Defense Technology

We face sophisticated competitors and new terrorist threats. Yet there are opportunities to maintain U.S. leadership and, especially, to better protect our war fighters in the field.

Excerpted from The Future Postponed, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015

John Joannopoulos: Director of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and Francis Wright Davis Professor of Physics

William A. Peters: Executive Director of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies

U.S. superiority in technology pertinent to national defense has been a given for the past 70 years, but that may not be true going forward. As a nation, we face sophisticated geopolitical competitors such as China that are investing heavily in defense research, agile terrorist enemies that rapidly adapt open source civilian technology to counter U.S. hi-tech systems, and the prospect of diminishing research investments. Yet there are important opportunities to maintain U.S. leadership. These include investments in human protection and survivability that could help each war fighter safely accomplish more, opportunities for more secure battlefield communications, and badly needed improvements in cybersecurity (see Cybersecurity), many of which also have commercially significant non-military applications.

Protecting our troops can take many forms, and it is the combination of these that offers really significant improvements:

  • One promising opportunity is the development of advanced nano-structured coatings that change how materials absorb and reflect light, changing visibility and effectively disguising the object in visual wavelengths and in infrared and radar wavelengths, making it hard to detect war fighters as well as manned and unmanned land, sea and air vehicles. If the enemy can’t see you, it’s hard to shoot at you. Another promising possibility is fibers as thin as a human hair that can be woven into clothing and which are electronic devices that can be tuned to respond only to certain (easily changeable) wavelengths, such that a soldier can instantly detect whether another person is a friend or a foe. These fibers can also measure body warmth and detect sound waves, and could thus tell a wounded warfighter or a remote rescue team just where he or she was injured, perhaps the type and severity of the wound, and even the direction from which the shot came.
  • Another group of opportunities are new materials for helmets and protective clothing and gear to better protect against blunt trauma injuries from blast waves, ballistic fragments, and vehicle accidents. These materials include new nano crystalline alloys as strong as steel but much lighter and which can be formed into plates and woven structures including so-called shape memory alloys that can absorb energy from a blast or projectile and then bounce back to their original shape. Another promising material is composed of thin sheets of carbon called graphenes that can dissipate large amounts of mechanical energy from a bullet or blast wave. Developing these materials into protective gear would be supported by powerful mathematical simulations of how mechanical forces interact with the human body and with diverse materials to help illuminate how human injuries occur and why protective gear fails. The idea is to protect warfighers while also ensuring their mobility, but the results will also be useful for bomb disposal squads, police officers, fire fighters and other civilian workers in hazardous environments.
  • A third group of opportunities include new ways to detect environmental hazards that a warfighter might encounter. A promising approach for detecting trace amounts of hazardous materials in air, water, soil, or food involves laser stimulation of a nanoparticle (a quantum dot) linked to a dye molecule, which each emit light of characteristic frequencies and intensities when a particular hazard is present. Means of protecting soldiers from human-made and natural toxins or infectious agents include new surface-treatment technologies that fight viruses and bacteria. Research on nano-structured coatings shows promise to improve adsorbents in gas masks and air filters, detoxify water and blood products, coat common surfaces and objects to make them microbiocidal, and prevent and treat infectious diseases. All of these might have significant public health benefits for civilian life as well.

New materials could make it hard for an enemy to detect our soldiers; others could instantly identify friend from foe or protect against trauma injuries from bullets or blast waves. But without near-term investments, none of these will occur in time to benefit the next generation of warfighters.

Military communications face multiple threats, including loss of GPS access, enemy eavesdrop- ping, false information from enemy spoofing, and network incapacitation by electronic weapons. New technologies are needed to:

  • Allow troops and vehicles on the move to securely and efficiently communicate in urban, rural, and remote locations that are GPS-denied or contaminated by strong electromagnetic interference (EMI). Promising approaches are emerging from research on applications of mathematical and statistical theories to communication, detection, and estimation problems that could markedly improve capabilities in network localization and navigation, the use of time-varying communication channels, as well as the development of multiple antenna, ultra-wide bandwidth, or even optical transmission systems.
  • Protect military and civilian electronics from electromagnetic interference (EMI) and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons that disrupt communications and can damage or disable military and civilian infrastructure for communications, transportation, water and electric power supply, and public safety. One promising approach is lightweight electrically conducting polymer coatings for EMI shielding of electrical and electronic cables in military vehicles and on individual military personnel. Another is to use all optical integrated circuits, which because they do not depend on electrical currents, are effectively immune to EMP weapons (see Photonics). Using laser beams for line- of-sight communications, combined with relays for redirection and increased range is also a possibility, with the advantage that these communications are immune to radio frequency jamming and enemy detection through triangulation.

Switching from electrical to optical circuits could protect critical communications and infrastructure from electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. 

There are also opportunities to extend the ope- rational life of defense systems and thus lower lifecycle costs by building in to such systems and platforms the ability for real-time monitoring to improve performance, to detect and correct potential failures before accidents, and to ensure adherence to required maintenance schedules. Another cost-lowering potential is to increase the ability of defense platforms— including drones and other unmanned plat- forms—to detect and avoid threats and, by using self-healing materials, to recover from damage. Both of these could lower the costs of defense modernization efforts.

But research takes time. Without near-term investments, none of these opportunities can be exploited in time to benefit the next generation of soldiers or of defense systems. And that would likely raise the cost—in human lives and in defense dollars—of dealing with a growing number of defense challenges.