Pilotless planes, smart guns and Spiderman suits: welcome to weaponry in 2015

By Tyler Hooper

An F-35A at Edwards AFB, California, is pictured with its F-35 Systems Development and Demonstration Weapons Suite the aircraft is designed to carry. The F-35 can carry more than 3,500 pounds of ordinance in Low Observable (stealth) mode and over 18,000 pounds uncontested. (Lockheed Martin)

An F-35A at Edwards AFB, California, is pictured with its F-35 Systems Development and Demonstration Weapons Suite the aircraft is designed to carry. The F-35 can carry more than 3,500 pounds of ordinance in Low Observable (stealth) mode and over 18,000 pounds uncontested. (Lockheed Martin)

Over the past couple of decades, military hardware and software have evolved to a point where it’s no longer necessary to have pilots in the sky when conducting reconnaissance missions or dropping payloads on targets. This game-changing technology has been christened Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones. The U.S. has used drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and most recently, Syria.

Other futuristic-sounding military developments include the U.S. and Canadian militaries’ engineering robots to use in combat scenarios (for more information on the rise of robotics, see “Robotics: The Future of Procurement” in Volume 22 Issue 4). But drones and robots aren’t the only current military marvels; there are many other new, exciting and highly technical pieces of military equipment changing the modern day battlefield.

The following technologies comprise a snapshot of the most innovative high-tech weapon and military systems being developed or implemented across the globe. These new weapons — available to the army, navy, and air force platforms — range from a newly developed body armour, to photon canons, lasers, cyber submarines, next generation fighters and cyber weapons.

 

Army

The “Smart Gun”

Colt Canada has wowed all with its prototype 'smart gun,' which includes a firing mechanism to shoot lightweight cased telescoped ammunition, a secondary effects module for increased firepower and a NATO standard power and data rail to integrate accessories like electro-optical sights and position sensors. (DND)

Colt Canada has wowed all with its prototype 'smart gun,' which includes a firing mechanism to shoot lightweight cased telescoped ammunition, a secondary effects module for increased firepower and a NATO standard power and data rail to integrate accessories like electro-optical sights and position sensors. (DND)

One of the most innovative weapons being developed for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) in partnership with Colt Canada is a new assault rifle, commonly referred to as the ‘smart gun.’

According to a February 9, 2015 DRDC press release, “The prototype, in development since 2009 through the Soldier Integrated Precision Effects Systems (SIPES) project, includes a firing mechanism to shoot lightweight cased telescoped ammunition, a secondary effects module for increased firepower and a NATO standard power and data rail to integrate accessories like electro-optical sights and position sensors.”

But that’s not all; the gun also boasts the option to install a three round 40mm grenade launcher, or a 12-gauge shotgun. It’s speculated that the weapon could weigh less than a C7, which would greatly reduce the weight a soldier would have to carry on the battlefield.

In addition to its deadly attachments, the gun can also receive data from a base while locating, aiming and shooting at a target all on its own.

“Scientists also studied how to increase the rifle’s accuracy using technology that can automatically detect targets and assist with engaging them. Questions related to the sensors needed to accurately geo-locate targets for target data sharing were also investigated,” states the press release.

The gun is designed in the traditional NATO “bullpup” style, in which the magazine is loaded at the back of the rifle. The weapon also fires 5.56mm calibre bullets. 

Many speculate that the finished product of the gun may very well reveal the future of what small arms will look like.

 

Mobile Laser

The U.S. Army has successfully tested the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD), which is capable of shooting football-sized mortar rounds and unmanned drones out of the sky. (Boeing)

The U.S. Army has successfully tested the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD), which is capable of shooting football-sized mortar rounds and unmanned drones out of the sky. (Boeing)

The U.S. Army and Boeing have created a photon canon (essentially a giant laser canon) called the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) that can be controlled with a small controller and laptop.

The canon emits a 10-kilowatt laser from its mounted position on top of a mobile vehicle, making it extremely effective against incoming mortars and missiles.

According to Boeing’s website, the HEL MD “team has used a solid state laser to destroy mortars and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). A laser destroys targets with pinpoint precision within seconds of acquisition, then acquires the next target and keeps firing.”

The canon can fire repeatedly without wasting munitions and is powered by lithium batteries that are charged by a diesel generator.

The canon is still being developed, and the hope is to produce a 50- or 60-kilowatt laser, which would make it much more effective against larger and more powerful trajectories.

 

Silk-spun Body Armour 

Researchers have genetically engineered goats to produce milk that can be turned into the same silk spun by spiders. Big deal, right? Well, once that substance is extracted, it can also be made into material stronger than steel (in fact, some suggest it’s as much as 10 times stronger). Scientists are hoping that this skin-like Kevlar could stop small projectiles or bullets.

Could this tough material be the future of body armour? Maybe, but right now it appears there’s a lot of work to be done. The current initiative — primarily taking place in the Netherlands — is attempting to replace the keratin in our own human skin with that of the spiders’ or goats’ milk. Early tests failed to stop smaller calibre bullets (.22), but scientists and researchers are optimistic that this technology has great potential.

 

Navy

Lasers and Rail Guns  

The Laser Weapon System (LaWS) temporarily installed aboard the destroyer USS Dewey, was developed by the Naval Sea Systems Command. It provides Navy ships a method to easily defeat small boat threats and aerial targets without using bullets. (U.S. Navy)

The Laser Weapon System (LaWS) temporarily installed aboard the destroyer USS Dewey, was developed by the Naval Sea Systems Command. It provides Navy ships a method to easily defeat small boat threats and aerial targets without using bullets. (U.S. Navy)

The U.S. Navy has begun implementing lasers on their ships. The solid-state laser is designed to take out threats such as UAVs and smaller boats. The laser sends a beam of extreme heat, which either destroys or damages the incoming projectile. The Navy is also developing electromagnetic rail guns — also powered by electricity — that shoots several times the speed of sound (some tests have shown a muzzle velocity of Mach 7.5) and could either replace or compliment current armaments aboard a Navy fleet. The gun is being funded by the Office of Naval Research and is still in development.

 

Cyber Subs

There’s a new high-tech weapon lurking beneath the dark surface of the ocean: cyber subs. Submarines are now being equipped with more sophisticated jamming equipment which can confuse enemy combatants, allowing for more spying and a greater amount of information to be relayed back to Naval commanders from behind — or underneath — the front lines.

There’s also talk that these sleuthing submarines may be able to launch unmanned aerial systems. In an interview with Breaking Defense, Vice-Admiral Michael Connor explained the potential capabilities of these subs:

“These could be as simple as a communications buoy that rises to the surface, waits a set time, and transmits. They could be expendable drones, launched from a submarine’s missile tubes the same way as a Tomahawk. They could be complex mini-subs in themselves, known as large diameter underwater-unmanned vehicles (LDUUVs) that can launch from a manned sub to conduct a long-range mission. They could even be large payload modules that are towed behind a submarine until, at a strategic point, it releases them to settle to the sea floor and await the signal to unleash their payload of UUVs, drones or missiles.”

However, some speculate it may difficult for submarines to operate in an environment where it exposes itself to deploy UAVs or surveillance equipment. In essence, subs need to remain hidden in order work effectively, and this would be difficult with a periscope or sophisticated equipment breaking the surface of the water.

 

Google Glass

The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) is currently testing its own version of Google Glass. According to www.naval-technology.com, “Developed as part of a small business technology transfer programme, the new glasses are claimed to be more technologically advanced than Google Glass, and have a much larger field of view.”

According to Marine Corps Major Le Nolan, who represents a warfare and anti-terrorism branch of the ONR, “For Marines, this system increases their situational awareness, whether for training or operations, giving them a wider aperture for information to help make better decisions.”

The technology may allow troops to train in environments that mimic various firefight scenarios.

 

Air Force

Next-generation Fighters

The face of modern warfare includes next generation fighter jets, such as Lockheed Martin's F-35 family of multirole, stealth aircraft. Available in A, B and C models, each with its own set of capabilities, the F-35 is designed to perform ground attacks, aerial reconnaissance and air defence missions. Pictured: the F-35C, a carrier-based Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CAFTOBAR) model. (U.S. Air Force)

The face of modern warfare includes next generation fighter jets, such as Lockheed Martin's F-35 family of multirole, stealth aircraft. Available in A, B and C models, each with its own set of capabilities, the F-35 is designed to perform ground attacks, aerial reconnaissance and air defence missions. Pictured: the F-35C, a carrier-based Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CAFTOBAR) model. (U.S. Air Force)

Although drones have certainly altered the way some countries — such as the U.S. — attack targets from above, there is still a strong desire and need to develop sophisticated next generation fighter jets.

Currently, there are a few options being considered: Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; Boeing’s Super Hornet, the Chinese Chengdu J-20, and the Russian Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA.

Both Canada and the U.S. are looking to replace their aging fighter jets, and although Lockheed Martin’s F-35 has for many years been the favourite, it also lacks the air-to-air combat capabilities possessed by the J-20 or Russian T-50.

In an article for The National Interest, Dave Majumdar wrote: “One area where the J-20 — for example — completely outmatches the F/A-18 and F-35, is supersonic performance. The J-20 can cruise at high supersonic speeds without using fuel guzzling afterburners for extended periods, which allows it to impart far more launch energy into its missiles.”


Cyber Weapons

The NSA revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden showed the capabilities of a government to electronically monitor its own citizens. It’s no surprise then that governments and militaries are using various forms of cyber warfare against foreign countries.

The CBC recently revealed that Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE), alongside U.S. and British government, has developed sophisticated hacking capabilities targeting countries in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East.

But just this past June, a cyber attack temporarily shut down some Canadian government computers and networks. The notorious hacking group known as “Anonymous” claimed responsibility, citing the passing of Bill C-51 — the “anti-terror bill” — as the reason behind the attacks.  

What makes cyber warfare difficult is that many entities, like private companies or relatively unsophisticated networks like Anonymous, also have the ability to launch attacks against governments. It’s not a technology limited to the elite powers of a government or military.