Decrypting nine new military programs that will change the face of battle.
In war, as in life, technology is king. As the U.S. military looks to maximize efficiency and minimize civilian casualties, researchers at the Defense Department are developing a range of cutting-edge projects. It’s serious work—but that doesn’t stop them from having a little fun with the naming conventions.
Click on the yellow icons below for more details on each project.
The U.S. military needs low-cost, operationally flexible killer drones. The answer? Gremlins—unmanned drones just a few yards in length that essentially act in swarms. In combat scenarios, existing aircraft such as C-130 transport planes would deploy an army of gremlins to fight on their behalf and then position themselves at a safe distance. Once the shooting stopped, the transport planes would retrieve the minidrones; each gremlin has an expected lifetime of 20 uses. The gremlins project was launched in 2015, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (better known as DARPA) is currently testing prototypes.
The Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project may sound like science fiction, but it relies on an old-fashioned concept: microwave technology. CHAMP uses electromagnetic pulses to knock out an enemy’s electricity grid and computer systems without any cost to human life. The project was slated to launch in 2016, but it has yet to be used on the battlefield. CHAMP could theoretically disable North Korea’s missile command and control centers without using conventional explosives—though that action could still trigger a more conventional retaliation.
For years, human analysts have reviewed millions of hours of drone footage to spot potential threats. Project Maven, launched in April 2017, deploys sophisticated algorithms and high-speed computers to do the same thing much more efficiently. But the project has proved controversial: In April, more than 3,000 Google employees protested their company’s involvement in Project Maven, citing concerns that it could be used in selecting targets for drone strikes. The tech giant will not renew its contract with the Defense Department when it expires in March 2019.
The Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response, first introduced in 2000, is one of the most precise missiles used by the U.S. Navy. That’s because it is equipped with what’s called man-in-the-loop technology, which allows a weapons technician to review data in real time to help guide the missile toward its final target. SLAM-ER is also the first weapon to feature automatic target acquisition, which helps it improve the identification and location of quarries in cluttered environments.
When Mach speed proves too slow, you need the Pentagon’s Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept: a project initiated in 2015 that travels more than five times the speed of sound. A centerpiece of the HAWC program is what the military calls boost-cruise technology, which uses rockets to accelerate before switching over to scramjets—air-breathing engines designed to operate at extremely high speeds. Sucking in air gives them a big advantage over traditional rockets, which carry their own oxidizers (the chemicals required for fuel to burn), limiting their speed and range.
In Greek mythology, Talos was a giant bronze automaton who protected the island of Crete. The U.S. military’s version—the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit—takes its inspiration from that legend. Also known as the Iron Man suit, TALOS is body armor designed to protect special operations troops from both bullets and explosions. It also provides its wearer with enhanced strength, allowing him or her to carry greater weight and climb more flights of stairs than human legs can endure. The military first announced TALOS in 2013 and plans to roll it out in 2019.
A public-private partnership between the U.S. Air Force and Silicon Valley launched in May, Project Kessel Run’s experimentation lab teaches troops to code. One major success: an app that automates the planning process for jet refueling—previously a labor-intensive task that involved multiple people and a whiteboard. The U.S. Air Operations Center in Qatar recently began using the app. Project Kessel Run’s Star Wars-inspired moniker takes its name from a route traversed at great speed by the Millennium Falcon.
The Laser Weapon System emits highly focused energy to blast both surface-based and airborne threats. The system’s great asset is its speed: Its beam travels at the speed of light, which is up to 50,000 times faster than a ballistic missile. Better yet, LaWS can hone in on the engine of a ship and disable the vessel without sinking it. It’s also remarkably inexpensive to use: Each laser blast costs less than a dollar. LaWS was tested on the USS Ponce from 2014 to 2017 and is expected to be tested next on the USS Portland. By 2020, Lockheed Martin has promised to deliver two more LaWS units—one bound for the sea, the other for land.
This Star Wars-inspired acronym stands for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure. It is designed to serve as a cloud computing and storage hub for sharing data among intelligence agencies, allies, and contractors; when fully operational, JEDI will allow the U.S. military to make faster combat decisions even when barraged with information. The $10 billion contract is currently open for tenders. Amazon is reportedly a front-runner on the bid; the company is already working with the CIA, which shows that it is capable of the kind of secure computing necessary for JEDI.