Defence: disruptive innovations

Wednesday / Oct 05 2016

Newspaper : The News

Certain insect-sized military drone aircraft developed in the US that look like flies, bees and cockroaches have now been successfully fitted with tiny eyes (mini-cameras) so that they can transmit both sound and photographs. These cameras are fitted on a single micro-chip and are very light, making these surveillance ‘insect drones’ very effective for espionage purposes, since they can be controlled by a secure frequency signal from a distance of several kilometres.

The device was developed by Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, and has been funded by Nasa. The technology is being used by the CIA and other US agencies to spy on other countries.

Is it possible to enhance our mental capabilities by hooking our brains up to machines? The answer is yes – this is now beginning to happen. While enhancing brain power by genetic alterations is still many years away, bionic persons in which humans and machines are integrated to enhance human performance are under development.

John Donoghue at Brown University has developed ‘BrainGate’ technology that allows paralysed persons to have computers interfaced with their brains, thereby making it possible to operate TV or light switches, move a cursor on the computer or to open emails. The US military (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Darpa) is spending $50 million in a programme to develop brain-controlled artificial limbs. Self-powered devices have been developed which will enhance the strength of arms or legs when worn.

One problem faced by security and defence personnel is to shoot down enemy soldiers or fugitives hiding in bunkers, around corners or in buildings. As they are not in the line of sight, they cannot be shot at directly. The US army has solved this problem by inventing an XM25 rifle that fires radio-controlled bullets. The rifle has a laser range finder which calculates the precise distance of the target, and the soldier can then adjust the distance within three meters of the obstruction, so that the bullet explodes beyond or above the target.

This special rifle thus behaves as a grenade launcher, with the additional capability of being able to control the exact point of explosion of the high explosive round. The 25 mm round contains a chip to which a radio signal is sent from the rifle gunsight, with the exact distance at which the explosion is desired. In another related development also funded by DARPA, ‘smart bullets’ have been developed that can change their direction in mid-flight and hit an enemy hiding behind a wall. Advances in microchip technologies are now making the development of such ‘smart’ munitions possible.

If a nuclear blast is carried out several miles above enemy territory, the resulting electromagnetic pulse can disable the surveillance and other electronic equipment of the enemy but also cause huge collateral damage. The US Air Force has now developed a weapon which uses gigawatt bursts of electromagnetic pulses, 10 nanosecond-long, which cause a power surge in unshielded wires, resulting in the destruction of radars, satellite dishes and other electronic equipment, thereby blinding the enemy.

The weapon can be fired from the antenna of a stealth unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Boeing has developed a special fitted stealth ‘Phantom Ray’ UAV which can approach the enemy undetected for the purpose. Since the microwaves can travel through ventilation ducts and pipes leading to enemy bunkers, the electronic equipment concealed in bunkers is also destroyed. The US Air Force has allocated $40 million for further development of even more powerful longer range weapons.

On February 11, 2010 a ballistic missile was destroyed by a megawatt-class high energy laser. This was the first demonstration of the destruction of a ballistic missile using high-powered lasers fired from an air-borne platform, and has heralded the advent of a new generation of powerful weapons that may change the future course of warfare.

The technology involves the deployment of Free Electron Lasers (FEL). These are different from conventional lasers which are limited by the wavelength of light that they emit (since that is dependent on the source of the electrons, gas or crystal, in the lasers. In FEL devices, the atoms are stripped of the electrons and they are then energised to huge energy levels by using a linear accelerator.

Imagine that you are a pilot flying a fighter aircraft on a mission above enemy territory. Suddenly you lose control for no apparent reason and the plane goes into a spin dive – forcing you to bail out. The reason: the plane was supplied with some special ‘adulterated’ microchips which could be activated by external signals to disable important controls. Engineers of Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio and the electronics company Rockwell Automation of Milwaukee have shown how microchips can be converted into ‘Trojan horses’ that can be activated by an external signal whenever required, disabling the equipment. Such adulteration of chips is almost impossible to detect because of the huge complexity of the circuitry in the electronic equipment which contains millions of different circuits.

Countries which are unable to build their own sophisticated military equipment will soon find that they may be buying expensive ‘sitting ducks’ with built-in time bombs – pre-programmed to fail if the supplier countries pass the trigger to the enemy country. A simple triggering radio message can cause the equipment to fail at a crucial moment

An exciting advance has been made by researchers at BAE Systems. A tank or another armoured vehicle can have a significant advantage over the enemy if it can somehow cloak itself so that it is invisible and blends in with the surrounding landscape. BAE engineers have developed a cloaking technology that involves covering the tank/vehicle with hexagonal sheaths of a material. This hexagons act as pixels that can change their temperatures and combine together to display an infra-red image that is formed by an onboard camera that records the surrounding landscape. The tank may thus appear as trees and bushes.

Even a moving tank can rapidly change its image as the background changes. The hexagons on the surface are made of strong but light weight metal that offers protection against enemy gun fire. They are powered by the electrical system of the vehicle on which they are installed. An onboard computer has a library of images stored in it so that if the tank is to appear as a rock or a bunch of animals grazing, it can project such an image.

Besides the infra-red images, the technology can also be adapted so that other parts of the spectrum (eg visible light) can also be manipulated, thereby allowing all-round stealth capabilities. The technology can also be used on ships, aircraft and helicopters.