Being a military veteran, and a techno-geek, I follow developments in military technology with interest. There have been two in the past week that've made me sit up and take notice.
One is the first ready-for-combat laser beam 'gun', from Northrop Grumman.
The FIRESTRIKE(tm) laser offers warfighters a 15 kilowatt (kW) fieldable laser as well as a combinable LRU building block for much higher power, based on a laser beam combining architecture validated by Northrop Grumman over many years with the Joint High Power Solid State Laser program, Vesta and Vesta II.
"We are ready to deliver on the promise of defense at the speed of light with FIRESTRIKE(tm)," said Dan Wildt, vice president of Directed Energy Systems for Northrop Grumman's Space Technology sector. "The FIRESTRIKE(tm) laser power per cubic foot has been greatly enhanced from its successful laboratory predecessors."
He noted the FIRESTRIKE(tm) laser has been hardened for military uses but also was designed with life-cycle costs and reliability in mind. "FIRESTRIKE(tm) is designed for field operations and simple replacement," Wildt added.
"This is a rugged electric laser with power levels, beam quality and runtime suitable for offensive and defensive military utility. Also available is a newly designed laser current source assembly (LCSA), which is compact, and specifically developed to precisely meet FIRESTRIKE(tm)'s power needs. Combined with advanced electro optical and/or infrared sensors, the FIRESTRIKE(tm) laser can provide self-defense, precision strike and enhanced situational awareness capabilities."
I note that FIRESTRIKE modules can be combined to deliver up to 100MW of power. That's a serious threat to enemy vehicles and troops. This is only the beginning, of course. Over the next decade or two, power levels many times as great will become routine.
This has enormous implications for any military force. A laser beam is light-speed. That means there's effectively no delay whatsoever between pulling the trigger, and hitting your target. If you can see it, you can hit it. You won't even need to allow for relative motion: the beam is so fast that your speed, and/or the target's, won't matter at all. This might, for example, spell the end of close air support on the battlefield. If an enemy can simply put his sights on an attacking aircraft for half a second, and punch a 'Fire' button in that time, the aircraft's dead. There'll be no possibility of evasion, and no counter-measures will work if the laser's powerful enough. The same applies to tanks and other vehicles. If they can be destroyed from miles away, instantaneously, the moment they move . . . then the battle gets back to an infantry affair.
That being the case, the second development is one the infantry will appreciate - night-vision systems based on insect eyes.
British frontline troops will soon be able to see better in the dark using a revolutionary night sight modelled on the eyes of a tiny parasite.
The digital device, worn over one eye and attached to a helmet, will allow soldiers to spot an enemy out of the corner of their eyes without even moving their head.
The device has been developed from studies into the 50 raspberry-like eyes of the Xenos peckii insect – a tiny bug that lives inside the bodies of paper wasps.
The insect’s visual system – which is not found in any other living creature – creates an image from a mosaic of pixels similar to those on a digital camera, to give a wide field of vision.
And the new kit, which has nine lenses, will provide troops with 60 degrees of peripheral vision, twice the level of their current night-vision goggles.(Click to enlarge)
Lesley Laycock, executive scientist with BAE Systems, which is working on the project with the Ministry of Defence, said: ‘There’s a requirement to reduce the size and weight of night-vision goggles and to get a wider field of view.
‘Soldiers fight a lot at night but at the moment night-vision goggles get only a tunnel 30 to 40-degree field of view. The key is to get their sight wider and to be as natural as possible.’
The new ‘bug-eye’ lenses may be used later to improve the field of vision for CCTV cameras.
And they will give infantry soldiers and helicopters fitted with the technology a huge boost on the battlefield. They are due to come into use within three years.
As well as having the potential to save lives, the device’s images will be linked through secure military networks to commanders who can watch and record their soldiers at work on a video screen.
The Xenos peckii parasite lives a short and secretive life. Females are sightless and never leave the wasp host whose body they inhabit. But the males, once mature, must leave to find a mate and they have just hours to complete the task before they die.
The males are guided to the general area of the females by sex pheromones and then to their specific location by their amazing eyesight.
Sounds like a considerable advance . . . but I'd be careful to leave out the sex pheromones. From my experience (and I'm sure most veterans will agree with me), I can assure you that most troops will have no need for anything to enhance their interest in that area!