Research Brief

The Gulf War dramatically demonstrated the military benefits of high-technology systems. Those who possess them have a substantial advantage over those who do not. But for all of its success in applying technology to military systems, the United States cannot now afford to stand still. Rather, it needs to identify leading-edge technologies with military potential, so that the next generation of modern weapons will be ready when the nation needs them.

To this end, the National Defense Research Institute conducted a series of workshops sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency to identify leading-edge technologies that could revolutionize military operations, to develop concepts of military systems that could transform warfare, and to specify the research necessary to make these systems a reality. The workshops, whose participants included a range of technology and military operations experts, identified four program areas that merit close attention: very small systems, biomolecular electronics, cyberspace safety and security, and technologies to enhance soldier performance. As part of the workshop process, study groups developed a number of "application metaphors" ("fly," "wasp," and so forth) to describe areas with potential for revolutionary systems.

Very Small Systems: The Fly and the Wasp

This area refers to small—indeed, tiny—autonomous military systems that blend three areas of technology: micro or nano, information, and autonomous system technologies. The sizes of the systems considered range from a centimeter to a micrometer (a millionth of a meter). Applications illustrative of this blend of technology include fly-sized vehicles carrying different sensors (the "fly on the wall") and possibly equipped with an attack capability, i.e., turning the fly into a "wasp" by giving it a "stinger."

Some technologies are fairly well developed. Using techniques originally intended for making integrated circuits, researchers have already built micro-electrical-mechanical systems (MEMS)—tiny three-dimensional machines with moving parts. Similarly, the advances in information systems are well known. And impressive progress has been made in both the hardware and software of autonomous systems, leading to machines that not only can operate alone but also can "see," "understand," and "learn" from mistakes.

Key to these systems is an adequate power supply. Workshop members focused on thin-film lithium battery technology as a promising option. Batteries based on this technology could provide enough power for a system weighing 1 gram to hover for almost five hours or to fly for 10 kilometers and still retain over 80 percent of its energy.

Combining the three technologies would allow construction of a small vehicle that could carry any of a variety of sensors (e.g., infrared or acoustical). Such vehicles offer enormous advantages. For example, they could provide a stealthy and cheap way of observing enemy activity. Deployed by the hundreds or thousands, the miniature machines could act as a surveillance net, alerting precision weapons to the presence of enemy vehicles or to the location of radar emissions. Equipped with a "stinger," they might also be able to disrupt communication facilities, although workshop participants judged the addition of an offensive capability to be so challenging as to be questionable.

Biomolecular Electronics

Using genetic engineering to make synthetic genes can lead to the production of proteins with known and controllable properties. Such proteins can, in turn, lead to bioengineered materials and molecular electronic devices. For military applications, derivative applications employing biomolecular electronics seem to hold the most promise.

Biomolecular electronics blends three technology fields: biotechnology, bioinstrumentation, and microelectronics. Possible applications include optoelectronic memories with large storage capacities, biocomputation (the use of biomolecules as computational building blocks), artificial sensors (e.g., a protein-based artificial retina for image sensing), and biosensors, which could, for example, detect bacterial agents.

Significant progress has occurred in some areas. Biomaterials for memory elements have been developed that compete favorably with the best synthetic organic materials, achieving storage densities of 1 trillion bits per cubic centimeter. Other areas—e.g., computational elements and some computational architectures such as membrane devices—are still in their infancy. But this entire field is ripe for major improvements that can be applied to a variety of electronic systems such as computers and sensor arrays.

Cyberspace Security

Cyberspace refers to the global world of internetted computers and communication systems. More and more commercial, financial, and governmental activities are being conducted in this worldwide web. The Department of Defense itself is escalating its use of commercial systems. As time goes on, the systems making up cyberspace are becoming parts of a larger, more complex system. Even small disruptions to this large system can have disproportionate effects. Furthermore, the United States is increasingly dependent on foreign hardware and software, which receive little scrutiny for hidden anomalies.

The information systems controlling the numerous web activities are subject to a wide range of nefarious actions. Information can be stolen or manipulated. It can be denied to legitimate users or have viruses inserted into it. Such actions can be done surreptitiously, many from long distances, making detection difficult. Any number of bad actors, from the simply curious hacker to the criminal to the terrorist, can engage in this sort of activity.

In the civilian sector, threats range from invasion of personal privacy to theft of data or disruption of financial services. In the military arena, bad actors could disrupt C3I systems, steal classified information, or interfere with the operation of weapon systems. Worse, because of its large range, the threat affects nearly everybody, but no single organization feels responsible for addressing the problem. Needed is an organization to set the initial direction for U.S. activities in this area and to serve as a catalyst for stimulating the interest of other agencies in the problem.

The Jedi Knight

The Jedi Knight was the application metaphor chosen to represent the class of technologies that could enhance the performance of the individual soldier. In theory, a combination of technologies could produce a "super soldier" who could be all-sensing, covert, indestructible, and lethal. A variety of technologies could enhance individual performance remarkably. These include

  • microtechnologies that could provide miniature sensors, monitors, and display systems
  • information technologies that could link the soldier to a command network and even to distant sensors
  • autonomous systems such as unmanned ground or air vehicles that could provide platforms for sensing, weapons, or mobility
  • revolutionary materials that could furnish protection and reduce visibility
  • energy technologies that could power components.

A soldier equipped with systems made possible by these technologies would be ideal for small-scale operations such as long-range reconnaissance, hostage rescue, airfield seizure, or urban warfare. Workshop participants did not regard mechanical aids for added strength or speed as feasible, because of the added weight or power requirements.

To realize the Jedi Knight concept will require enhanced research on a number of capabilities, including linking the soldier into a network of robotic and manned systems, command centers, intelligence nodes, and databases. Research should also expand on personal weapons with guided and nonlethal munitions. And, finally, display of the information and control of all systems should occur through helmet-mounted displays.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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