Since the beginning of human history, humans have bickered constantly over territory, resources, and power. Now, with the possibility of a right-wing Mormon space cadet taking up residence in the White House before the year is out, the Muslim world ready to riot at the upload of a shitty YouTube video, and the advent of peak oil threatening industrial civilization as we know it, it seems likely that the skies will be full of unmanned drones rather than peace doves for a good while longer.
To make matters worse, the people who decide how the world's militaries spend their money are throwing enough currency to fill an atomic crater at the "coolest,” most futuristic technologies available, like kids on a sugar rush in an expensive, dangerous arcade. According to one US Army researcher, “You have to beg for money for things like beanbags or acoustics. But say it’s for a laser or a lightsaber, and money is no problem.”
The United States spends more on its military than the rest of the planet combined. About $80 billion of that is poured every year into research and development. As a result, American military research has been pioneering the future for decades. The future arrives first through American war. The Pentagon and its R&D arm—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA—are credited with having funded the development of the internet, nuclear power, space travel, and a host of other game-changing scientific breakthroughs that have gone on to obliterate both military and civilian conceptions of reality.
Given that the future's due to arrive any second now, here's a forewarning of what those guys have been working on recently.
SUPERSOLDIERS AND CYBORGS
From the Nazis' infamous Lebensborn program to the CIA’s illegal MK-Ultra project to “the men who stare at goats,” attempts to create so-called “supersoldiers” through eugenics, genetic engineering, brainwashing and paranormal and occult means have existed for decades. Today, the Pentagon spends $400 million a year striving to develop the next generation of superhuman warfighters.
With America getting fatter and its military desperate for lithe recruits to fight a disastrously unpopular war, obesity in the States is rapidly becoming an issue of national security. But forget swing dancing classes and crash dieting—a DARPA program called “Metabolic Dominance” is threatening to wipe out the $64 billion weightloss industry overnight. The project is exploring ways to more efficiently convert body fat into energy and suppress hunger, so that soldiers can fight longer and live for up to five days without eating a single meal.
Meanwhile, a “pain vaccine” is being developed that will block intense pain for months at a time. I'm not quite sure how that would work, given that everyone's heard that story about their friend's older brother's buddy who took so much ketamine he couldn't feel his arms snapping in half as he went on a car-flipping spree in Jersey, but this is the military we're talking about here, so I guess anything is possible.
Anyway, if you think that's fucked up, the military is also paying a team of geneticists to figure out how the soldiers of the future could re-grow severed or destroyed limbs. Have fun dealing with that in your dreams tonight.
Researchers accept that these genetic and medical enhancements are ultimately limited by our own biology. They accept that, but they're not deterred by it—so the soldiers of the future will, by all accounts, resemble the cyborgs of science fiction: part human, part machine. Defense giant Raytheon has already developed Iron Man-style robotic exoskeletons for soldiers to wear that grant them superhuman strength. Motion sensors detect the wearer’s movements and the suit follows through with its own hydraulics system, allowing troops to carry their own bodyweight while sprinting for hours on end.
That might sound like it'd be fun when the tech finally trickles its way down the ladder to us civvies, but when you're marvelling at how easy the trek back from the bodega has become, spare a thought for all the families shivering in the war-torn night as they wait for an invincible superhuman Robert Bales to come along and kick their house down.
Most far-out, however, has to be the research into “augmented cognition” or “intelligence amplification,” which aims to supplement human brainpower by implanting computer hardware inside our bodies. Not only could this technology radically increase our memory capacity, it could lead to what one scientist describes as the equivalent of plugging in “a flash drive that interacts with your brain.” This means that skills that would otherwise take years to learn—flying a helicopter, speaking Arabic, performing life-saving surgery—could potentially be “downloaded” in a matter of seconds.
Unfortunately, a Pentagon spokesperson was unavailable for comment, so instead I asked my friend Rob—a war-hungry 19-year-old Army recruit, soon headed for Afghanistan—what he made of all this.
“Those cyborg suits just look like they’d fucking break all the time like everything else we use," he said. "And then what? You're left in the shit with a ton of robot on your back that won't move. So it’s a load of shit.
"Obviously, if I could get microchips in my head to make me learn really fast I would and so would everyone else out there. But if the enemy got hold of something like that, you’d be shitting yourself. What if they stole one of your planes and knew how to fly it?”
Fair point, Rob, you wouldn't even know the bastards were coming.
Yes, robots. More than 12,000 are already deployed in Iraq, and these things make Robot Wars look like a tween RC racetrack. The Marines’ “Gladiator” robot costs $400,000 fully-loaded. For your money, you get an emotionless killing machine armed with a machine gun with 600 rounds of ammunition, anti-tank rockets, 40mm grenade launchers, and tear gas. Oh, and it can be controlled with a PlayStation handset, which is good news in terms of career prospects for anyone who's just drafted a suicide letter on the back of a Domino's box.
The creepiest military machine, however, has to be Boston Dynamics’ LS3—a four-legged robotic pack mule that resembles a sort-of giant mechanized cockroach. The robot is technically harmless: designed to carry soldiers’ gear and follow them across rugged terrain, but it also functions as a “mobile auxiliary power source,” making it the world’s most expensive iPhone charger.
Except obviously instead of charging iPhones, it'll probably be charging stuff that kills people.
For the Pentagon brass, the advantages are obvious: Robots have faster reaction times and better aims than human soldiers, and they don’t get tired or hungry or lose concentration and effectiveness. What’s more, the psychological effects of fighting a nonhuman foe—one which cannot feel pain or fear or mercy—which cannot die—are likely to be devastating for enemy forces.
While current battlefield robots tend to be strictly utilitarian in design, the military is keen to terrify people as much as possible by tailoring the robots' appearance, having already asked one firm to create a system that looks like a T-800 Terminator. Military roboticists are also eager to turn up the “creep factor” by exploiting the basic human fear of insects, as well as the phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley,” where robots that appear and act almost (but not perfectly) lifelike evoke a deep-seated revulsion.
By 2015, one third of US military strength will be comprised of robots. But what about The Terminator? What about The Matrix? What about the singularity? In the immediate future, software glitches pose a far greater threat than artificial intelligence. In 2007, a robotic anti-aircraft system malfunctioned during a training exercise. It started swinging around in circles while spitting out high explosive shells at a rate of 550 a minute. Nine soldiers lost their lives and fourteen more were injured, which I'm guessing didn't happen the last time your BlackBerry crashed.
Further down the line, a war against the machines seems pretty much guaranteed. DARPA is funding research into a battlefield robot—the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot, which seems to have been named that purely because its initials spell out the (sort of) word “EATR”—that could power itself indefinitely by eating human corpses. What could possibly go wrong?
“Robots? Yeah, the ones that carry all your stuff are pretty snazzy—who wouldn't want one of those?! But any old Joe can control them, which is both good and bad: Iran built their own drone recently and that shakes me up a bit!
"If they had guns and minds of their own it starts to gets a bit risky," he continued. "They’d probably break a few of the 'laws of war'.”
LASERS AND 'DIRECTED ENERGY' WEAPONS
As well as lasers, the military is developing a host of other “directed energy” weapons. The “Active Denial System” works on a similar principle to a kitchen microwave, cooking the enemy like a cheap TV dinner. What, you want a more exact description than that? A beam of intense radiation effectively boils the water and fat underneath people's skin, creating an excruciating burning sensation.
A range of handheld directed energy and laser “rifles”—capable of producing lethal bursts of plasma, paralysing electro-magnetic pulse effects, and infa-red “pain rays”—are also currently under development for use by both military and police forces. And what about those lightsabers, you ask? Sorry, but they’re not physically possible, although Special Operations commandos are currently trying out the next best thing: a plasma knife that cuts through flesh with a “blade” of glowing ionized gas.
Perhaps most sinister of all, however, is the MEDUSA project—an attempt to develop a weapon that uses low-power microwaves to project the “Voice of God” and other subliminal messages directly into enemies’ heads. Annoyingly, this kind of technology seems just as likely to be used for invasive advertisements at bus stops, vending machines, and shopping centers as on the battlefield.
But Rob doesn't seem to give a fuck about that, because he gives directed energy weapons two thumbs up:
“I've read a lot about these and they're really impressive, even if they are a bit 'inhumane'," he said. His use of air quotes disturbed me.
"You'd save a lot of money on ammunition as well as cleaning time, plus it’s a total headfuck for the enemy. You’d shit bricks if you knew the people you were trying to fight had fucking lasers!”
Ultimately, all of these new technologies are either unclassified or at least aren't officially acknowledged. The scariest developments in future warfare are likely to be those that we don’t yet know about: the Manhattan Projects of the 21st Century. If supersoldiers, robots, and rayguns don’t ensure a high-tech apocalypse, then classified Pentagon “black budget” developments in nanotechnology, space warfare, and future weapons of mass destruction probably will.
As Rob pointed out to me: “All this Metal Gear Solid business is only as good as the person using it.”
Follow Theo on Twitter: @Theo_
Endless, endless war: