What if…and the “Future of Military Technology”

The November issue of “National Defense,” the business and technology magazine published by the National Defense Industrial Association, contains an article about the top ten technologies the U.S. military needs to fight the next war. The list is as follows:

1. Faster, Quieter, Safer Helicopters.

2. Weapons that Don’t Kill

3. Inventions that Lighten a Soldier’s Load

4. Ultra-Light, Super-Survivable Dune Buggies

5. Unmanned Mini-Submarines

6. High-Speed, Bulletproof Power Boats

7. Anytime, Anywhere Communications

8. Robots That Think for Themselves

9. Cheap Liquid Fuel

10. Persistent “Wide Area” Surveillance

I’ve already written about the likelihood of budget cuts for the military here and here, so I won’t do it again. These items are clearly a wishlist. But what does that wishlist reveal? I think the list is important for those considering the changing nature of the military’s missions (from warfighting to humanitarian to counter-terrorism to disaster relief to counter-piracy) and what the military values in technology. How do these needs help us think about the needs of a fictional military set in the future?

Many of these devices are about speed and stealth. After all, if your personnel are quick and sneaky, they are less likely to be hurt or killed. But it is also important to the military that we do not harm civilians if we don’t have to. Non-lethal weapons will help the military reduce civilian deaths, making it easier to operate in urban areas and not lose the support of indigenous populations. Other items on the list focus on further reducing casualties by eliminating humans entirely–by relying on autonomous or remote-controlled robots (think of the unmanned mini-subs as underwater UAVs). Lastly, the list focuses on ways to make things easier for the troops: lighter gear, cheaper fuel, and better surveillance.

What if you focused on those themes and extrapolated out a few generations? What would the tech look like then? What forms of propulsion and stealth technology are used? What future materials might the vehicles be made of? What would advanced non-lethal weaponry look like? Energy weapons? Sonic weapons? Jamming devices? Might the low body count produced by non-lethal devices mean soldiers use them more often, leading to side-effects not foreseen by weapons designers? How might future vehicles change if they can drive autonomously? If they could drive patrols on their own, deviate when they find something interesting, drive to wounded troops, fire remotely? What if you could have a combination UAV/Ambulance/weapons platform? What if the power boats were networked with a fleet of the mini-subs? How might that change counter-piracy operations? What if you start to combine powerful, rechargeable batteries with exo-skeleton suits? Might the suit have its own artificial intelligence, turning it into a powerful piece of construction equipment? Going a step further, what does this technology look like when you take it off world? How does it operate in space? On an alien planet?

Additionally, how might these future technological developments eventually appear when they go on sale to the public? Might the future of biofuels, communication devices, batteries, and artificial intelligence start with the military? It’s probably a safe bet. Then again, might the military be forced to buy off-the-shelf commercial goods due to budget cuts?

What do you think the future of military technology will look like? What are the underlying factors driving these developments? What do the troops need now? What will troops 50 years from now need? How will budget constraints affect purchasing orders? How will it affect innovation?

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