensive, decade-long Future Combat Systems (FCS) effort, FCS was such a long, expensive, painful disaster that any project to add science-fictioney capabilities to troops in the field will have to step carefully to avoid being tainted by the impression of disaster FCS left behind.

Under FCS the Army spent $19 billion on radios, data-communications gear, helmet-mounted eyepieces, mini-UAVs, sensor networks and other enhancements designed to be worn or carried by troops. The resulting tech was generally too heavy, too expensive and of too limited use for the troops testing it. The program itself started running into trouble soon after it was launched, was regularly criticized (GAO PDF), for high costs, poor management (RAND PDF) and inadequate results (CBO PDF).

FCS was formally killed in 2009, but didn't end until 2012 after running up a $500 million cancellation bill.

Not all the development went to waste. The sophisticated data- and voice radio networks that were part of FCS helped develop a mobile network called WIN-T that gives military vehicles in the field much richer, simpler, more reliable voice- and data-networking abilities than were possible in the past.

It also helped push development of networks and networking gear light and reliable enough for ground troops to carry in the field, though the jury is still out on the latest version of the system, Rifleman Radio.

It also led to Nett Warrior, a program designed to give ground troops the same networked capabilities FCS promised, but do it using off-the-shelf technology – most recently featuring proprietary situational-awareness systems (mapping, GPS, text messaging) displayed on a Samsung Galaxy Note III running an NSA-approved version of Android.

The infantry version of the SXCT program is more ambitious, but not wildly.

SXCT is ambitious, though less so than FCS. But it's only one part of DARPA's plan to make sure the U.S. military has tech-driven weapons and tactics other countries can't match.

Another project, called Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) is focused on creating robotic, AI and other autonomous intelligence to allow robots on the ground, in the air and underwater to take on missions with little or no human intervention (PDF).

The umbrella program, however, is Innovative Systems for Military Missions – which lays out a future in which U.S. ground troops not only operate semi-autonomous UAVs and ground-travelling robots, abut also use physical or electronic countermeasures to stop or control boats, torpedoes and other threats on the water, fly supersonic UAVs and, apparently, spend a lot of time deployed in orbit around the Earth as well as onto various remote parts of its surface.

Provide both sub- and supersonic UAVs and simple controls to let U.S. troops use drones against the enemy, as well as UAV defenses to stop enemies from doing the same.

The TTO proposal also calls for "innovative approaches across a wide range of space technolog8ies…which will enable protection and survivability of space assets," which tacitly assumes U.S. ground troops are likely to be fighting infantry actions in space stations and spacecraft.

It goes further, however, by asking for technologies that "provide a robust, reliable, affordable and innovative means for achieving access to space…by introducing rapid and pervasive 'aircraft-like' space access" vehicles that are "highly efficient [in] on-orbit maneuvers" as well as data-fusion algorithms, sensors and other technologies that would let the Pentagon locate, track, identify and attack threats in space.

None of the three programs is designed to deliver magical war-fighting capabilities quickly. The project's development managers are, by definition, extreme futurists developing technology to give troops in the real world capabilities that don't always work well even in video games.

The question is whether DARPA can avoid the military-industrial complexities that helped sink Future Combat Systems while also developing technology that can be developed, manufactured, deployed and supported by many of the same companies and military organizations that helped keep FCS alive for more than a decade and burned through almost $20 billion.

FCS may have been an expensive embarrassment, but it only failed to advance the way U.S. experienced or practiced warfare during the 2003 invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan compared to the way their predecessors did during the first invasion in 1991. Another 10 years without progress will leave the U.S. significantly farther behind the rest of the world than it is now but, worse, might also keep the strategic focus of the U.S. military on evolving the role of soldiers holding guns standing in the streets of a foreign capital rather than the mix of terrorism, cyberwar, espionage and stateless political movements that actually seem to be shaping the battlefields of the future.

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