Even Smarter Next Time

Precision munitions, unmanned systems, and other "smart" weapons are transforming the battlefield

By J.R. Wilson

The world first became truly aware of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) during Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War, when cruise missiles hit specific targets in Baghdad with impressive accuracy, sometimes on live global TV.

The second Gulf War, however, brought even greater levels of precision to multiple levels of the battle, including field artillery. As was the case in 1991, it has been a one-sided capability; enemy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan lacked the technology being used, with often devastating effect, against them.

Today, the terms "smart weapons" and "precision-guided munitions" often are used interchangeably, but there are significant differences. A smart weapon distinguishes its target from the background and points to it; a precision munition combines low dispersion with accurate targeting and guidance that takes it to within 10 meters of its target.

To accomplish that, PGMs - essentially, any munition, from missiles and bombs to artillery projectiles and even bullets - incorporate an embedded high-performance computing capability for target identification and strike. That can range from a GPS-guided mortar round that lands within a 10-meter radius of its target, to a fragmenting bullet or grenade that explodes at a specific point above or beside a target protected from direct fire by a wall, ridge, or other obstacle, to a missile that combines GPS with cameras to zero in on its target.

"Smart," however, also can mean a robotic vehicle that can follow a squad without human guidance, a network of tiny sensors that can detect and identify anything moving nearby, or even a combat uniform that can monitor its wearer's vital signs or, like a chameleon, change the color and pattern of its camouflage. It also may mean a technology that alters military tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to the user's advantage or provides combatant commanders with a greater range of options, from non-lethal to optimum fire with minimal collateral damage.

While it is impossible to predict what the future may bring in terms of armed conflict, two things do seem reasonably certain:

First, the weapons U.S. forces take into any future fight will be even smarter - and more accurate - from enhancements to those now in use to rifles with brains and steer-able bullets with chips.

Second, whatever enemy the U.S. military next faces almost certainly will have some level of precision in their weapons as well - especially if that adversary is a nationstate, rather than a stateless terrorist group or regional insurgents.

To some degree, however, even the latter already are bringing new, commercially available technologies into the fight in Southwest Asia.

"We captured an enemy in Iraq a couple of years ago and he had a GPS device with 10-digit grid points on our location, including our regimental command post. That was scary," noted John H. Reynolds, a lead analyst at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab's (MCWL) Experiment Division.

"At some point, they will have the capability to marry that to a warhead," MCWL Experiment Division Director Vince Goulding added. "And when that happens, fixed locations, wherever they may be, will be increasingly vulnerable to precision attack."

Indeed, he continued, Deputy Commandant for Combat Development & Integration Lt. Gen. G.J. Flynn, "is very concerned about the enemy soon acquiring a precision targeting capability."

"All of these technologies will level the playing field on how we do business; we're seeing that already in technologies the bad guys are using," he continued. "Most of the things we use in our experimentation are from the commercial sector, which moves faster than the acquisitions sector. That can be frustrating, especially when available to the enemy. Just go to Google Earth and you could look at Quan-tico [USMC Headquarters] and target anything you wanted."

U.S. soldiers from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, deploy a Raven UAV to assess atmospherics in Falahat, Iraq, Feb. 12, 2010. UAVs are now being used at the company and even squad level.

That frustration is further heightened by the ability of modern smart phones - such as the iPhone and Droid - to incorporate and combine multiple Web-based and onboard technologies that could have military utility for precision attack. Not only are such devices easily acquired by anyone, the technologies supporting them are evolving faster than military strategists can follow, with new capabilities coming along in increasingly rapid succession.

"I'm particularly interested in the 4G technologies now going into cellphones," Reynolds said. "Those appear to be some revolutionary hardware and software combinations that at some point we may be able to leverage into our battlefield network.

"But they [the commercial sector] are way ahead of anything we are working on in that area. As we go forward, we are looking to the ability to exploit those - or at least know what the abilities are so we can make plans accordingly."

A "smart" weapon should not be confused with artificial intelligence (AI), as exhibited by such Hollywood robots as the Terminator and C3PO. The computer chips and guidance systems that allow today's PGMs to identify and seek out a target, in some cases including the ability to change trajectory, are growing increasingly capable, but not "intelligent." Precision fire or guidance capability, instead, is a blend of advanced sensors, computing hardware and software, and high-level algorithms.

It is, however, a definition in constant flux as computer chips, guidance systems, and nanotechnology, among others, continue their historically rapid pace of development and increasing capability. And to those on the receiving end of such weapons, the distinction between precision, smart, and AI may seem academic.

In some cases, "smarter" may be more a matter of how a new technology is employed by the warfighter than any organic capability intended by the designers, in which case the key element is not technology, but the human brain. That is especially true for the growing implementation of robotics in the battlespace.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used by U.S. and allied forces in Southwest Asia for everything from communications relay and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to lethal attack. | Once the province of higher command, hand-launched micro-UAVs are | being used by the Army and Marines at the squad level to see what is » over the next ridge or behind the next building. Soon, that level also | will be weaponized. >

An example is the AeroVironment Switchblade, a 2-pound mini- £ UAV that can send streaming video to a hand-held control unit - but ^ also is equipped with a small explosive charge, letting the operator 1 turn it into a precision-guided direct attack weapon. That is signifi- g cantly smaller than the first weaponized UAV, the 27-foot long, half-ton « (empty) Predator, with its 48.7-foot wingspan. d

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