In the liminal space between drafting this newsletter and readers opening it, the defense world will have had one of its periodical bursts of news, a veritable deluge of new or new-ish technology marketed primarily to the United States Army but also to the whole of the world. The 2019 Association of the United States Army annual meeting is upon us and with it signals a resetting of expectations in armor and munitions, sensors and systems, logistics and lethality.
While the world of military technology has its own calendar, it moves out of sync with current events. This is the nature of design and manufacturing; so much of the craft of the tools of tomorrow’s wars comes down to understanding the threat right now, taking a stab at a solution, and building it for the future, in the hope that an accurate read of “Now” translates into an advantage in “Now + 5 years.”
What may be most striking about AUSA this year is the way in which defense technology intruded into the news cycle. Loitering munitions and one-way drones found a glaring weakness in the low end of aerial defenses. Robotic vehicles find their way not just into the hands of American forces and NATO allies, but into the arsenals of nonstate actors. Proxies, once armed with a benefactor’s largesse, may have to improvise against a threat diplomacy once held dormant.
Meeting the needs of the world’s wars and the world’s warfighters are the companies on the show floor, promising useful if imperfect solutions to new and durable problems.
I’m Kelsey D. Atherton, reporting from Washington, D.C., and I am here to tell you that “silver bullets don’t exist, but…”
A brief dive into the etymology of Silver Bullets finds that, while silver weapons with mystical powers abound in myth and folklore, “silver bullet” itself is a phrase that gained salience in the 20th century, first as a war bond slogan, then as a term for stunning new medical cures, and finally in common parlance as a reference to The Lone Ranger. The beauty of the phrase is that it is an impossible comparison point, managing expectations at the same time that it sets up a new promise.
Consider these recent pitches that have stumbled into the inboxes of myself and my colleagues: “Ultimately, AI is not a silver bullet, it’s just the latest craze in doing the impossible – i.e. predicting the future,” wrote malware security firm Bromium in a pitch. Contrasted with the impossibility of perfect prediction, Bromium instead offered a layered defense approach to malware.
“Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet, and it truly takes people, process and technology as a whole to solve the problem,” wrote cybersecurity firm Infocyte, promoting a report about how companies can better manage layered defense in cybersecurity.
DroneShield, a drone detection and mitigation company, used the phrase to highlight how tools sold by drone manufacturers often have limitations, writing “As with the rest of counterdrone products, there is no one silver bullet.”
By the time this letter is opened, reporters across the military press will undoubtedly have transcribed the phrase “silver bullet” from companies involved in the whole range of activity marketed on the AUSA show floor. Silver bullets are a good rhetorical tool, and they save a company from both a promise it cannot deliver and from a claim that its tool is unquestionably better than that made by rivals in the same market.
These hollow points about silver bullets miss the more timely conversation: how a new technology can work with other technologies to create a solution greater than any single machine.
In an age of interoperability, the base assumption for military purchasers, and, in turn, the press that covers this world, is that tools will have to work together. There are few monopolies on tools within the monopoly on force.
If a cybersecurity firm, or a mesh sensor company, or a counter drone tool really wants to stand out in discussing how layered defenses and multiple solutions work in concert, they can leave the silver bullets behind, and pick up a single trick from the improv community: the ol’ “yes, and …” game in which participants collaborate to make a scene by starting from a premise of accepting what their colleagues have done, and then building from that.
Military leaders shouldn’t want comparisons to some impossible perfection. They should want a thorough “yes, and” to explain how a system complements existing capabilities. A silver composite, if you will.
° 1. SILVER BULLETS OF PURE LUCK
Drones, loitering munitions, and cruise missiles have played an outsized role in this newsletter recently, in part because they represent a novel form of combined arms attack. A range of control and propulsion schemes, combined with the obvious failure of an existing static anti-air defense system, created a novel moment where a policy problem appeared to have a purely technological solution: if Saudi Arabia could simply knock incoming threats out of the sky, it might never have to suffer the tragedy of a brief interruption in oil extraction again.
One of the not quite silver bullets proposed and promoted as a partial solution is this detection and interdiction system by Liteye. Special radars that can scan for drones, and even distinguish those drones from large birds, combined with an electronic warfare suite to offer a window in which an incoming drone could be detected, tracked, jammed out of the sky, and then recovered and analyzed. It is not a solution to the whole of the threat on its own, but it’s an interesting window into what a more-complete solution looks like, especially in areas where domestic or regulatory concerns about jamming are somewhat muted.
° 2. CHARGED UP
Drone science hardly waits for drone defense to keep up, and a new research project from the High Performance Robotics Laboratory (HiPeRLab) at the University of California Berkeley showcases a tool that might aid drones to come. Quadcopters are, by aerodynamics and electrical power, profoundly limited in flight time, but what if they could be recharged in air?
Using a large mothership (hovership?) as endurance flyer, researchers used a pair of small battery-toting recharge drones to alternately fly to the mothership, land on it, and recharge its battery, prolonging flight time. For now, the implications are mostly limited to more static uses of a drone, where recharging can be easily accomplished, but it’s not hard to imagine a future where electrical drones receiving recharges factors into the range and capability of a whole host of vehicles.
° 3. DEFEAT THE BEETLES
Tanks are a weapon that scream for an asymmetric response. Heavy armor, powerful weapons, a presence is synonymous with occupying force itself, it is no wonder that for as long as there have been tanks, humans have tried to figure out how to roll explosives under them.
One such answer this fortnight came in the form of the Heidair-1 miniature robots. With six wheels and small, shell-like bodies, the Heidair-1 robots appear remote control for now, but were announced with a promise of autonomous and networked functionality.
° 4. TOMORROW WARTHOGS IN: BRRRRTCRONYM TO THE FUTURE
This week’s acronym comes from UC Berkeley, and is the High Performance Robotics Laboratory, or “HiPeRLab.” It’s delightful, is what, and if you see any such acronyms in the future, please email me and I will work to include them in future editions of this newsletter.
As for you all, my dear Tomorrow Warthogs, I received one suggestion for a different collective name for my readers: “Future Tense Diminishers.” The arguments made in its favor highlight the tension in the future, in combat, and in how technology used in one domain, say commercial or rescue, can be adapted into a military tool, or the reverse. I am, as ever, open to a collective term that is a bit more descriptive than “readers,” so please, keep the suggestions coming.
That’s all for this fortnight. Questions, comments, or inquires about whether or not the use of silver weaponry in the Magic: the Gathering plane of Innistrad owes more to gothic folklore or 1930s pop culture, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.