In This Issue
Biotechnology Revolution
September 1, 2004 Volume 34 Issue 3

Army Transformation: Paradigm-Shifting Capabilities through Biotechnology

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: John A. Parmentola

The Army is investing in biotechnology to realize the goals of Transformation.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has embarked on an extraordinary process of change called Transformation, that is, the creation of a highly responsive, networked, joint force capable of making swift decisions at all levels and maintaining overwhelming superiority in any battle space. In support of this process, the Army is developing the Future Combat System (FCS), a major element of its Future Force, which will be smaller, lighter, faster, more lethal, and smarter than its predecessor. Transformation will require that the Army make significant reductions in the size and weight of major warfighting systems, at the same time ensuring that U.S. troops have unmatched lethal force and survivability. It also means that the Army and other military services (as well as coalition forces) will be interdependent.

To meet the Army’s goals for “strategic responsiveness,” that is, the ability to deploy a brigade combat team in 96 hours, a division in 120 hours, five divisions in 30 days, and to fight immediately upon arrival, the Army must overcome a number of technical challenges. These include: reducing the weight of soldier equipment while improving soldier protection; making lightweight combat systems survivable; and ensuring that command-and-control centers are mobile and much more capable.

The Weight of Equipment
Today, soldiers must carry as much as 100 pounds of equipment, which has a dramatic effect on their agility and endurance. The Army’s goal is to reduce the effective fighting load to 40 pounds, while improving protection against threats from the enemy and the environment. As a first step, the Army is developing robotic “mules” that can follow soldiers into battle and carry a good part of the load.


Robotic “mules” will carry some of the
soldier’s load into battle.

Improved Soldier Protection
The Army is also pursuing novel ways to use nanomaterials to protect against ballistic projectiles and chemical and biological attacks and to enable a soldier’s ensemble to perform triage through active-control materials and diagnostic sensors. An immediate challenge is to protect against injuries to the extremities, the most prevalent injuries on the battlefield.

The Army Research Laboratory, in collaboration with the Army Center of Excellence in Materials at the University of Delaware, has developed a new Kevlar-based garment by applying shear thickening liquids to the material. These substances are composed of nanoparticles of silica suspended in a liquid, such as polyethylene glycol. When a high-speed projectile is injected into these liquids, the nanoparticles are compressed into a rigid mass that resists penetration. At slow speeds, the nanoparticles are able to move around the projectile, offering little or no resistance to a slow-moving projectile. The result is a garment with normal flexibility that is completely stab resistant. The garment is currently being assessed to determine its effectiveness with respect to other types of injuries to the extremities.

Recently, the Army’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered a novel, active-control material, dubbed “exomuscle,” that might be used as a prosthesis to help soldiers handle and lift heavy objects.

Exomuscle might also be embedded in the soldier ensemble, along with physiological monitoring and diagnostic sensors. The soldier’s uniform could then act as a tourniquet to limit blood loss or perform CPR, as needed on the battlefield.

Stronger, Lighter Weight Armor
Currently, the most advanced combat system is the Abrams tank, which weighs more than 70 tons and can only be deployed either by C-5 aircraft (two per aircraft) using special runways, C-17 aircraft (one per aircraft), or ship and rail. The Abrams tank has a remarkable record of limiting casualties (only three in combat since its deployment nearly 20 years ago). To meet the new deployment goals, however, the Army must use C-130-like intratheater cargo aircraft to transport troops and equipment.

Traditional approaches to survivability have relied heavily on armor, which has driven up the weight of ground combat systems. Because of the weight limits of FCS, the Army must develop a new survivability paradigm that relies on speed, agility, situational understanding, active protection systems, lighter weight armor, signature management, robotic systems, indirect precision fire, terrain masking, and various forms of deception rather than heavy armor.

Realizing this new paradigm will require sophisticated research tools. For example, suppose for each of the 10 parameters listed above there are 10 points to explore. This means there are 10 billion points representing varying degrees of survivability. So where in this 10-dimensional volume are the acceptable levels of survivability for light combat systems in desert terrain, rugged terrain, urban terrain, and jungle terrain, taking into account the environmental conditions associated with them? Analyzing this complex 10-dimensional volume experimentally is both unaffordable and impractical. Therefore, we must rely on modeling and simulation. Fortunately, with focused research, emerging technological developments, and advances in high-performance computing (HPC), the Army will be able to conduct trade-off analyses to help resolve this critical issue.

Armor will undoubtedly remain an important aspect of survivability, and many innovative approaches are under development, including advanced lighter weight composite armors and ceramic armor that can sustain greater loading for longer periods of time, thus increasing its ability to dissipate energy. These novel materials have enabled engineers to trade levels of protection for reductions in armor weight.

Mobile, More Capable Command-and-Control Centers
Another challenge is making command-and-control centers mobile and capable of maintaining the momentum of the fighting force. Currently, these centers are massive and relatively immobile—they move at less than 10 miles per hour—not quite as slow as the air traffic control center at a major airport. One of DOD’s top five goals is network-centric warfare, the central element in fully realizing Transformation in this century. The network must include individual soldiers on point, operations centers in the theater of operation, and the home station, which can be anywhere in the world. Communications and the network are the key foundational elements of FCS and the Future Force.

Trends in Science and Technology
Because the Army’s strategy for transformation is strongly dependent on the continuous infusion of new technologies, trends in technology are continually monitored and assessed to determine their applicability to meeting the Army’s needs. Certain trends are expected to persist well into this century. These trends include: time compression; miniaturization; and the understanding and control of increasingly complex systems.

Time Compression
Time compression involves the conveyance of information at the speed of light, and, more importantly, the ubiquitous availability of HPC that can process information very rapidly. Knowledge management, data processing, data interpretation, information routing, and link restoration for assured communications will be essential to situational awareness. Real-time, multisensor, data-fusion processing will be possible with embedded HPC capabilities. This technology will also be important for autonomous unmanned systems and reliable autonomous seekers for smart munitions.
Advances in silicon-based HPC are likely to be overtaken by rapid developments in molecular electronics, and possibly DNA and quantum computing, with speeds that will make current supercomputers seem like ordinary pocket calculators. According to futurist and inventor Dr. Ray Kurzweil, we can expect a steady, exponential progress in computing power. At that rate of advance, we could have embedded HPC with remarkable speeds within the next decade. If Dr. Kurzweil is correct, computing ability will exceed the ability of all human brains on the planet by 2050.

Space continues to be “compactified,” as more and more functions are performed by devices that take up smaller and smaller spaces. Golf-ball-size systems on the horizon include advances in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). These systems will improve sensor systems and lead to low-cost inertial-navigation systems, diagnostics, prognostics, microcontrol systems, and so forth.

Miniaturization will also improve logistics. Maintenance of warfighting systems on the battlefield will be managed in real time through predictive capabilities involving sophisticated prognostic and diagnostic systems, all connected and communicating on the FCS mobile wireless ad hoc network. Further advances in miniaturization will result in inexpensive, self-contained, disposable sensors, such as smart dust. These small, inexpensive sensors will be dispersed by soldiers on the battlefield in handfuls over an area where they will self-organize and self-configure to suit the particular situation.

Miniaturization will also have a major impact on flexible display technology, conformal displays that can be placed on a soldier’s face plate or wrapped around a soldier’s arm. The Army’s Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University leads the field in research in this area. Within this decade, we expect to realize a wireless device contained in a six-inch long, one-inch diameter tube. Anticipated advances in miniaturization, computer memory, computational speed, and speech recognition should lead to a compact device capable of video recording, speech recognition, embedded mission-rehearsal exercises, stored illustrative manuals, wireless communications, and real-time situational awareness through a flexible display, all in a compact form that will easily fit into a soldier’s pocket.

We will also be working on the development of very small complex machines, such as nanobots that can perform microsurgery, prostheses that can enhance soldier capabilities, and machines that can go into places that are dangerous to humans. The development of micro unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) the size of a human hand, or even smaller, is within our grasp. Micro UAVs will enable soldiers to gather information about threats and provide both lethal and nonlethal capabilities, while keeping soldiers out of harm’s way.

Our inspiration for this system is the common bumblebee. This small creature, with a body weight that is essentially all nectar, has a horizontal thrust of five times its weight and is capable of flying at a speed of 50 km per hour with a range of 16 km. Recently, researchers have discovered that the bumblebee navigates by balancing information flow from its left and right optical systems. Our current challenge is to understand the control system that enables this small creature to land precisely and exquisitely with zero velocity under turbulent conditions. Achieving this capability in a micro UAV will require extensive research on small-scale instabilities at low Reynolds numbers, the development of lightweight, durable materials, and sophisticated control systems that can work in turbulent environments. We will also have to develop highly efficient active-control materials and low-noise propulsion systems with compact power and energy sources that can operate reliably and for extended periods of time.

Through biotechnology, we have a real opportunity to take advantage of four billion years of evolution. Biotechnology could lead to the engineering and manufacturing of new materials for sensors and other electronic devices for ultra-rapid, ultra-smart information processing for targeting and threat avoidance.

Dr. Angela Belcher of MIT has tapped into the biological self-assembly capabilities of phages (viruses that infect bacteria) that could potentially enable precise, functioning electrical circuits with nanometer-scale dimensions. By allowing genetically engineered phages to self-replicate in bacteria cultures over several generations, Dr. Belcher has identified and isolated the phages that can bind with particular semiconductor crystals with high affinity and high specificity. These phages can then self-assemble on a substrate into a network forming exquisitely precise arrays. The ultimate goal of this research is to replace the arduous fabrication of electronic, magnetic, and optical materials with genetically engineered microbes that can self-assemble exquisitely precise nanoscale materials based on codes implanted in their DNA.

By exploiting living organisms as sensors, we are making advances in detection and identification. After all, why invent a sensor when evolution has already done it for you? The U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command has developed a technique for using common freshwater blue gills to monitor water quality in several towns around the country. The system successfully detected in real-time a diesel fuel spill from a leaking fuel line at a New York City reservoir. Fortunately, the reservoir intake was off line at the time of the incident, and no contaminated water reached consumers. A Belgian research organization, APOPO, has developed a way to detect land mines using giant African pouched rats. In Tanzania, these rats have been trained to detect land mines with extraordinarily high detection rates. Research is ongoing on the detection of explosives by parasitic wasps, the early diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis by rats, and the detection of certain types of cancers in humans by dogs.

Control of Increasingly Complex Systems
Our understanding and control of increasingly complex human-engineered and biologically evolved systems continues to improve. Besides creating new materials from the atom up and managing these new configurations through breakthroughs in nanotechnology and biotechnology as described above, we are improving our control of the communications network to support the Future Force. The FCS network will be a network of humans collaborating through a sys-tem of C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) technologies.
Humans process sensory information and respond through an ad hoc communication network, which affects network performance and, in turn, feeds back into human behavior. For the network to meet the Army’s goals, we need a better understanding of the best way for humans to behave and collaborate on such a network. Although multi-hop mesh networks hold out the promise of self-organizing, self-configuring, self-healing, and higher bandwidth performance, we still need considerable research to understand network performance in a wide range of conditions to optimize protocols for military operations. We especially need to identify network instabilities to ensure that the network remains invulnerable to attack.

Network Science
The network is the centerpiece of network-centric warfare and the Army’s transformation to the Future Force. There are networks in all aspects of our daily lives and throughout the environment, such as the Internet (we are still trying to understand how it works), power grids (we could have used a common operating picture in the Northeast last year to avoid a blackout); and transportation (cars, trains, and airplanes). There are also social networks composed of people and organizations. Studies of social networks focus on understanding how interactions among individuals give rise to organizational behaviors. Social insects, such as bees, ants, wasps, and other swarming insects, also operate as networks.

There are networks in ecosystems as well as in cellular (the human brain) and molecular (e.g., metabolic) systems. We are learning how information is processed throughout the prefrontal cortex of the brain and where various types of events occur in this region of the brain. There are about 100 billion neurons in the brain, approximately half of them in the cerebellum. Modeling and simulation at the University of Pennsylvania has resulted in a depiction of the dynamic activity of approximately 10,000 neurons in the cerebellum (Finkel, 2004). Although this is only a small fraction of the total, we continue to advance our understanding of how neuronal networks function and affect human behavior. One goal is to understand how the brain and cognition work to learn about the software of the brain and its application to artificial intelligence.
This knowledge will significantly affect virtual reality, robotics, human-factors behavioral science, and smart munitions, all of which are likely to be important to the Army’s transformation to the Future Force. However, we currently lack a fundamental understanding of how networks operate in general.

The network of network-centric warfare will be a system of connections between humans organized and interacting through a system of technologies. This network will be a highly nonlinear sense-and-response system about which little is known and for which there are few research tools to enable us to predict performance. Although the main focus is on C4ISR technologies and associated concepts, they are only part of the picture. At a very basic level, the rules or principles governing the behavior of this complex system are not well understood. Consequently, we do not have a language appropriate for describing the dynamics or a systematic mathematical formalism to make predictions of network performance for comparison with experimental data. We will need a multidisciplinary approach to advance our knowledge.
This network is an example of an entire class of complex systems that exhibit network behavior. Therefore, rather than focusing research on the network of network-centric warfare, there may be an opportunity to advance knowledge and develop synergies along a broader front that will improve many complex systems and processes that exhibit network behavior. This new front could be called “network science,” and progress in network science could have significant impacts on many fields, including economics and sociology.

Research in network science could address a number of intriguing and important questions. Do seemingly diverse systems that exhibit network behavior have the same or similar underlying rules and principles? Is there a common language that can give us insight into the behaviors of these systems? Is there a general mathematical formalism for a systematic study of these systems? What should the Army focus on in the near term (0–10 years), midterm (10–20 years), and long term (beyond 20 years) to advance Future Force capabilities?

The Army faces formidable technical challenges on its path to Transformation. We are already seeing the emergence of a paradigm-shift in capabilities that will save soldiers’ lives and lead to a smaller, lighter, faster, and smarter force. The Army’s partnerships with academia, industry, and U.S. allies are essential to advancing science and engineering to realize the vision of the Future Force. Our investments in science and technology will enable us to overcome the many technical challenges associated with Transformation, but more importantly, to ensure that when our soldiers are called upon to defend freedom and liberty anywhere in the world, they come home safe and victorious.

The author is deeply indebted to Irena D. Szkrybalo for her creative comments and careful editing of the original transcript associated with my NAE Symposium briefing. She also made several important suggestions, which significantly improved this paper.

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About the Author:John A. Parmentola is Director for Research and Laboratory Management, U.S. Army.