At a time when the U.S. economy is rapidly spiralling into recession and the cumulative cost of the Iraq war is growing exponentially to a point where not only the children of current U.S. citizens will be paying for it, but most likely their grandparents, too, the degree to which new weapons development continues without pause will come as a shock to some.
Now, I'm not talking about cost of evolutionary development, taking current platforms and enhancing their lifespan, or even the cost of taking the next logical step in a system's development (see, for example the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), which is intended to replace the high mobility multi-wheeled vehicle, or humvee).
No, I'm referring to the billions being spent by agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), private industry and semi-private think tanks and universities on some of the most far-out "transformational" projects outside of a
William Gibson novel.
Consider the following:
Its inventors call it the LED Incapacitator (L-E-D, as in light-emitting diode). Weapons buffs call it a nonlethal weapon. But test subjects who have buckled and reeled from its nauseating strobe call it other names—none printable. A flashlight designed to make you nauseatingly ill? What fiendish minds would invent such a tool? The minds of Bob Lieberman and Vladimir Rubtsov, president and senior scientist of Intelligent Optical Systems, Inc., a small R&D company in Torrance, CA. Under a multiphase contract from the S&T Directorate's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Office, with technical direction from S&T program manager Gerald Kirwin, the two physicists are refining an ultra-bright, multicolored, pulsing "lightsaber" that's more disorienting, dazzling, and dizzying—though a tad less dangerous—than disco. It's enough to make you sick. And that, Lieberman says, is not always a bad thing.
See what I mean? Funding research like this -- less lethal or not -- while soldiers in-country are being killed because of inadequate body armor. It's enough to make you, well....sick.
This so-called Pain Ray is also non-lethal, with effects compared by test subjects to being burned by a hair dryer: "everybody back...they're bringing out the beauticians!". In a pinch, perhaps they could use this device to shrink tight the plastic wrap that Homeland Security says we should put on our windows.
Now this next concept, on the other hand, is really quite a bit more serious, if only because of the bucks involved. Now expected to top $120 billion in spending, the Future Combat System is intended to be the centrepiece of the U.S. Army's transformation efforts. The problem? With every passing fiscal quarter, it looks more and more like this ambitious and far-reaching plan will end up being shelved despite passionate advocacy on the part of Army brass. At the end of the day, the net result is very likely to be nothing more than some new technologies -- like active defense systems and secure networking -- grafted on to current platforms such as the Abrams and the Bradley, both platforms dating back to the 1970s in their baseline design. It's a lot of money for retrofits.
More weirdness. The Lightning Gun is basically a wireless taser that is being considered for use for vehicles in close-in self-defense situations. The systems's designer is Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems (XADS), and its founder says that basically "you're shooting lightning at people." Defense Review quotes the company's website:
We have succeeded with what could be termed a...version of a short-range "Phaser on Stun".
Also reviewed by Defense Review is the ParaScope Urban Combat Tactical Sight, basically a gunsight that allows you to look -- and shoot -- around corners:
Rotating the Parascope either clockwise or counter-clockwise--depending on whether your shooting around a righthand corner or lefthand corner--brings the top viewing port down so it becomes a side viewing port. When you look into this side viewing port, you're now looking right through your main combat optic at the enemy, courtesy of the Parascope's 5-sided internal prism. Now just pull the trigger. Bang, he's dead. Bad guy dies without ever seeing you.
Robotics is also huge in advanced defense technology circles these days, with significant funds being expended on achieving developments such as the Big Dog Army Mule Robot; the Gladiator; the Shape Shifting Robot; and countless robotic vehicle projects.
Engage cloaking devices! The concept of rendering military assets invisible has been a dream since at least the Philadelphia Experiment, and weapons researchers are determined to beat the Romulans to the technology. The Invisible Cloak, developed by Rennselaer Polytechnic is described as follows:
The material, made of hollow fibers, is a Roach Motel for photons -- light checks in, but it never checks out. By voraciously sucking up all surrounding illumination, it can give those who gaze on it a dizzying sensation of nothingness.
The only problem? So far, they've not been able to cloak anything larger than a hockey puck. So, while you may not be able to ambush your enemies with this technology, at least you could score a hat trick on them.
It's just possible that some of these fanciful weapon systems will actually result in lifesaving technologies that can be put to use on some future battlefield. But given the degree to which materiel and other support systems for American and allied fighting men and women are currently being stretched to beyond capacity, it's hard not to think that this funding should be put to better use elsewhere.
Like the VA hospital system.
But legislators will do what legislators will do. One only hopes that none of these budget-gobbling systems ends up like these ones did...