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Even Smarter Next Time

Precision munitions, unmanned systems, and other 'smart' weapons are transforming the battlefield

The world first became truly aware of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) during Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War, when cruise missiles hit specific targets in Baghdad with impressive accuracy, sometimes on live global TV.

The second Gulf War, however, brought even greater levels of precision to multiple levels of the battle, including field artillery. As was the case in 1991, it has been a one-sided capability; enemy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan lacked the technology being used, with often devastating effect, against them.

Today, the terms “smart weapons” and “precision-guided munitions” often are used interchangeably, but there are significant differences. A smart weapon distinguishes its target from the background and points to it; a precision munition combines low dispersion with accurate targeting and guidance that takes it to within 10 meters of its target.

To accomplish that, PGMs – essentially, any munition, from missiles and bombs to artillery projectiles and even bullets – incorporate an embedded high-performance computing capability for target identification and strike. That can range from a GPS-guided mortar round that lands within a 10-meter radius of its target, to a fragmenting bullet or grenade that explodes at a specific point above or beside a target protected from direct fire by a wall, ridge, or other obstacle, to a missile that combines GPS with cameras to zero in on its target.

Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate vehicle

A Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate (GUSS) follows the beacon signal of Pfc. Dylan J Hoffstatter (right), grenadier for 3rd Platoon, Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, during a four-day experimental testing evolution at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii, while in support of 2010 Rim of the Pacific exercise. Lance Cpl. Ronald W. Stauffer

“Smart,” however, also can mean a robotic vehicle that can follow a squad without human guidance, a network of tiny sensors that can detect and identify anything moving nearby, or even a combat uniform that can monitor its wearer’s vital signs or, like a chameleon, change the color and pattern of its camouflage. It also may mean a technology that alters military tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to the user’s advantage or provides combatant commanders with a greater range of options, from non-lethal to optimum fire with minimal collateral damage.

While it is impossible to predict what the future may bring in terms of armed conflict, two things do seem reasonably certain:

First, the weapons U.S. forces take into any future fight will be even smarter – and more accurate – from enhancements to those now in use to rifles with brains and steerable bullets with chips.

Second, whatever enemy the U.S. military next faces almost certainly will have some level of precision in their weapons as well – especially if that adversary is a nation-state, rather than a stateless terrorist group or regional insurgents.

To some degree, however, even the latter already are bringing new, commercially available technologies into the fight in Southwest Asia.

“We captured an enemy in Iraq a couple of years ago and he had a GPS device with 10-digit grid points on our location, including our regimental command post. That was scary,” noted John H. Reynolds, a lead analyst at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s (MCWL) Experiment Division.

“At some point, they will have the capability to marry that to a warhead,” MCWL Experiment Division Director Vince Goulding added. “And when that happens, fixed locations, wherever they may be, will be increasingly vulnerable to precision attack.”

Indeed, he continued, Deputy Commandant for Combat Development & Integration Lt. Gen. G.J. Flynn, “is very concerned about the enemy soon acquiring a precision targeting capability.”

“All of these technologies will level the playing field on how we do business; we’re seeing that already in technologies the bad guys are using,” he continued. “Most of the things we use in our experimentation are from the commercial sector, which moves faster than the acquisitions sector. That can be frustrating, especially when available to the enemy. Just go to Google Earth and you could look at Quantico [USMC Headquarters] and target anything you wanted.”

That frustration is further heightened by the ability of modern smart phones – such as the iPhone and Droid – to incorporate and combine multiple Web-based and onboard technologies that could have military utility for precision attack. Not only are such devices easily acquired by anyone, the technologies supporting them are evolving faster than military strategists can follow, with new capabilities coming along in increasingly rapid succession.

“I’m particularly interested in the 4G technologies now going into cellphones,” Reynolds said. “Those appear to be some revolutionary hardware and software combinations that at some point we may be able to leverage into our battlefield network.

“But they [the commercial sector] are way ahead of anything we are working on in that area. As we go forward, we are looking to the ability to exploit those – or at least know what the abilities are so we can make plans accordingly.”

A “smart” weapon should not be confused with artificial intelligence (AI), as exhibited by

such Hollywood robots as the Terminator and C3PO. The computer chips and guidance systems that allow today’s PGMs to identify and seek out a target, in some cases including the ability to change trajectory, are growing increasingly capable, but not “intelligent.” Precision fire or guidance capability, instead, is a blend of advanced sensors, computing hardware and software, and high-level algorithms.

It is, however, a definition in constant flux as computer chips, guidance systems, and nanotechnology, among others, continue their historically rapid pace of development and increasing capability. And to those on the receiving end of such weapons, the distinction between precision, smart, and AI may seem academic.

In some cases, “smarter” may be more a matter of how a new technology is employed by the warfighter than any organic capability intended by the designers, in which case the key element is not technology, but the human brain. That is especially true for the growing implementation of robotics in the battlespace.

Raven UAV Falahaut

U.S. soldiers from Bravo Company 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, deploy the Raven to assess atmospherics in Falahaut, Iraq, Feb. 12, 2010. Falahaut's school, Al Taji, will be an election poll site, during the elections in March. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Venessa Hernandez

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used by U.S. and allied forces in Southwest Asia for everything from communications relay and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to lethal attack. Once the province of higher command, hand-launched micro-UAVs are being used by the Army and Marines at the squad level to see what is over the next ridge or behind the next building. Soon, that level also will be weaponized.

An example is the AeroVironment Switchblade, a 2-pound mini-UAV that can send streaming video to a hand-held control unit – but also is equipped with a small explosive charge, letting the operator turn it into a precision-guided direct attack weapon. That is significantly smaller than the first weaponized UAV, the 27-foot long, half-ton (empty) Predator, with its 48.7-foot wingspan.

But the future is likely to see lethal UAVs both smaller than the Switchblade and larger than the Predator, especially with ongoing efforts to develop insect-sized flying robots and the expected development of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). UCAVs essentially are jet fighters and bombers whose pilots never leave the ground and, as with the Predator, may be half a world away from the combat zone. Or they may be controlled by the pilot or a second crewman in a manned aircraft flying in attack formation with them.

Some of the anticipated mission profiles for UCAVs call for a level of semi-autonomous operation that certainly would place them in the “smart” category. Contrary to TV and movie depictions, however, the U.S. military has made it clear there will always be a human in the loop when weapons are involved, making the decision on use of force and solely responsible for pulling the trigger.

Virtually every military on Earth is buying or developing a wide range of UAVs, which almost certainly will be employed against the United States in some future conflict. So far, other nations – only a very few of which can approach the technological level of U.S. systems – appear to be following the same restrictions on autonomy and lethality.

While autonomous fire is not a concern, even groups such as al Qaeda could convert high-end remote-controlled aircraft, built for civilian model flying, into winged versions of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have become the insurgent weapon of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The same is true with unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), which have been used by the U.S. military for years for explosive ordnance disposal and to check cars for explosives at checkpoints in Iraq and Afghanistan. The commercial robot market is expected to grow even faster in the next quarter century than personal computers did in the last, making a wide range of remote-controlled or even semi-autonomous robots available to anyone. Again, it would take little effort to adapt those to ISR or even lethal attack capabilities.


U.S. Army Sgt. Joshua Morris shoots a mortar round from a 120 mm mortar tube during a training and certification test at a combat outpost in Afghanistan on May 18, 2010. DoD photo by Sgt. Derec Pierson

Only a handful of nations are likely to have the technological capability to bring smart weapons or systems such as the United States currently uses to any engagement in the coming decade. And by the time they do, odds are the U.S. military will have moved on to the next level – unless budget constraints limit DoD’s ability to pursue further advanced research and development or procure new technologies.

On the other hand, the real advances in smart weapons are far more likely to be based on civilian developments, with the advantage going to those who can best adapt those technologies to military applications.

One such possibility is a humanoid robot, such as the Robonaut NASA is sending to the International Space Station before the end of 2010. A joint development with General Motors, which plans to use them in their auto manufacturing plants, the Robonaut features the most advanced mechanical hands ever built, with each finger having its own CPU.

While there is no known current military program for humanoid robots, engineers at MCWL have said they would be interested in looking at what Robonaut can do and its potential as an ISR platform in the field. Just as GM sees the humanoid form as better able to move onto the manufacturing floor, working in spaces and with tools designed for humans, such a robot also would be better able to deal with vehicles, buildings, tools, and so on in a battlespace.

Whether that also would include weapons – at whatever level of autonomy – is another question.

A 2003 study by the U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Project Alpha rapid idea analysis group concluded a Tactical Autonomous Combatant (TAC) could be integrated into a networked battlespace as early as 2025. The study – “Unmanned Effects: Taking the Human out of the Loop” – characterized a TAC as an autonomous mechanical device, of any size or shape, able to work in ground, air, space, or undersea environments, but especially in extreme heat or cold or where chemical, biological, or radiological contamination would restrict human operations.

At the time, a weaponized TAC was considered a likely evolution of the concept, although military officials in recent years have been emphatic about keeping the human in the loop.

“I’m always a little antsy about putting a rifle in CPU-driven fingers, but I would love to give it an ISR capability,” Goulding said. “I don’t know if we’re ready to have it do soldiering tasks, but I’m certainly interested in the lab looking at it and assessing the utility.

“The TTPs point would have to look very carefully at where there is applicability. We put a lot into what the human Marine brings to the table in terms of decision-making and intellect and, at the end of the day, AI used to fire weapons is a long way off.”


BigDog robots trot around in the shadow of an MV-22 Osprey.BigDog is a dynamically stable quadruped robot created in 2005 by Boston Dynamics with Foster Miller, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Harvard University Concord Field Station. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. M.L. Meier

Even if something like Robonaut does not see combat duty in the next decade or two, other walking robots almost certainly will – descendants of BigDog, a four-legged robotic mule built by Boston Dynamics for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2005. BigDog attracted considerable attention, from both the general public and military engineers, and was considered a successful proof-of-concept, although it was far too noisy and not quite stable enough for real-world military use.

But autonomous, semi-autonomous, and convertible (manned or unmanned) UGVs and UAVs, based on the record of those already in service in Iraq and Afghanistan, “have earned a place in DoD because the capabilities of these systems continue to grow and expand,” according to Maj. Patrick Reynolds, head of MCWL’s Logistics Combat Element Branch and lead on the Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate (GUSS), a six-wheeled platform currently being tested by the Marines.

Other smart or precision weapons – some already fielded in limited numbers, others still in the R&D or test and evaluation phase – include:

• XM-25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System, a laser-sighted grenade launcher firing smart munitions;

• Small Smart Weapon, a compact lightweight munition adaptable to multiple launch platforms, including manned or unmanned systems;

• Excalibur 155 mm precision-guided artillery round;

• EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO), a maneuverable bullet;

• Accelerated Precision Mortar Initiative (APMI) for a GPS-guided high-explosive cartridge for the 120 mm mortar;

• Very Affordable Precision Projectile, a GPS-guided 105 mm artillery round;

• Common Smart Submunition, a multi-platform discriminating, fuzed sensor submunition;

• Precision Guidance Kit, a GPS-based replacement for the standard NATO fuze in legacy 155 mm and 105 mm high-explosive artillery projectiles that significantly improves their accuracy, much as another “smart” add-on – the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) – has done for conventional “dumb” bombs;

• “Smart Dust,” tiny sensors based on micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology that could be scattered across a road, path, or any other area, creating a sensor network to detect movement, from a single person or animal to a truck or tank;

• Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons, in some ways the “anti-smart” weapon because it destroys electric and electronic circuits and equipment; small EMP generators could be used against enemy communications, command and control centers, vehicles, etc., while a large pulse – such as generated by an atomic blast – could leave an entire nation helpless;

• Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), emits an intense, high-pitched acoustic beam; used by the Coast Guard to warn off approaching vessels, it also could be used in riot control or against enemy troops, causing (depending on range) anything from headaches to permanent hearing loss;

• Variable Velocity Weapons System, with the option to use lethal or “less lethal” rounds and combining a target range-finder with automatically adjusting muzzle velocity to keep a less lethal round from becoming lethal if the target is too close; and

• Smart Virtual Minefield, combining a multi-barrel miniature launcher with two types of round in each barrel; the first is a wireless sensor, with the complement of all barrels fired at varying distances to form a virtual minefield. When the sensor is triggered, the barrel to which it is linked fires a lethal round, protecting the target area from incursion without leaving landmines buried in the ground as a future hazard; the computer control system also can temporarily deactivate specific sensors, allowing friendly forces to move through the field, then reactivate them.

XM-25 weapon system

A soldier aims an XM25 weapon system at Aberdeen Test Center, Md. The XM25 features an array of sights, sensors and lasers housed in a Target Acquisition Fire Control unit on top, an oversized magazine behind the trigger mechanism, and a short, ominous barrel wrapped by a recoil dampening sleeve. U.S. Army photo

Among those still in the lab are the ultimate in precision weapons for the future – directed energy. Two current programs in that arena are the Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL), an Army/Joint Technology Office effort to produce a lab-based 100-kilowatt technology demonstrator, and the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS), a DARPA-funded demonstrator for a 150-kilowatt laser weapons system.

Another directed energy weapon program is the Airborne Laser (ABL), a heavily modified Boeing 747 using an advanced computerized targeting system and megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) to shoot down ballistic missiles shortly after launch. Although it was essentially shelved in 2010, its successful test firings, combined with other research efforts, have opened the door to chemical or solid-state laser weapons being employed on and above future battlefields.

Another aspect of future smart combat capabilities will be a tight, real-time sensor/shooter fusion, where everyone from the individual Marine rifleman to Army mortar units to Air Force weaponized UAVs to ship-launched cruise missiles are tied together, each seeing the same constantly updated picture of enemy, Blue Force, and civilian locations and movements.

While much of that already is in place, increased information sharing is only now beginning to reach down to the squad level. To reach the individual warfighter will require advances in helmet-mounted or goggle-incorporated displays, an advanced data communications system that can send and receive whatever level of information is needed without overloading limited battlespace bandwidth, and new, long-life power systems to replace the current bagful of batteries soldiers and Marines already must carry into the field – and back.

Fueled by unprecedented advances in capability during the closing decade of the 20th century and the opening decade of the 21st, the war in Southwest Asia has become the most technology-enhanced – and dependent – conflict in history. Yet it likely has been only a modest prelude to the future evolution of military weapons and capabilities.

However, the ability of industry to meet the heightened demands and expectations now being placed on technology will be the ultimate constraint on how smart the next generation of weapons will be and how quickly they may be deployed.

“The purpose of what we do at the Lab is to develop warfighting capabilities across the board,” Goulding concluded – adding that as that vision and strategy are now evolving, “you can’t do this without a family of unmanned systems. So in terms of technology, we are looking at the future for concepts of operations and how Marines will fight in the future.

“But we are constrained by what industry gives us. Technology is struggling, I think, particularly in unmanned systems, to facilitate the types of operations we want for Marines. BigDog is a great concept, but you can’t put it into a rifle brigade. Technology is what it is and we are condemned to what we can actually put our hands on. Still, we had some damned good technologies in our last Limited Objective Experiment and I think we’ll be able to get some of those into the fight relatively soon as we try to service both the near and far target.”

This article was first published in Defense: Land Forces Edition, Fall 2010.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...