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The following is presented as part of the TRADOC G2's "Soldier 2050" Call for Ideas. This material will form a compendium of thoughts and ideas that will support the exploration of future bio-convergence implications on the Army of 2050 at the Mad Scientist Conference 8-9 March 2018 at SRI International. The conference can be livestreamed at http://www.tradoc.army.mil/watch/.
The following is intended to be read as an excerpt from a military history account of the state of warfare in the year 2050. Although the names and acronyms are made up, virtually every component of the described system is based on existing technology in some form:
The introduction of the concept of the multi-domain battlefield was epochal in the profession of arms. Equating cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum with other battlefield domains began an exchange that shaped every aspect of the art and science of battle. Before the advent of multi-domain battlefield, terrain was considered a condition or environmental factor impacting how Soldiers performed and indicating potential challenges they might face. While the concept of Soldiers as a system isn’t new, it wasn’t until early the 2030’s that the United States military started to deliberately apply systems theory in such a way that Soldiers and their personal equipment were fully appreciated as components of the system of systems that comprise the modern battlefield.
In part this was driven by the introduction of Autonomous Robotic Assault Systems (AuRAS) that cemented the United States’ place as the dominant heavy force in the world. For any who may somehow be unaware, AuRAS are unmanned, autonomous robotic assault vehicles that essentially ended the concept of heavy warfare. These autonomous aircraft, watercraft, and armored vehicles are capable of operating without rest and making near instant targeting decisions with almost 100% accuracy. The introduction of these vehicles into the U.S. military arsenal in the 2030’s ensured our dominance in the air and sea and removed any significant heavy ground threat for the foreseeable future. As a result, our enemies over the last fifteen years have continued to draw us into urban combat environments - increasingly in megacities – that virtually negate any potential advantage that AuRAS present.
There are, however, huge challenges for our ground combat troops operating in these urban environments. Soldiers in megacities are often cut off from support for extended periods. This means they may need to carry heavier loads. Additionally, megacities often mean as much vertical terrain as horizontal. Visual lines are often very short which means increased reliance on wireless communication devices – for both us and our enemies.
Previous attempts to address these issues have resulted in mixed success. We’ve fielded numerous exoskeletons to improve carrying capacity and endurance beyond that which is naturally possible for Soldiers. Some of these early systems were outfitted with impressive arrays of technology to improve operations in the electromagnetic spectrum as well. These solutions were not without challenges. Exoskeletons are typically heavy, 100 kilograms or more, and can be bulky. Both factors can cause issues in urban terrain such as alleyways or rooftops. Even the best hardened modules that were added on to increase capabilities to operate in the electromagnetic spectrum were subject to breakage and/or loss and were often impossible to repair in the field.
The introduction of the Neural Protective Overgarment (NPO) at the beginning of this year (2050) was designed to address many of these issues. The NPO itself is a garment intended to replace the previous combat uniform and integrate the majority of protective equipment and technology package capabilities without additional bulk or tradeoff of mobility.
The NPO is approximately thirteen millimeters thick, weighs around twenty kilograms, and is composed of multiple layers of a non-Newtonian fluids sandwiched between self-healing polymer sheets. The non-Newtonian fluid layers provide ballistic and impact protection. Some of these layers harden under stress in order to prevent penetration while others harden and fracture upon impact to divert energy away from the wearers body. They then rapidly return to their fluid states with little long term effects.
The number and precise composition and properties of the fluid layers are classified; however we do know that they do more than provide ballistic protection. At least some of the fluid layers contain suspensions of piezoelectric crystals and/or ceramics. These generate electrical current in response to mechanical stress (including normal movement). This power is either used immediately or can be stored in other fluid layers. The NPO also uses microbial fuel cells to harvest biochemical electricity from the wearer’s sweat and urine virtually eliminating the need for external batteries or power sources.
Another component of the NPO is the artificial muscle structure (AMS). The AMS is comprised of strands of electroactive polymers (EAPs) combined into structures that mimic the actions of human muscles but are significantly stronger and do not suffer from normal fatigue. As a result, Soldiers can easily lift and manipulate weights in excess of 200 kilograms and vertically jump up to eight meters. This augmentation also results in less muscle fatigue for users under normal operation as well.
Obviously, the human skeletal system is not designed for the stresses these types of forces can generate. To address this the AMS is augmented by strands of helical wire structures composed of smart materials that can sense these extreme stresses and become rigid. This allows the NPO to remain flexible but provide similar functionality to bulkier exoskeletons when needed.
Another impressive capability of the NPO is the capacity to provide sensory input back to the wearer. The outside layer of the NPO is comprised of sensors capable of providing data back to users ranging from haptic feedback to temperature data to electromagnetic information. Haptic feedback allows the user to maintain their sense of touch. The NPO can provide haptic feedback rivaling that of human skin. Temperature sensors allow wearers to sense the infrared spectrum when activated. Subtle temperature differentials as little as one degree Celsius can be captured. This is most useful for detecting heat sources outside the wearer’s normal range of vision. Some Soldiers have reported the ability to determine the size and distance of the heat source with practice. Wearers can also receive feedback on electromagnetic emanations such as microwaves, electric currents, or radio signals allowing them to “feel” invisible waves.
All this additional sensory data is fed back to a small device known simply as the neural unit using a data transmission medium that closely resembles a human nervous system. This artificial neural network uses synthetic neurotransmitter chemicals rather than electrical pulses to conserve energy as well as minimize the NPOs electromagnetic signature.
The neural unit is approximately the size of one of the old hand-held smartphones popular at the turn of the century and is mounted into the NPO at the wearer’s back near the top of the shoulder blades. The neural unit serves numerous purposes. First and foremost, it serves as the processor and controller for the NPO. It screens and filters the tremendous amounts of sensory data collected by the NPO and provides only relevant information back to the wearer. It also serves as the “brain” for the NPO in that it sends the signals to the AMS to flex or extend in concert with organic muscles. Another critical function is that the unit serves as the organic machine interface (OMI) of the system. Sensory data is fed from the neural unit into the wearer’s central nervous system via a small patch and the base of the wearer’s skull. The patch uses microwires less than 100 nanometers wide embedded in the wearer’s spinal column to feed data into the central nervous system as well as receive feedback on the wearer’s health and emotional state. This is what allows wearers to receive the haptic feedback as well as sense temperature and electromagnetic stimuli. These patches are put in place weeks before Soldiers don their NPO and present no negative effects beyond some mild itching that generally subsides within a few days. Finally, the neural unit serves as a relay for communications data. Information and sensory data is shared among all NPO wearers within 100 yards. This allows entire squads to instantly be aware of the location of any hostiles or threats as they are identified. It also allows for rapid triangulation of electromagnetic transmissions (such as a remote detonator) or audio source (such as a sniper) by using multiple squad/platoon members as sensors. Designated systems consolidate and relay data to higher headquarters for intelligence and battlefield awareness.
The Augmented Reality Visor (ARV) is another key component of the NPO. The ARV is a ballistics grade translucent visor that provides UVA, UVB, and laser light protection. It uses integrated fiber optic to project overlays that allow wearers to view operational data, building schematics, real time translations of written communications, infrared and ultraviolet spectrum, drone and sensor feeds, etc., without obscuring their natural eyesight.
The final component of the standard NPO is the Micro-Drone Sensory Extenders (MDSEs). MDSEs are twelve millimeter diameter drones capable of thirty minutes of flight time with a 150 meter range. Each NPO has two MDSEs that can be deployed individually or as a pair. While each MDSE can be independently controlled, they typically fly along optimal routes as determined by the neural unit. This frees the operator to continue to focus on immediate tasks while providing data to the neural unit for analysis or immediate and/or relevant threat data to the ARV. When not in use, MDSEs attach to the shoulders of the operator’s NPO via a simple button attachment for charging and stowage. Deployment is as easy as tossing the MDSE into the air and is frequently done at the beginning of any engagement to achieve greater situational awareness.
Platoon data is consolidated and transmitted to higher headquarters allowing commanders and staff real-time visualization capability of the battlefield in ways never before possible. Leaders have access to any and all data feeds in near real time and can communicate directly with any leader or Soldier at any echelon providing either verbal or visual data through the ARV. Soldiers, in turn, are more informed and aware of the battlefield than at any time if the history of warfare. The age of the Integrated Warrior is now.
Opinions, interpretations, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the U.S. Army or the U.S. Department of Defense.