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Sat

17

Jan

2009

Tomgram: Nick Turse, Are the Army's Days of the Future Past?
Saturday, 17 January 2009 07:42
by Tom Engelhardt

The Nation Institute's impressive Investigative Fund offered financial support to Nick Turse for the piece that follows — and so, in a far more modest way, did TomDispatch. So, thanks to those of you who have used the "Resist Empire, Support TomDispatch" button at the right of the main screen to contribute to this site. In fact, you've given us — for the first time — the opportunity to offer younger writers, those with the least financial backing (and yet often traveling furthest afield) some expense money, which really makes a difference. I only wish I could thank each of you individually when those contributions come in. Unfortunately, I can't, time being my scarcest commodity. But believe me, I see every contribution and offer a small thank you to heaven each time.

The Pentagon pours vast sums of money into many things — and it isn't only what you imagine. It's not just weapons and equipment, nor even technological and scientific research. Don't forget, for instance, the military money that goes into conferences to talk about carrying out more technological and scientific research to create more weapons and equipment. Just recently, Wired Magazine's Danger Room blog reported that "[l]ast August, the U.S. Army held a three-day conference in Portsmouth, Virginia, to look at new developments in military science and hardware." And what was it called? The "2008 Mad Scientist Future Technology Seminar." Seriously! You can't claim the Pentagon doesn't have a sense of humor.

Last month, with the backing of the Nation Institute's Investigative Fund, TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, went to another of the Army's gatherings — the 26th Army Science Conference. It wasn't his first military conference. Last fall, for instance, he checked out the military's "Joint Urban Operations, 2007" conference to find out how the Pentagon was planning on fighting wars in the planet's cities for the next century. This time around, as you'll see, he found the Army's weird science shocking in quite a different way. So settle back, head for Florida with Turse, and confer with the U.S. Army's mad scientists. Tom

Future Shock at the Army Science Conference

Eco-Explosives, a Bleeding BEAR, and the Armani-Clad Super Soldier
By Nick Turse [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.

altDon'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
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