(Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to present a new post by returning guest blogger and official Mad Scientist Dr. Richard Nabors, addressing the importance of DoD Manufacturing Technologies (MANTECH). In this future-focused story, critical decision points are interspersed throughout the narrative, illustrating the ramifications of DoD MANTECH investment decisions in ensuring military superiority for future operations.
Dr. Nabors’ previous guest posts discussed how:
• Integrated sensor systems will provide Future Soldiers with the requisite situational awareness to fight and win in increasingly complex and advanced battlespaces;
• Augmented and Mixed Reality are the critical elements required for these integrated sensor systems to become truly operational and support Soldiers’ needs in complex environments); and
• The recently completed Third Generation Forward Looking Infrared (3rd Gen FLIR) program can serve as a use case for successful future innovation via four key practices.)
Four men crouched behind an air conditioning unit mounted on the roof of the townhouse, guns aimed and ready. US Army Sergeant Johnson, the unit leader, could sense the others’ tension as a truck drove down the street below them. He glanced toward Rodriguez, the fifth man of the team, who lay belly down on the roof in front of the air conditioner box, peering over the edge. The enemy truck appeared a tempting target, but the continuous, live reporting Johnson was receiving from the Soldier Support Artificial Intelligence Unit (SOSIA) that they had just spent the morning setting up indicated there were civilians in the area. “Hold,” he whispered into his helmet mike.
SOSIA was a powerful Artificial Intelligence (AI) computer program that connected to an Integrated Sensor Architecture of millions of commercial and military sensors which processed and sent real-time analysis and imagery directly to soldiers. SOSIA used everything from city overhead street cameras, to in-the-road seismic sensors, and the tens of thousands of military sensors fielded, such as Sargent Johnson’s personal Short-Wave InfraRed (SWIR) imager. The bone conducting speaker in Johnson’s helmet chirped the vital statistics of the truck as it approached. Johnson activated his mic again and whispered, “SOSIA says the truck is full. Too many for us to take on without compromising the mission. Also, there are civilians in the area.”
Rodriguez wriggled back to the shelter of the air conditioning unit and glared at Johnson. “SOSIA says,” he growled, sarcasm dripping from each word. “Is SOSIA in command, Johnson?”
Johnson studied him a minute, and then each of the others before responding. He knew that the waiting and inactivity were telling on the men. They wanted action. They had seen too many of their buddies fall, too many dead civilians, too many wounded children. They wanted to destroy the base from which the enemy operated.
“What’s eatin’ you, Rod? Don’t you trust all of the techno stuff we’ve been deploying?” Johnson asked as calmly as he could, given his own tension.
“Sure,” Rodriguez shrugged. “I just don’t like a bunch of electrons and wires tellin’ a thinking human bein’ what to do.”
“You know that I am in command of this mission.” Johnson glared at him with an icy stare. “I am the thinking human being behind every decisive action we take. Don’t ever forget it.”
Rodriguez dropped his eyes. “Sorry, Sarge,” he mumbled.
The plan to attack the enemy’s temporary command post by a small assault team was totally contingent on the element of surprise. Their mission was dependent upon the information generated by the sensors they had laid around the enemy’s post. They had to know what they were getting into. Were the enemy holed up in the post or were individual outposts spread out in the surrounding structures? The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) drones that had already been deployed in combination with their compact lidar imagery systems had swept the landscape for enemy and friendly sensors while creating a 3D terrain of the urban space around the enemy’s command post. Johnson had been briefed on the data and the maps were available on his helmet display. Now SOSIA’s data had been added to mix.
What next was his judgement call. Command Central had given unit leaders the ability and responsibility to be autonomous and to make decisions based on the immediate situation. The lives of his men, the enemy, and the civilians between them depended on what he called next. Outside of the truck below, the sensor data indicated that the area had been cleared of all enemy combatants. Should he trust the data from the sensors and proceed with the original plan?
No: Because the number of sensors available for the US Army to use were limited, Johnson could not trust that the area was clear and that his small team would have the element of surprise they would need to survive an assault on the base. Without this confidence, the risks were too high and the mission would need to be abandoned.
Yes: Because of DoD Manufacturing Technology investments into sensor manufacturing, the US Army was able to field an incredible volume of low-cost, complex sensors across the battlespace, ensuring that systems like SOSIA and Johnson had enough information about global awareness to feel confident with the real-time data that they had access to. Being able to trust in the sensor network that provided critical, in the moment information enabled Johnson to manage the risks and make the call.
Johnson jerked his head and motioned the men to go down the staircase off of the roof. “All data indicates that the area is clear,” he stated firmly. “SOSIA is tracking the truck to the possible base site. Any questions before we go?”
“Sarge,” Boskar piped up hesitantly, “how do we know that the data is not compromised? Are we certain the enemy isn’t hacking into our systems and feeding us false information like we did to them?”
Johnson nodded. The scenario was possible. The sky was full of satellites, spying on each other. Whose was the most updated? It did seem a bit odd that the scans did not find many enemy security and/or sensors to prevent hostile forces from sneaking up on their base. Maybe their security was depending on the anonymity of being embedded in a residential area of townhouses and small stores. But was our technology protected from a hacker? he thought. Was the information he received accurate? Should he trust it?
No: With majority of sensors and networking components being manufactured outside the USA, security could definitely be an issue with compromises pre-built into the technology, not to mention the risk of possible hacking.
Yes: Because of investments into US sensor and networking manufacturers, technology from USA manufacturers has been continually updated with reliable safeguards against possible hacking or intrusion.
“Nothing is a certainty,” Johnson stated flatly. “But we can be confident that everything possible has been done to ensure the security and reliability of our intel. All any soldier can do is to trust the instructions he has been given,” Johnson reminded himself as well as his men.
“Besides, we have a surprise for them.” Reaching into the pouch at his waist, Johnson removed two small objects, one a micro-drone the size of a large beetle, the other a small touch pad. Carefully he thumbed the pad on his palm. The micro-drone darted off to follow the truck, setting down on the canopy just as the truck turned the corner and was lost from sight. “It’s embedded with an electronic disruption device,” he explained. “We’ll activate it when we are ready to go in.”
Moving quietly in their armored suits, they quickly followed the truck to the base site. Each suit had its own power pack which supplied power to all their communication and sensor devices.
The unique optical communication signals between their powered suits allowed continuous communications even when under electronic jamming attacks by the enemy.
The intel from the drones and SOSIA had been right. There was no complex network of perimeter sensors, at least nothing sounded an alarm, as the team got into their hold position just a short distance from the base. They took cover in an abandoned storefront building that was still home to a number of civilian refugees. “Landis, set up our jammers and get this area under a communications blackout,” Johnson commanded. “Once that is done, Boskar and Simon, round up the civilians and get them to the safe area we identified, quickly and quietly. We want them out of here before any enemy shows up. Oh, and immediately confiscate any electronic devices, just in case,” he added with a grim smile.
After the men had secured the area, Johnson once again reviewed the plan. The plan was simple. For weeks, Central Command had leaked false information that they still had no idea where the enemy command post was. Intercepted enemy communications gave every indication that they believed the false reports. Now a small attack team was to approach the base, evacuate any civilian population still in the area, and then destroy the base. All without the enemy noticing what they were doing and all without injury to or protests by civilians. What could be simpler than that?
Although the attack team had the advantage of the latest in armored suits, the enemy had the advantage of numbers and being in a defensive position. Using security codes that had been hacked from the enemy’s satellite phone system, they planned to open the base doors. Their explosives expert, Rodriguez, would proceed to lay explosives around the building while the rest of the team were to protect him by taking out any threat.
Johnson looked around at his men. Could they, the five of them, do it? They had the will. Did they have the technology to achieve this objective? There was still time to take the civilians with them and make a dash for the Command Post. Should they proceed?
No: What limited sensor intel they had could not provide the confidence necessary that a small team would be successful in overcoming the odds and disadvantages stacked against them. Without real-time information that could be acted on immediately by the squad and its leadership, it would be far too dangerous to attempt any type of decisive action where flexibility and adaptability would be required.
Yes: Because of sustained investments in high performance sensor development and manufacturing within the USA. The US Army has maintained global technology overmatch and superiority in fielding critical intelligence at the farthest echelons. Teams such as Johnson’s can trust that they will maintain combat overmatch even while outnumbered and working in complex environments because of the situational understanding achieved through the use of sensors and their enabling technologies.
“We belong to the best military in the world. We have the best weaponry, the best intel, the best technology,” Johnson said, “and we have the best men. Let’s go!”
[Editor’s Note: The narrative above is a work of fiction; the names of the individuals portrayed in it are not based on real people.]
Dr. Richard Nabors is Associate Director for Strategic Planning and Deputy Director, Operations Division, U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC), Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate.