WASHINGTON: The Army is developing promising new technology, from long-range missiles to anti-drone defense, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Allyn told reporters today. The problem, of course, is paying for it — which, he said, puts pricey innovations like Iron Man-style powered armor out of reach.
So what’s the most exciting tech that could fix an operational shortfall at a price the service can afford, I asked? That’s when Gen. Allyn brought up the counter-drone system, which he’d seen recently at Fort Bliss Texas, home of the Army’s experimental-tech exercises, the Army Warfighting Assessments (AWAs) and Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs).
“Counter-UAS is going to be a critical capability,” he said.
While the vice was cagey with details, his answer probably means a system that coordinates multiple weapons against a single target, similar to the Army’s in-development missile defense network, IBCS. Such a mix-and-match approach would jibe with that of William Roper’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), which emphasizes ingenious but affordable combinations of new and existing technology rather than all-conquering, budget-busting super-weapons. There are certainly plenty of counter-drone tools to out there to combine: In past Black Dart exercises, the military has tested everything from Finmeccanica’s Falcon Shield jammers, to the Navy’s 30-kw Laser Weapons System, to a Marine sniper shooting out the door of a helicopter in flight (he hit the target).
Why does this matter? The Army’s concerned because Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are proliferating around the world, especially low-cost, low-altitude tactical drones. The most dramatic demonstrations have been in Ukraine, when Russian artillery used drones to locate Ukrainian troops for sudden, brutal bombardments. With cheap drones available at Target, however, even insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq pose a potential drone threat, Allyn said. Worse, while the near-term threat is individual Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) and targeting drones spying on US forces, in the near future, large numbers of armed drones might “swarm” a single target.
“Initially we’ve got to be able to deny single ISR platforms, but in the longer term, the ability to deny swarming attacks is critical,” Allyn said, emphasizing that technology alone isn’t the answer. You also need new tactics. “Denial, deception and effective maneuvers (are) equally important as any technological advances,” he said. In particular, “we’re going to have to be very very effective at distributed operations in small units,” dispersing into many separate but mutually supporting teams rather than concentrating in a small number of big targets.
Rockets’ Red Glare
As worrisome as the drones themselves are the weapons they could be spotting targets for. In Ukraine, Russians have combined drones with traditional massed artillery, especially long-range rocket launchers of a type Stalin would have recognized. But while Russia, China, and other countries have continued modernizing their artillery, the US Army became increasingly reliant on airstrikes. That’s a problem if enemy anti-aircraft systems keep the Air Force at bay and the Army needs to provide its own fire support.
“We are outranged and outgunned by many potential adversaries,” Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the Army’s top in-house futurist, told the Senate bluntly in April, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley more cautiously echoed his assessment.
So long-range land-based missiles are a priority both for the Army and for William Roper’s Strategic Capabilities Office. “Dr. Roper has got together a team pursuing some pretty significant innovation in that area and we partnered with him,” said Gen. Allyn. “Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) is certainly one of the areas where we are ready to accept any help that others can provide, because the bottom line is in multiple theaters that’s an area of significant stress and it’s a gap that we need to close as rapidly as we can.”
“I am cautiously optimistic (about) some of the long-range precision fires innovations that are under development,” Allyn added, “but I say cautious because new capability never seems to arrive as fast as you need it.”
Why the greater caution and the longer timeline? Unlike anti-drone defense, which can stitch together multiple existing systems, a new long-range missile is, well, rocket science. No matter how clever you are, ultimately you have to build a new missile that goes farther than the Army’s existing ATACMS, and that’s not trivial.
No Iron Man (For Now)
As difficult as any rocket is the engineering required to created powered armor that carries its own weight without burdening the wearer, an military exoskeleton like Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry or Marvel’s Iron Man. The Special Operations Command is researching such a system, TALOS, but when asked about its applicability to the rest of the Army, Allyn was skeptical.
“Currently, in the conventional force, I doubt we could afford it in the near term,” at least on any large scale, said Allyn. So are you at least interested? “I wouldn’t say as yet I’m interested because I try not to get interested in things I cant afford,” Allyn said with a smile. “I don’t go to the Jaguar and Mercedes dealerships.”
Of course, if the Army got more money, it could make different choices. Currently the service is “mortgaging” long-term modernization to pay for near-term readiness, Allyn said, which puts a damper on all new technologies. “The way out obviously is increased topline — and there’s not a likelihood of receiving that,” Allyn said.
“Obviously it would be really really good if Congress would pass the budget” for 2017, Allyn added. (Usually Congress doesn’t come to final agreement on spending until weeks or months into the fiscal year). “Our soldiers deserve predictable funding.…. Our soldiers deserve a level of commitment commensurate with the commitment they make to lay it all on the line every day for the nation.”