The U.S. Army wants to get to and maneuver within trouble spots faster, and over the next six years it will spend $91 billion figuring out how to do that.

The goal sounds simple: be able to send a brigade anywhere in the world within 96 hours, a division within 120 hours and five divisions within 30 days. Achieving that goal, however, means transforming the army from a ponderous force built around the use of tanks and other heavy vehicles to one that is comprised of lighter, less heavily armored vehicles that can sprint across the battlefield at speeds of 60 mph and that can deliver the same dose of lethality as their bigger predecessors.

"We're changing how the army fights and deploys," General John M. Keane, Army vice chief of staff, told an audience of 1,161 scientists and technologists at December's biannual Army Science Conference in Orlando, Fla. The 23rd Science Conference was essentially a blueprint for attendees that laid down the goals and technological challenges associated with what the Army calls Future Combat Systems. Key to the transformation will be a host of new technologies that includes hybrid electric vehicles, robotics, lasers, mobile network communications and an array of smart weapons and sensors based on enabling technologies such as micromechanical systems (MEMS), biotechnology and nanotechnology. Other research efforts will help protect troops from biological agents (see "Detecting Biowarfare Attacks").

Lighter Vehicles

All these technologies will manifest themselves in a fleet of 16 new wheeled vehicles, which are collectively dubbed the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. Managed by Boeing as the lead contractor, FCS vehicles, whether they be an armored personnel carrier or a scout car, are designed to weigh less than 20 tons so they can be easily transported to distant battlefields aboard military air transports like the C-130. In comparison, an M1 Abrams tank weighs 75 tons.

For transportation, the FCS will rely on hybrid electric vehicles, which use less fuel and have the added advantage of being able to recharge batteries used for the other FCS electronic systems. Research is also being funded for the development of electricity-producing fuel cells for the same reasons. Some FCS vehicles will be robots whose job will be to scout ahead of the main force to test for nuclear, biological and chemical threats. These robots will also be used to reconnoiter underground caves and bunkers, evacuate the wounded and ferry supplies.

Underlying this transformation in hardware is a shift in the army's battle plans for future wars. As explained by General Keane, past military operations such as those in the Persian Gulf War were characterized by massive firepower proceeding across a border to take over as much enemy territory as possible. Advances in sensor technologies, deployed in everything from Earth-orbiting satellites to unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, now allow troops to "see over the hill" as never before. In future battles, says Keane, the Army will occupy strategic points "like pepperoni on a pizza, with sensors watching over the rest of the pie."

To make this vision a reality, the Army initially examined 547 new technologies that might be applied to the FCS goals. This number was then whittled down to 100, according to Claude M. Bolton, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics, and technology. The ones that survived the cut addressed the Army's priority list: the development of a common chassis for all FCS vehicles; the development of a "good-sized" gun; improved communications; and technologies that reduce the "footprint"--the weight, size, and cost--of power, fuel, food and water supplies required to sustain a fighting force.

A Moveable Internet

Along with the lighter, faster vehicles of FCS must come a mobile network--think of it as a moving Internet. The network would travel with the vehicles as they progress across rough terrain, through forests and around hills. This technology is critical because it provides the "situational awareness," or knowledge of the enemy's location, that will compensate, along with speed, for an FCS vehicle's reduced armor. Unlike tanks, FCS vehicles won't be built to withstand withering fire. Their mission is to locate the enemy with sensors and then be first to fire.

Many questions still need to be addressed to create a successful mobile network. Among them are how best to allocate bandwidth for communication and handle data bottlenecks. Another issue is how to reroute data if a node is lost and how to protect that classified data from unauthorized use by both friends and enemies.

New technology salvaged from the canceled Crusader howitzer program may be used to increase the firepower of a FCS cannon. Since the days of Napoleon, cannons have used a black powder charge ignited by a primer cartridge as a propellant. The problem with primers, however, is that they must be replaced after each shot. Significant numbers of the primers also must be transported to the front lines to resupply the cannons. An alternative method that uses a laser beam to ignite the propelling charge is being developed by at the U.S. Army Armament Research Development & Engineering Center. The laser beam is directed through an optical window in the breech of the cannon, providing ignition. Already tested on a 155mm cannon, the laser igniter provides more rounds per minute, since the primer doesn't have to be replaced. It also means the FCS force is that much lighter, because primers are no longer required. Testing is underway to ensure the laser can withstand the shock of repeated recoils.

Big bangs will also come courtesy of new crop of smart "missiles in a box" that can be transported and fired from a truck. One example is essentially a mortar round that operates like a mini cruise missile. The precision-guided munition is a 120mm mortar round that sprouts wings to extend its range while MEMS and laser seekers acquire the target. These missiles will take the place of slower-moving and less-accurate artillery. FCS vehicles will be equipped with laser weapons once a small solid-state system is perfected and their effectiveness against small munitions is demonstrated. Recent trials at the Army's White Sands test facility in New Mexico have shown laser weapons are effective in countering incoming artillery rounds.

Other Advances

New developments are also expected from a nanotechnology research center run by MIT opening this spring. At that time, contracts for the construction of a similar center for biotechnology research will be awarded by the Army. Some of these research efforts will be applied to increasing the effectiveness of the individual soldier under a program called Objective Force. New gear under development includes tiny unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance and exoskeletons that would increase strength. And, while "it sounds like science fiction, we're not too far away from a smart bullet," notes Frank Wessling III of the test lead technology development department of the Schafer Corporation. Technology downsized from the exo-kill vehicle developed for the national missile defense program would use sensors, a guidance system, and automatic target recognition to hunt down its target. Wessling estimates each round would cost about $500 when produced on a large scale.

With initial prototypes for FCS and Objective Warrior technologies due to appear as soon as late 2004, there is no doubt that the soldier of the 21st century is headed for a complete makeover.

Frank Vizard is co-author of The 21st Century Soldier.

Next week: Future Combat, Part 2, explores future aircraft technologies.