In the Military, Inventiveness of All Kinds Is a Weapon

Experts say a changing battlefield prompts calls for increasing emotional intelligence as well as technical prowess

Boston Dynamic's
Boston Dynamic's Big Dog robot would carry supplies in the battlefield. Boston Dynamic

A week or so ago I asked my 20-year-old son why there was so much hype around the latest shootapalooza game, “Call of Duty, MW3.”

“You have no idea,” he said.

He was right. Within a day of its release last Tuesday, Activision sold 6.5 million games in North America and the U.K., prompting the company to declare the first-day take of $400 million as the “biggest entertainment launch of all time,” bigger than the openings of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

For the uninitiated, the MW stands for Modern Warfare, although it’s more like World War II with 21st century weapons. The battlegrounds are mainly European cities—London, Paris, Berlin—although it also does provide an opportunity to blast away at Wall Street. In some ways, “MW3″ isn’t all that much like modern warfare—the enemy is the Russian army, not tribesmen hiding in the mountains. And while the game allows players to use drones, they don’t do collateral damage.

Don’t overthink this, I told myself, it’s only a game. But then, the day after the “MW3″ launch, I read a piece in the Washington Post by Amy Fraher, a retired U.S. Navy commander, in which she contended that the most critical asset of military leaders of the future won’t be technical skills, but rather emotional intelligence.

Personally, I can’t imagine Gen. George Patton telling anyone, “I feel your pain.” But Fraher’s point is that as both the makeup of the U.S. military and the situations in which it operates become more complex and nuanced, what a leader really will need is old-fashioned social skills.

Dealing with terror

That’s not to say the Defense Department will stop investing billions in fresh firepower  (although looming budget cuts could slice into weapons programs.) But much of the innovative thinking coming out of the Pentagon has to do with helping soldiers deal with the ugliness and unpredictability of modern terror tactics.

In a recent article in National Defense Magazine“10 Technologies the Military Needs for the Next War,” there’s little mention of weapons. Instead the list focuses on such things as robot pack mules that would relieve soldiers of lugging food, ammo and heavy batteries, high-speed mobile broadband anywhere and—yes, gamers—non-lethal weapons, to reduce civilian casualties.

Nor is it surprising that the military is putting a lot of energy into finding  more effective ways to detect roadside bombs, terribly harmful and destructive devices whose threat it didn’t fully anticipate before invading Iraq. Among the bomb-spotting options are a laser being developed at Michigan State and a sensing device using terahertz radiation.  And just last week the Defense Department said it was in the market for a long-distance paintball gun that could shoot suspicious objects with bomb-detecting paint.

The other deadly threat in Iraq and Afghanistan have been snipers. One promising defense being developed by a Hawaii firm is a device called FLASH, which uses infrared sensors and high-speed processors to pinpoint not only where shots are coming from, but also what kind of weapon is firing them.

National Defense Magazine didn’t mince words. “Innovation is not helpful if it’s not assisting troops at war,” the article said. “As many senior Pentagon officials have noted, an 80-percent solution that can be available in months is better than a perfect outcome that could takes years or decades to achieve.”

Here are other inventions that could be in the military’s future:

  •  You and your bright idea: The Defense Department has been relying more and more on crowdsourcing—holding online competitions, with prizes, to encourage outsiders to solve problems. The latest success story is something called the “Vehicle Stopper.” Proposed by a retired mechanical engineer in Peru, it’s a remote-controlled vehicle that can chase down a fleeing car and then deploy an airbag under it and bring it to a halt.
  • This is a job for PETMAN: The latest invention from Boston Dynamics, which has already supplied the military with several robot models, is a two-legged, six-foot-tall machine called PETMAN. That’s stands for Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin, and it’s main role would be to test uniforms and headgear designed to protect soldiers from chemical weapons.
  • When Humvees fly: The Defense Department wants someone to build a four-seat, off-road vehicle that flies like a helicopter.
  • Spy network: To speed up the process for getting spy satellites airborne, the Pentagon is looking to develop airplanes that can launch them into orbit.

Bonus video: Okay, not everything is a good idea. Hungry Beast rolls out some of the “stupidest military inventions in history.”

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