General Science

5 Cutting-Edge Military Technologies

posted: 08/14/17
by: Jason Ginsburg

Last year, the US military spent about $76 billion on research and development. Some of the new technologies being experimented with are straight out of science fiction. Here are five of the most most intriguing, innovative -- and downright cool.

10-Megajoule Railgun
A railgun uses electromagnetic forces, instead of propellant or explosives, to launch projectiles. They thus require no gunpowder; only a power source. The latest generation in development by General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems can fire a missile with the force of 10 megajoules, equal to the energy it takes to accelerate 11 tons to 100 miles per hour. Projectiles fired from railguns are cheaper, faster, and harder to defend against than conventional artillery. And with no gunpowder to store, they're safer to transport and operate.

Hand-held railguns are strictly science fiction at the moment, but stationary versions are on the way. The vice president for Missile Defense and Space Systems at GA-EMS said in a press release that his company's railgun prototype "represents a leap forward in advancing railgun technologies, offering reduced size and weight for the launcher, twice the energy density in a significantly reduced pulsed power footprint, and more capable hypersonic projectiles." The company's 10-megajoule railgun is ready for testing at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

Next-Generation Aircraft Carrier
The US Navy's latest aircraft was commissioned on in July 2017. The USS Gerald R. Ford is a nuclear-powered carrier that can carry at least 75 aircraft and travel at 30 knots (about 35 mph). It also includes some of the Navy's newest technology. Instead of using steam catapults to launch planes, which has been the method since the 1950s, the Gerald Ford uses an electromagnetic system (the same technology in railguns). This eliminates the equipment required to generate steam, freeing up considerable room belowdecks. This allows for more daily launches, with less personnel, which is safer and more efficient.

In this age of drones, the Ford will also carry unmanned aircraft. But that's not all. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the navy's chief of naval operations, called the ship "a technological marvel," and added it "will deploy lasers." While no laser cannons are mounted on the ship just yet, its four 26-megawatt generators provide enough power for laser weaponry and -- yes -- railguns. And speaking of lasers...

Laser Helicopters
Raytheon recently announced the successful test of a laser mounted on a US Army AH-64 Apache helicopter. Not just a laser targeting system, but also an actual laser weapon. Like a railgun, this type of gun doesn't require rounds. For an aircraft, having to carry less ammunition can only be a good thing. Right now, though, the generators required for lasers are still pretty bulky, which is why they're often stationary or mounted on large ships (like the Ford above).

Colonel John Vannoy of the US War College's Special Operations Command said "there is absolutely a niche...for directed energy weapons." His office is convinced that using lasers to destroy vehicles or generators is preferable, because a missile could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. By contrast, lasers are expensive to build but relatively cheap to fire -- some estimates put the cost at just $1 a shot.

The test conducted by Raytheon was against an immobile unmanned target; the next step is to fire at a moving target.

Robot Medics
Right now, when soldiers are wounded on the battlefield, it falls to medics to carry them away from the front and to safety. Running through a battle in progress with no weapon is heroic work, but extremely dangerous. Soon, robots may be able to save the lives of soldiers and spare those of medics.

Major General Steve Jones, commander of the Army Medical Department Center, looks to robot vehicles the police use in bomb disposal and which the military use to disable enemy explosive devices. "[T]hose same vehicles can go forward and retrieve casualties," he said recently at an Army conference. He also said robots could deliver medical supplies and support troops behind enemy lines. As a man of medicine, he didn't say anything about robot soldiers, but that technology may not be far away.

Super-Strong Infantry Helmets
For decades, army helmets protected soldiers from shrapnel and ricochets, but not direct hits. Kevlar helmets in 1980s solved that problem, but that still left the face and jaw exposed -- a huge risk when vehicles drive over improvised explosive devices.

Enter the Integrated Helmet Protection System. The US Army's newest helmet protects the entire head, with a "mandible" section for the jaw, a visor (with night vision attachment) for the eyes, and hearing protection for the ears. It offers better blunt-impact protection than current helmets, and still manages to weigh less. Some versions have sensors that can measure head trauma suffered by the wearer, which can mean a lot for veterans' health. And hey -- it looks pretty cool.

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