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Op-Ed: Technology and the art of modern warfare (Includes interview)

With that in mind, let’s have a look at these fascinating, but frightening technological advances. Duly note that some of these advances are, in fact, new, but some of them have actually been around longer than many of us realize.

Bring on the bugs

Humans have been waging war both on and with insects for some time.

“Even during the Cold War, efforts were made by the U.S. to breed more aggressive mosquitoes for use in spreading yellow fever,” Jeffrey A. Lockwood, a Professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wyoming told Digital Journal.

Indeed, warfare involving insects in one way or another has been with us for centuries, notes the University of Montana.

The use of insects as vectors of death really came into its own during World War II.

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Germany, the Allied Countries, and Japan all experimented with bubonic plague in one way or another, and Nazi doctors willingly used human subjects for experimentation on insect-borne diseases. Concentration camp victims at Natzweiler, Dachau, and Buchenwald were intentionally infested with lice infected by typhus. After the war, many of these doctors and scientists were sentenced to death by the Nuremberg Tribunal, the University of Montana reports.

However, Japan took this to a really frightening level, and Japanese scientists went to work. POW camps were formed, and soon there was an insectary with thousands of people finding new and horrible ways to infect prisoners with the plague.

People were tied to posts, then bitten by fleas infested with plague. Scientists studied the progression of the disease until they died. Those who survived were then killed and their bodies dissected.

It’s thought that 3600 people were killed in this way by the Japanese scientists. Cholera, typhoid, paratyphoid, dysentery, and anthrax were also experimented with.

The huge and deadly breeding program finally ended when Russia invaded Manchuria in 1945. Tragically, the remaining human guinea pigs were killed by the fleeing Japanese guards and most of the complex was set on fire to destroy incriminating evidence. Nearby areas were hit with an epidemic of plague and it’s suspected that escaped rats were the likely cause.

Fast forward to the future

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Now the military has gone several steps further. turning insects into robots. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has turned insects into valuable surveillance tools. How? Through the HI-MEMS, or Hybrid Insect Micro-Electrical-Mechanical System concept. Electrical circuits are implanted in bugs while they are in the pupa stage. Once they become adults, signals sent through radio waves trigger the circuits, meaning that the insect is now remote-controlled. Surveillance equipment is attached, meaning these bugs are now invaluable and undetectable tools for battlefield exploration. DARPA has declined to comment on this and only recently has stopped working on the program.

Nevertheless, there are still several insect cyborg systems in existence, so the technology is out there, Lockwood says, and he’s written about it in his book Six-Legged Soldiers.

It seems as if the level of remote control and precision DARPA was seeking hasn’t “been achieved so far, but then would we really know if it had (not to be paranoid, but such technology is probably not going to be widely proclaimed)?” he said.

“At the very least, significant steps have been taken in terms of using insect bodies as controllable ‘platforms’ for micro-technologies. The other tactic that’s been pursued is to abandon the insect altogether and engineer an entomopter or a tiny insect-sized flying robot.”

That’s tricky, however. For one thing, it’s been difficult to find an on-board energy source to power the tiny machine, Lockwood notes. For another, navigation has also proven to be a serious obstacle. Some progress has been made, which he noted in the book and added that more advances have been made since the book’s publication.

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“What amazes me is the capacity of a gnat to move its body, evaluate its environment, locate a resource, and do all of this in a package size that an engineer can’t begin to approximate with a machine. So perhaps the cyborg approach has the greatest promise insofar as it might allow technologists to exploit those elements of evolution that human cleverness can’t (yet) match while incorporating the modifications that are needed to have an effective weapon or intelligence gathering device.”

The idea of cyborg insects buzzing around the battlefield is fascinating and it certainly may help us get one up on our opponent, but there are ethical issues surrounding this in terms of human and animal rights.

So Digital Journal asked Lockwood about the ethical aspects of using insects as weapons.

“Whether animals (particularly insects) have rights is a matter of intense philosophical debate,” Lockwood says. “Does exploiting these creatures for the purposes of war violate a moral constraint? First, it seems that we have to meet the standards of just war theory which is a philosophical and practical challenge. And then, deploying a weapon system of creatures to inflict harm on other humans surely constitutes a form of biological warfare (although international law is surprisingly vague on insects–microbes are quite another matter).”

But, he asks, is biological warfare necessarily wrong? He mentions the scenario of a debilitating but not deadly disease being transmitted by mosquitoes to enemy combatants such that it weakens the opposing forces and the goal of the attack can be achieved with considerably less loss of human life than would be the case with conventional weapons.

“Of course, this supposes that one has adopted a consequentialist (probably utilitarian) ethics in which all that matters is the outcome,” Lockwood says. “Such an ethical system might well conflict with the decisions made using a deontological approach in which duties/rights provide the moral constraints (rather than outcomes).”

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He added:

“So to return to your question, we might violate the rights of humans or other creatures (most often thought to be sentient which then raises the questions of whether insects can suffer–I think so, but many would disagree) by using the entomological weapons even if these arms reduced human deaths relative to other tactics.”

But there are also a slew of other unique–and more terrifying forms of warfare technology that have been developed recently and over the last few years.

Let’s take a look.

The DREAD gun

Also known as the Multiple Projectile Delivery System (MPDS), or centrifuge gun, according to this gun is capable of firing 120,000 rounds (either .308 caliber or .50 caliber) per minute.

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Let that sink in.

Electrically powered, this strange-looking disc-shaped gun is silent and can easily lay down a 360-degree field of fire. It can be mounted on humvees, helicopters, airplanes, or satellites.

Mock-up of a centrifugal gun.
Mock-up of a centrifugal gun.
YouTube screen grab 3dload

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So how does the gun work?

It works like a centrifuge, but instead of using self-contained cartridges containing gunpowder, the DREAD’s ammo is .308 and .50 caliber round metal balls (steel, tungsten, tungsten carbide, ceramic-coated tungsten and the like. These are spun out of the gun at speeds of up to 8000 fps (feet per second) at very high rpm’s (rounds per minute), and they strike targets with devastating firepower, reports.

Conventional weapons fire bullets that hit the target in intervals of about 180 feet, but the DREAD gun’s rounds hit the target at only 30 thousandths of an inch apart (1/32nd of an inch apart) presenting a substantial mass to the target in considerably less time than possible in the past, according to the gun’s manufacturer, Trinamic Technologies. The gun can fire in 10-round bursts, or can be programmed to fire as many rounds as the gunman wants, per trigger-pull. Or, it can be set to fire on full-auto, with unlimited bursts. Trinamic, which did not respond to Digital Journal’s request for comment, claims that the gun is not only accurate but its also recoilless.

Purportedly, the gun doesn’t jam, either, because its feeding mechanisms don’t allow for stoppages or jams to occur. followed this up with an “oh-gee-whiz isn’t this just marvelous? attitude by noting: “It thus follows that the DREAD Centrifuge Weapon will be the most reliable metallic projectile launcher/ballistic device on the planet.”

Which brings to mind the popular Internet meme:

“What could possibly go wrong?”

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Writer Martin J. Dougherty is a Defense Analyst, military historian, computer game designer, instructor, and lecturer in the defense industry. He has also written a number of books and magazine articles on historical and current conflicts and has worked as a consultant for TV documentaries.

Which means he’s a good person to ask about the DREAD gun.

He has some doubts about the claims that the gun is recoilless.

“They say it has no recoil, which may be true in the conventional sense, but if this thing works by flinging metal projectiles off a spinning disk then there is a significant collection of forces involved,” he wrote in an email. “Vibration might be an issue, and normally a spinning disk will create gyroscopic effects. The developer says this one does not, but no details are available on how this might be.”

He’s also skeptical about the gun’s purported inability to jam.

“Much is made of the total inability of this weapon to jam, but all that spinning mass will be capable of some kind of malfunction.”

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So how do you find out what can happen?

Give it to any random group of soldiers for a couple of days, Dougherty says.

“They’ll find something that can go wrong (and they’ll all swear blind they have no idea how it happened).”

The power source is another issue — how much power does it need, and how long does it take to spin up the accelerating mechanism, he says.

Dougherty was also critical of the term “centrifugal.”

“Centrifugal force does not exist, it’s a sort of shorthand for the effects on a spinning object,” he said. “What is actually happening here is that a projectile is fed onto a disk which is spinning so that the projectile gains momentum.”

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When the projectile is released from the disk down the guide rail, it keeps going in the direction it was last headed.

“It’s not flung off–it ceases to be held on. That doesn’t affect the workability of the concept, it’s just a bit of science pedantry.”

The gun has been suggested for use on satellites and for anti-personnel work.

“Embassy protection is one example I’ve heard, but that’s questionable. Apparently you can reduce the rate of fire and limit burst size, so it may be possible to achieve a useful effect without spraying the entire neighborhood.”

Perhaps the DREAD gun is most effective as a weapon of propaganda.

He noted that much is made of the gun’s enormous rate of fire, and how devastating this would be if a mob is trying to storm your embassy. This will annihilate any mob trying to break in, but it may well be a problem.

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“Indiscriminately mowing down a large number of people, with projectiles over penetrating into nearby buildings…if someone can get you to turn a weapon like this on a crowd then they’ve got enough propaganda to last them a lifetime,” he says.

“The only riot-control application I can see is a zombie apocalypse.”

The possible advantages of using the DREAD gun

“The ability to kill everyone in front of it,” Dougherty said. “Not anyone, everyone. In a graphic manner that would never be forgotten by anyone seeing the footage.”

That may or may not be an advantage, he said, but the lack of muzzle flash is useful and it apparently has no heat signature that can be detected by thermal equipment. It must have “some” heat, but presumably much less than a conventional weapon, he added. Add to that, the gun is allegedly quieter, though supersonic projectiles make at least some noise.

“So, lower signature attracting less return fire…that’s good. Ability to chew through cover and deliver massive damage to enemy personnel…also useful. Utterly devastating firepower that can sweep an area clear of every living thing…that might or might not be useful depending on circumstances.”

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“Sounds strange maybe, but modern warfare is more complex than just efficiently delivering firepower,” he said.

“The fact sheet also states this weapon can be switched from high muzzle velocity for a lethal effect to lower, for less-lethal applications. Being able to do both with the same weapon would be useful. And with such a high rate of fire, there’s a good chance it could be used to intercept missiles.”

Another possible advantage?

“The quoted top muzzle velocities are also extremely high if they are correct. I’ve seen 8000fps quoted (compared with say 1250 for a 9x19mm handgun round or 3000 for a .50 machinegun),” Dougherty said. “Higher muzzle velocity translates to more impact at the target and also a greater chance of a hit since the target moves less in the time between firing and projectile arriving.”

There’s also possible drawbacks to using the gun

Maintenance could be problematic because it will require new skills which may not be available to a unit in the field.

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“Plus, it fires a .50 or .308 spherical projectile,” he adds. “That will do a lot of damage at close range, especially at a high rate of fire. But spherical projectiles lose velocity quickly and tend to be inaccurate compared to a conventional bullet. That will limit effective range and reduce accuracy.”

Also worth noting: The weapon was first presented around 2005.

“Ten years later, we don’t seem to have seen much more.”

Since Trinamic didn’t respond to my questions, it’s difficult to say if the DREAD gun is out there on some battlefield, or if it’s still in the development stages, but it’s a weapon with sobering potential.

The Boeing Laser Avenger

Currently in development, the Boeing Laser Avenger deploys a one-kilowatt solid-state beam that transmits scorching heat to a target — meaning it can knock enemy drones right out of the sky or detonate explosives from a long distance, reports.

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A similar system that is truck-mounted is being developed that can knock unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) right out of the sky, but it uses a much more powerful laser for combating a wide variety of threats. This includes rockets, artillery, mortars, and of course, UAVs, Gizmag reports.

Few drones are safe around Boeing s Laser Avenger.
Few drones are safe around Boeing’s Laser Avenger.
YouTube screen grab Jaglavak Military

Whereas the Laser Avenger utilizes the aforementioned one-kilowatt, solid-state laser that’s mounted on an Avenger ground combat vehicle, this new truck-mounted system will use a 10-kilowatt, solid-state laser in conjunction with the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) system. There’s even the possibility of adding an even more powerful laser in the future, Boeing said.

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As a joint project between Boeing and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), the HEL MD program is geared to enter Phase II high-power testing in cooperation as part of a follow-on contract that will support a three-year period of development and testing. Over the next year, the high-powered laser will be field-tested to demonstrate the system’s ability to “acquire, track, damage and defeat threat-representative targets,” Gizmag reports.

There are some obvious benefits to using directed energy weapons such as this, especially for air defense, Dougherty notes.

“The time to target is infinitesimal and there is no bullet drop due to gravity, so accuracy and precision are both enhanced.”

But there can be a downside as well because atmospheric effects like dust, smoke, and rain can come into play. Smokescreens that serve as a decoy or concealment system can make anti-missile lasers ineffective.

“Being able to reliably spot enemy UAVs, thus denying hostiles reconnaissance capability, seems useful,” Dougherty said. “However they have to be detected and the capability may not justify the expense of a laser system.”

Since lasers are already on the battlefield as rangefinders and designators, it probably won’t be too long before a laser defense system becomes commonplace, he added.

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“But it’s not a game-changer, just a useful piece of kit.”

The EXACTO Guided Bullet

The Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program, developed by DARPA, is a self-steering bullet that is supposed to increase hit rates for difficult, long-distance shots. DARPA claims that the system is accurate enough that while an experienced shooter using this technology repeatedly struck moving and evading targets, a novice shooter using the system for the first time was also able to hit a moving target. In February 2014, EXACTO completed its most successful round of live-fire tests which demonstrated the system’s ability to do this.

And, as Io9 reports, government engineers have designed this bullet in such a way that it can aim itself and correct its own path mid-flight in order to strike targets further than a mile away.

So how do EXACTO guided bullets work?

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DARPA s computer-enhanced self-guided bullet.
DARPA’s computer-enhanced self-guided bullet.
YouTube screen grab GeoBeats News

Designed by engineers Red Jones and Brian Kast of Sandia National Laboratories, this bullet has broken with tradition.

Most small-caliber projectiles have grooves. Known as “rifling,” these grooves cause it to spin and fly true as it travels through the air. These same physical principles that govern the flight of a spiral pass in a football game.

The guided bullet completely dispenses with rifling and instead relies on tiny fins, similar to the fletchings of an arrow. Every round of ammunition is encased in a specially designed casing that protects these fins until after the bullet has exited the barrel of the gun, Io9 reports.

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How are the corrections made possible?

A laser-tracking optical sensor located inside the bullet’s nose, along with an eight-bit CPU that’s also housed inside the bullet makes it possible for the projectile to correct itself. The optical sensor can communicate guidance information to electromagnetic actuators that control the fins.

And these fins that are incorporated into the projectiles design make it possible for the projectile to behave more like the darts we toss at the local bar, instead of a football. In effect, it’s like a tiny, four-inch missile, but it’s a missile that can be fired from handheld weapons that are .50 caliber or less; and unlike darts, one of these bullets can use its fin to correct its flight path as much as 30 times per second.

All these components act together to first detect and then actively seek quarry that has been targeted via a laser that’s over a mile away. If there’s a huge gust of wind, or the target moves, all the projectile has to do is find and follow the laser, which stays fixed on the target while the bullet is flying, Io9 reports.

Interestingly, preliminary tests now show that increasing the distance of a target improves the bullet’s accuracy because it has more time to adjust its flight path. In aerodynamic simulations, it’s been shown that under real-world conditions, the average unguided bullet may miss a target that’s more than a half-mile away by as much as 30 feet. But the patent application filed by Sandia shows that the self-guided bullet would whittle that number down to a mere eight inches.

Dougherty also seems to concur, at least, in part.

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“This will increase accuracy and precision, especially at long ranges where atmospheric effects can be a factor,” he said. “However, the velocity of a bullet is sufficiently high that corrections at shorter ranges will be quite small. It’s a useful capability if it works reliably, but fairly specialist in its applications. We won’t see many bullets chasing people around corners…”


Obviously, there’s plus-sides to having all this newfangled technology. It can act as a force-multiplier, and it allows us to deal with other technologically advanced threats in many cases, Dougherty notes.

He cautions there’re plenty of downsides as well. Relying too heavily on technology “can blind us to low-tech threats, notably asymmetric warfare and most forms of terrorism.”

“We need to come up with counters to the situation where an enemy decides that he cannot defeat our tech and instead sidesteps it–and the answer is not always better tech! If you believe the claims made about new weapon systems, you can end up blinded to the things they cannot do.”

Another unfortunate side-effect is that much of the public has come to expect ‘clean,’ wars with surgically-precise strikes with no collateral damage.

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“This simply is not always possible, and trying for it can cost the lives of our people,” Dougherty said. “When, inevitably, the real nature of warfare presents itself to the public, often there is an outcry. We are in danger of creating an expectation that all problems can be solved cleanly and efficiently by science and technology, and thus a society that cannot countenance what may need to be done.”

Dougherty gets weary of the Internet hyperbole. Many of the items mentioned in the article weren’t particularly new to him or others who follow the defense industry, and it was “filtered through the usual ‘most awesome thing that will change the way you see the world. #3 will make your brain melt’ style that is prevalent today.

“This isn’t the ‘future of warfare,’ for example. Some of this tech will see use, yes. Some is already available,” he added. “But fundamentally warfare will continue to be the horrific, bloody business it always has been. Even after advanced tech becomes prevalent there will still be underpaid, cold, wet, miserable people getting hurt on behalf of others.”

As the tech gap widens, nations and stateless groups that can’t compete will use increasingly inventive ways to circumvent technological advances by using asymmetric means.

“Some of this kit will be useful, no doubt, but it’s just additional tools rather than some sort of paradigm shift,” he said.

War, in some form or another, has always been part of human history, and I finally began to wonder if we inherited any of this from our chimpanzee cousins, with whom we share 96 percent of our genes. Chimps, like us, are also war-like. On a much smaller scale, anyway.

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So I asked Dougherty about this.

“I don’t think it’s that simple. Cooperation and competition are a big part of how both species survived, so evolution selects for this behavior,” he said. “There’s probably a ton of genes and other factors feeding into this trait, ultimately leading to a situation where ganging up on some other group is how you get ahead.”

While I realize that we sometimes have to fight back if we are being attacked, I also asked Dougherty if there are better alternatives than killing a bunch of people.

“That’s a very broad question. Arguably, the capability to cause destruction is an important asset–not least because it gives you choices,” he said. “If you are unarmed, you have no choice about whether or not someone kills a whole bunch of your people (and someone will, for reasons that make sense to them; being inoffensive is not an effective defense). If you are well armed, you have a choice about whether or not to kill a bunch of ‘their’ people. That might be enough to deter potential threats.”

He continued:

“In an imperfect world, the capability to do very bad things is necessary if you want the choice whether or not to do good. Cooperation and goodwill are better and more productive than conflict of course, but until we reach the point where there are no subdivisions or factions, the best option is always going to be the offer of friendship from a position of strength. Conflict is best avoided…and history has shown us that the best way to avoid conflict is to be armed and willing not to use your weapons.”

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Makes sense to me.

War technology has advanced in ways that are both incredible and terrifying. Sometimes it makes me wonder: Just because scientists and technologists can invent it, is it really a good thing?

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