January 14, 2011:
The most interesting military weapons and equipment developments of 2010. Some things you've already heard about, but also some that avoided much mass media attention. The following are in no particular order.
* Infantry. Here we saw more evolution, not revolution, in infantry gear. But at least the trends continued to move in the right direction. The biggest change is the equipment that must be carried. Until the 1980s, you could strip down (for actual fighting) to your helmet, weapon (assault rifle and knife), ammo (hanging from webbing on your chest, along with grenades), canteen and first aid kit (on your belt) and your combat uniform. Total load was 13-14 kg (about 30 pounds). You could move freely, and quickly, like this, and you quickly found that speed and agility was a lifesaver in combat. But now the minimum load carried is twice as much (27 kg), and, worse yet, more restrictive. Over the last seven years, this has translated into some dramatic changes in training. In Iraq, troops found they were not in the best condition to run around with all that weight. This was worse in Afghanistan, with all those hills. Plus, the vest constricted movement, and that took time to adjust to. Commanders complained about troops not being properly trained, and that led to a series of changes in basic and unit training. The big change in basic was to condition troops to handle the heavy weights they would be carrying, for extended periods of time. This was particularly critical for non-combat troops (especially those operating convoys) outside of camps (where you usually didn't have to wear armor and combat gear.) New exercises were developed. Infantry troops got several months of additional training after basic, and had plenty of opportunity to adjust to moving around wearing 14 kg or more of gear. The heavier weight included better armor and equipment (night vision, personal radio, weapon sights), which reduced combat deaths, and made the troops more lethal. But now the troops accept the fact that a lot of essential training takes place in the gym, particularly the weight room. The army and marines have been developing lighter and more comfortable versions of essential gear, but there's still a need for muscle. This decade of infantry innovation has been noted by other armies around the world, and they are all hustling to emulate this American revolution. Not just to get the gadgets, but to implement the new training methods as well.
* Support. Few pay attention to support functions, especially no one in the media. But here is where big things happen. One of things has been how video games joined the army. Over the last eight years, billions of dollars has been spent on creating several generations of increasingly accurate combat simulators for training troops to deal with roadside bombs, hostile civilians, flying UAVs and new enemy tactics. These sims are taken for granted inside the army and marines, but still seem out of place to ill informed outsiders.
* Air Power. Last year, Boeing revealed that it has built a new, jet propelled, combat UAV, the Phantom Ray. It looks remarkably like the X-45C that Boeing was developing for the air force, before that project was cancelled five years ago. Boeing admitted that Phantom Ray is, in effect, an upgraded X-45C. Despite the X-45 being cancelled, enthusiasm for such aircraft has grown in the air force and navy. So Boeing, using its own money, went ahead and built the X-45C/Phantom Ray, and plans to have it make its first flight soon. After that, who knows? The air force may still have doubts, but the navy has officially declared combat UAVs the future of naval aviation.
* Naval Power. The U.S. Navy has accepted the fact that is has gotten smaller, and that this process will continue. The navy shrunk by 20 percent in the last decade, to a force of 280 ships. The main reason is the high cost of new ships, to replace those that are wearing out and being retired. In the next decade, the fleet is expected to shrink another 20 percent, again because Congress refuses to provide enough money to replace older ships (only about $14 billion a year, at most, is provided for new ships, and this is expected to shrink.) New ships cost, on average, $2.5 billion each. This is made possible because of six billion dollar destroyers, seven billion dollar subs and eleven billion dollar carriers. This is offset somewhat by $1.7 billion amphibious ships and half billion dollar LCS (a compact, controversial, ship design). The big news is that the admirals are actively brainstorming how to live with a high cost/low income future, not try to magically make it go away.
* Naval Aviation. The big news was that China was definitely building multiple modern aircraft carriers. The lesser news was that Russia, to no one's surprise, was abandoning its plans for a similar carrier fleet.
* Counter-terrorism. Islamic terrorists have bet their future on their success in recruiting children to be suicide bombers and Islamic terrorists in general. This has been going on for some years, but as more Moslem adults give up on Islamic terrorism, the need for new recruits has increasingly turned to kids. Palestinian terror groups have developed a unique method of recruiting young suicide bombers; children's television. The programming directed at children has, for over a decade, increasingly encouraged kids to aspire to be a suicide bomber. The Palestinian method is more effective, as they encourage little girls, as well as boys, to seek eternal salvation as suicide bombers. Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic nations, have tried to eliminate this indoctrination of children. These efforts have not been a success. The indoctrination continues, and another generation of eager suicide bombers is on the way.
* Electronic Warfare. After only a few years of existence, the smart phone is headed for the combat zone. The U.S. Department of Defense is trying to develop a smart phone for the combat troops. The biggest problem they will encounter will be the Department of Defense. The problem is simple. Troops have increasingly been using their cell phones, including a growing number of smart phones (iPhone and Android in particular). These phones are very useful in a combat zone, and officers up to the top of the food chain have noticed this. So the decision has been made to create a militarized version of the smart phone. This should be quite possible, as the Department of Defense has been increasingly successful in "militarizing" (often with nothing more than a new coat of paint) superior civilian gear for military use. The big problems are making the military smart phone more rugged, and able to handle military grade encryption. The larger problems, of usefulness and troop acceptance, have already been solved.
* Information War. As more engineers and Internet security experts dig into Stuxnet, the more it is obvious that this computer worm (a computer program that constantly tries to copy itself to other computers) was designed as a weapons grade cyber weapon. The first "real one" as Internet security experts are calling it. While released in late 2009, Stuxnet was not discovered until last year, and engineers are still dissecting it, and continue to be amazed at what a powerful Cyber War weapon it is. Stuxnet is the first live example of a first class Cyber War weapon, which means more are on the way (or sitting on someone's hard drive waiting to be deployed.)
* Strategic Weapons. The U.S. Navy believes that the long rumored Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D became operational in 2010. This despite the fact that, as far as anyone knows, or will admit, the complete system has not been tested. There are hints that there were some tests last Summer, and that all the components of the system are present and working. The important thing is that now both the Chinese and Americans agree that such a weapon is possible, and one example, the DF-21D, exists. It this system doesn't actually work, it will eventually. So the U.S. Navy is checking up on its anti-missile defenses.
* Procurement. Russia has returned to buying military technology from the West. For centuries, Russia eagerly sought new military tech from foreigners. But after the 1930s, Russia declared that their own stuff was the best, and foreign ideas were no longer relevant (although foreign tech was still stolen, and often rebranded as a Russian idea in the first place.) The Russians are buying warships and infantry equipment from France, UAVs from Israel and armored vehicles from Italy. The Cold War is truly over.
* Weapons- The infantry had a very good year when it came to new weapons and accessories. For example there was the U.S. Army M2010 sniper rifle and M25 "smart" grenade launcher, and the U.S. Marine Corps M27 "automatic rifle". Soldiers and marines got a great new sight for the Mk19 automatic grenade launcher. SOCOM got a new SCAR 7.62mm sniper rifle. Israel became the latest country to adopt the powerful Lapua Magnum sniper cartridge. Chine upgraded its unique (bullpup design) QBZ-95 assault rifle, while introduced a new AK-200 assault rifle. There were also many new accessories for infantry weapons. One thing that was missing was an infantry weapon to replace the small caliber (under 6mm) assault rifle that has dominated the battlefield for the last half century. The bolt-action, smokeless powder rifle was king of the battlefield for about half a century, before its replacement (the assault rifle) began to appear, so military technology pundits are trying to figure out what's going on here. There should be a new, breakthrough weapon by now. Where is it?