Future Shock at the Army Science Conference
Eco-Explosives, a Bleeding BEAR, and the Armani-Clad Super Soldier
[Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.]
On paper, every session looked like gold to me. Technology and the Warfighter. Neuroscience and Its Potential Applications. Lethality Technologies. Autonomous/Unmanned Systems. (Robots!)
But when I got to the luxury hotel in sunny Orlando, Florida, for the 26th Army Science Conference, all that potentially glittered, it often seemed, was nowhere to be found -- except, perhaps, in the threads of the unlikeliest of military uniforms.
I expected to hear about nefarious new technologies. To see tomorrow's killing machines in a dazzling exhibit hall. To learn something about the Army's secret plans for the coming decades. To be awed -- or disgusted -- by a peek at the next 50 years of war-making.
What I stumbled into, however, seemed more like a cross between a dumbed-down academic conference and a weekend wealth expo, paired with an exhibit hall whose contents might not have rivaled those of a regional auto show. I came away knowing less about the next half century of lethal technologies than the last eight years of wheel-spinning, never-winning occupations of foreign lands.
If you didn't know that the Army held its science conference last month -- much less that they've been going on biennially since 1957 -- you can't be faulted. Only a handful of reporters were on the premises, most of them with small defense industry publications.
Officially, according to its own publicity handout, the conference was intended "to promote and strategically communicate that the Army is a high-tech force, enable the public to understand what the Army S&T [science and technology] community does to support the Soldier, and enable conference attendees to better appreciate the potential emerging technologies have to provide disruptive capabilities to our Soldiers in the future."
In reality, it was a junket for Army civilian personnel, enlisted troops, and officers, along with academic researchers from top universities, representatives of defense contractors, a handful of foreign military folks from across the globe, and, for one day, about 100 grade school children. It was a chance for the thousand or so attendees to schmooze and booze, compare notes, and trade business cards.
Don't get me wrong. The military does some striking science and, not surprisingly, some of the high-tech research presented was nothing short of mind-blowing. Who knew you could potentially grow a battery -- for a flashlight or a truck -- the way a clam grows a shell? Or that memories in mice can be selectively erased? But all too often the talks and panels were mind-numbing, leaving plenty of time for catered breaks, the downing of overpriced drinks, and a chance to wander through hallways filled with the military/scientific version of those posters you invariably see at high school science fairs, including the one that should have won all awards for pure indecipherability:
"Osteomyelitis Treatment with Nanometer-sized Hydroxyapatite Particles as a Delivery Vehicle for a Ciprofloxacin-bisphosphonate Conjugate; New Fluoroquinolone-bisphosphonate Derivatives Show Similar Binding Affinity to Hydroxyapatite and Improved Antibacterial Activity Against Drug-resistant Pathogens."
Then there was the exhibit hall.
A Disembodied Head, a Cobra, and a Bleeding BEAR
With a military budget approaching a trillion dollars, you'd think at least the exhibits would wow you. No such luck. At the entrance to the "Coquina Ballroom" was no futuristic space tank, but an old Canadian Cougar -- a 1970s-vintage general purpose armored vehicle loaned to the U.S. Army by America's northern neighbors for research purposes. The first time I passed it, I was heading for a press-only preview of the latest innovation produced by the Institute for Creative Technologies -- an Army-founded and funded center at the University of Southern California set up in 1999 "to build a partnership among the entertainment industry, army and academia with the goal of creating synthetic experiences so compelling that participants react as if they are real."
The only thing less impressive than the press corps on hand for that day's unveiling (two slightly rumpled "defense" reporters and me) was the unveiled itself: an interactive 360-degree, 3D holographic display. Sure, it sounds impressive, but if, back in 1977, you saw that fake Princess Leia hologram in Star Wars, then you're already, in your imagination, light years ahead of what the military has produced. In fact, if you caught CNN reporter Jessica Yellin appearing by hologram from Chicago in Wolf Blitzer's studio on election night (and you were me), you might have wondered whether you shouldn't have been attending the latest Cable News Science Conference rather than this one.
Basically, what I saw was a man sitting behind a curtain while his head was projected onto a nearby fast-spinning piece of polished metal. In other words, a black-and-white, three-dimensional, disembodied head right out of some campy 1950s sci-fi film "spoke" to us via a perfectly ordinary microphone and speaker set-up. When perfected, claimed ICT, the technology would be used for 3D visual communication, 3D gestures evidently being considered vastly superior to the 2D variant on or off the battlefield.
I walked away convinced that Dick Tracy could have done it a lot better. The only advantage of the current Army system is that it should be fairly cheap to reproduce -- now that they know how to do it -- since it uses relatively low-tech, off-the-shelf (if modded out) components. Why they need to do it in the first place isn't so clear.
But hope springs eternal... so I headed for the nearby robot exhibits where a pitchman was touting one upcoming battlefield model in a slightly defensive fashion: "It's not the T-1000, but we're workin' on it." He was referring, of course, to the morphing late-model Terminator that tried to take out Arnold Schwarzenegger (aka model T-101) in Terminator 2.
The sparse audience was noticeably underwhelmed, as his robot lacked anything approaching a liquid metal structure or even a Schwarzeneggerian android physique. It was, in fact, a little tracked vehicle resembling a slightly bulked up, if markedly slower, radio-controlled toy car. It certainly looked ready for the battlefield -- of my childhood playroom floor, where it could have taken on my Milton Bradley-made programmable, futuristic toy tank, Big Trak.
Another nearby 'bot was BEAR -- the Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot -- a four-foot-tall would-be rescue automaton with tank treads. Its claim to fame seems to be that it can rear up to six feet tall, with its tracks becoming legs, and walk. Of course, with its rudimentary teddy bear head, it's likely to crack up friend and foe alike on any futuristic battlescape.
I'd read about BEAR for years, but had never seen it in person (so to speak). Not only was it remarkably balky, but it bore a disappointing lack of resemblance to the renderings of it on the website of its maker, Vecna Robotics. One of its pitchmen spent a great deal of time kicking very specific objects into a very specific position so BEAR could actually lift them -- not exactly a battlefield likelihood -- while another gave an apologetic spiel explaining the robot's many drawbacks, including its low battery life. "Obviously, this couldn't go on a battlefield," he said. Soon after, red liquid began to pool on the floor just beneath the BEAR. "It bleeds like a human, too," one sarcastic conference-goer remarked as the robot hemorrhaged hydraulic fluid.
Strapped into a Cobra helicopter gunship simulator -- actually the cockpit of an old chopper best known for its service in Vietnam -- I was a BEAR-like bust myself. Pilots, I was assured, can pick up the system within 10 minutes and indeed the woman strapped in when I got there -- the self-proclaimed "world's worst video game player" -- had just done a serviceable job of "flying" the Cobra and knocking out three enemy vehicles on its surprisingly low-tech video game screen. Donning a wired-up flight vest that buzzes your body whenever your helicopter is drifting, I took a seat at the controls. My lower brain, the designer assured me, would take over and I'd steer intuitively.
Not a chance. A "virtual wind" caused the copter to drift and I fired way too wide at the enemy tank and the mobile missile launcher, even with the most generous blast-radius imaginable; then I missed an enemy copter too, which was just getting away when I launched a second rocket that exploded nowhere nearby but somehow caused it to erupt in a fireball anyway. My performance was all too pathetic, given that the simulator struck me as state-of-the-art -- circa 1997. Humbled by the chopped-up chopper with Nintendo 64-quality graphics, I wandered off.
On opening night, I found myself walking in the wake of a French General who seemed to be everywhere at the conference, with her aide de camp always in tow. She was drinking red wine (the aide, a Bud) and their path through a sea of pasta, pork, and turkey-gorging corporate suits, federally-funded professors, and military men and women taking advantage of the one-night-only buffet seemed hardly less aimless than mine.
Still, I pressed on, past a giant orb that looked like a gravitationally-challenged weather balloon -- actually, a DSCT or Deployable Satellite Communication Terminal portable satellite system -- until I stumbled upon the "Future Force Warrior," accompanied by Jean-Louis ("Dutch") DeGay, an Army veteran who serves as a civilian equipment specialist at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.
The Armani-Clad Super Soldier
Early in the decade, the Army began promoting the idea of the "Future Force Warrior" -- then known as the "Objective Force Warrior." It was touted as a robo-suit with on-board computers, advanced armor, and integrated weapons systems that, when introduced around 2020, would revolutionize land warfare. The jet-black suit was going to transform every soldier into an advanced exoskeleton-clad cyborg. The United States would instantly have an army of high-performance Darth Vaders, not pathetically human, ground-pounding grunts.
Today, the date for fielding the super-soldier suit has been pushed to 2030, while the old mock-up, after so many appearances, is starting to show its age. And it's not even black. The tacky-looking tan outfit proved a mix of glittery, gold-flecked clingy fabric and plastic armor pieces -- with a motocross-like helmet that encapsulates the whole head and hides the face behind a visor. It would have been laughed out of the nearest sci-fi convention.
Still, that didn't stop the Army from, once again, formally unveiling the Future Force Warrior during an afternoon panel discussion, and touting the project as a great leap forward, an "F-16 on legs concept." In a corridor behind the scenes, the costumed character was awaiting his moment to stride out in front of the audience. From far away, he might have looked almost ready to take on space aliens à la Master Chief from the Halo video games but, close up, he had a nasty case of static cling and needed an attendant to help keep the suit's stretchy, shimmery fabric from bunching up at the ankles.
"Nobody's gonna want to take your picture without your helmet on," DeGay told the Army's lone costumed character as a woman approached with a digital camera. The poor staff sergeant inside the suit grimaced. He had already taken a day's punishment -- people constantly asking if the suit was too hot (it is!) or uncomfortable (it is!). "I love that everybody asks that. Everybody either asks him that or hits him. That's the two things that always happen," DeGay said with a laugh. "You were on the ground 20 minutes and somebody hit ya and it was a woman."
The super soldier dutifully donned the helmet for the photo. "I've gotten a lot of requests," said DeGay. "Is he available for parties, graduations, bar mitzvahs?" A slightly drunk attendee suddenly began to razz the super-soldier. "How do you feel about the glittery shirt? Does it make you feel tough?"
DeGay promptly interjected that the suit's sparkly fabric had an absurd backstory. "We were trying to find replacements. We did a fabric search and came to find out it's Armani. There were only four yards left. It's about $320 a yard... This is actually an end roll off Armani and we took the last five yards of it that exists. And because it's Armani, we heated it up and dyed it and changed the colors. It's kinda like taking a big poop on the hood of a Ferrari."
The picture taken, the Army's living plastic-clad prop shifted his weight and took off his helmet, while DeGay added a final quip. "At least," he told the sergeant, "you can say for once in your Army career you wore Armani."
What explosives can do to a human body isn't pretty. After all, they can turn what once was a foot into an ankle with an unnatural fleshy stump on the end, or a working eye into a useless perpetual wink. When you've seen it all up close, it's hard not to shake your head on first hearing about green explosives, but that's what the Army's working on.
Don't get me wrong. On some level, there is merit in the work. While more people are aware of the deleterious health effects of the depleted uranium (DU) projectiles the U.S. military now regularly uses in its wars, there are many other types of munitions whose chemical components, in addition to their destructive purpose, are dangerous to human health and the environment. Typical would be RDX (Hexahydro-1, 3, 5-trinitro-1, 3, 5-triazine).
Dr. Betsy Rice, a slight scientist who's worked for the Army for about 20 years, explained with a twang, "We are tasked with trying to find replacements for RDX, a conventional explosive that's widely used. RDX is a neurotoxin and it's a major contaminant of training grounds, so there is a great need to replace this with something -- an environmentally friendly alternative." And to that end, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, where she's a research chemist in the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate, is striving to create the "most environmentally-friendly explosive product known to man."
The would-be green explosive, polynitrogen, is currently too unstable to be used, but her lab is hard at work solving that problem. If you want call it that. Rice doesn't. To her, it's "a really fun project." Fun and green! It was as if the polynitrogen project was going to yield clean, cheap energy, instead of maiming and killing people in an ecologically-friendly way. But nobody seemed to blink and the conference rolled along.
Top Grunt: We Can't Keep Up With al-Qaeda
Through the four days of the Army Science Conference, two obvious elephants -- or were they 800-pound gorillas? -- inhabited every room, corridor, and common area: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. People regularly talked about both wars without significantly addressing their impact in terms of science and technology, let alone larger issues.
Post-surge, it was certainly easier for the attendees to discuss the younger of the two conflicts in which many seemed to take pride, even though the ongoing, financially ruinous occupation had led to the deaths of huge numbers of Iraqis. That was, after all, about as close as the highest tech military on the planet could actually come to a success story. The formerly successful war in Afghanistan, now raging into its eighth year, was far more wince-worthy, even though attendees clearly preferred to look upon it as an upcoming challenge -- and, of course, testing ground for Army science and technology -- not as a longstanding catastrophe.
But as one panel discussion drew to a close, one of the top-ranking enlisted men in the Army, a highly decorated veteran of the Global War on Terror, made a startling admission. He was discussing the typical pack-laden, weapons-toting, up-armored U.S. soldier "goin' up and down the mountains of Afghanistan right now." As he pointed out, that grunt could not haul one more piece of gear. "Nor is there a soldier," he continued in a burst of candor, "that, currently configured, can keep up with al-Qaeda because we're chasing guys that are armed with AK-47s and tennis shoes."
I asked him later whether it made sense to spend close to $20,000, the average price today to kit up (as the British might say) a soldier who can't keep up with the insurgents he is meant to track down. Has anyone considered, I asked, going back to the $1,900 it cost to outfit a less encumbered grunt of the Vietnam War era who could, assuredly, have kept better pace with today's guerillas.
As I learned at this conference, however, questions like these go nowhere in a big hurry. Instead, he backpedaled quickly, declaring that, in Afghanistan, "we're gettin' it done." A colleague of the same rank, and fellow GWOT veteran, quickly jumped in, pointing out that today's bulky body armor has saved a lot of lives. As for today's insurgents, he said, "Yeah, I can't run the mountain with them, but I'll still get them -- eventually."
The big-picture lesson seemed to be that current Army technology has made American wars feasible, but interminable. Heavy body armor has helped keep U.S. combat deaths down to a level acceptable to the American public; but, of course, the same bulky gear helps ensure that fast-moving insurgents, who already know the land well, live to fight another day. And, since the enemy is unlikely to be caught on foot, U.S. troops become ever more reliant on air or artillery strikes that are likely to kill civilians in rural Afghanistan and so recruit more insurgents. The scenario suggested is one that's already in operation: an endless cycle of American failure and foreign carnage enabled, implemented, and exacerbated by recent technological innovations.
On paper, advances in Army science and technology research tended to sound scary and look impressive. In practice, as the 26th Army Science Conference showed, seeing is believing. I had expected everything to be big, bad, and bellicose; what I found fit better with what we already know about the realities of an over-bloated, over-stressed, over-strained Pentagon. While glossy brochures and programs were festooned with pictures of the black-clad Future Force Warrior, Army robots, and dazzling screen shots of video-game-like simulators, these gilded graphics couldn't obscure the disappointing realities and air of desperation lurking just below the surface of the conference.
So I left Orlando with more questions than answers when it comes to the future of the U.S. Army.
Is there any possibility that holography will really revolutionize Army communications early enough to matter? Or is this just an area where taxpayers are funding needlessly militarized science projects?
Will the mildly absurd dream of an environmentally-safe explosive be realized anytime soon? Will the Army's future consist of battalions of armed Terminators, as many fear, or will the next generation of robots cost a fortune and bleed out like BEAR?
What does it say about the U.S. Army when its prototype future super-soldier models haute couture from a high-priced, glittery foreign fashion house?
And since Armani's run out of the Army's favorite fabric, does Dolce & Gabbana have a shot?
© 2009 Nick Turse