‘Deadly’ mission of new Aussie soldiers
War is hell. And it's about to get much, much worse. Which is why Australia's scientists are busy building better soldiers.
"Don't let anyone say scientists don't have a sense of humour," quips Science and Technology Group (DSTG) physicist Tim Bussell. But behind the bogan names is a deadly serious mission.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) wants a homegrown capability to keep its troops protected, hidden, charged up and fully aware in the midst of a near-future hyperwar.
It's not the souped-up power armour of science fiction. Reality isn't treating that concept well.
Instead, efforts are being focussed on practical ideas as to how to enhance a soldier's existing strengths and reduce their limitations.
It's all because the battlefield of 2035 will be faster, more violent and more extreme than ever before due to artificial intelligence, swarms of sensors - and limited numbers.
It's all because soldiers must carry physical and mental burdens beyond anything encountered before.
At the moment, Kath and Carl are just ideas.
But they're ideas that have been chosen for their practicality in mitigating these challenges and pre-empting new ones.
And, in a lot of these areas, Australia is already leading the way.
Mr Bussell's Integrated Personnel Protection team recently demonstrated components of its future soldier system at a military exercise involving our closest allies in New York.
"We are on the leading edge of technology in these areas," he said.
It's a fighting edge Australia wants to develop - and build as a homegrown product.
"The approach we take is very clear: We will not be deploying fully autonomous soldier robots on the battlefield. Unmanned weapons are not part of Australia's planned military capability," Mr Bussell says.
The ADF insists human beings must be responsible for any decision that has the ability to harm people.
DST war gaming has revealed existing experimental robots - be they converted M113 personnel carriers or specialist small Multi Utility Tactical Transport (MUTT) - make the battlefield far more lethal than ever before.
They have an endurance advantage, an ammunition advantage, a protection advantage and a communications advantage over their fleshy opponents. And in the grind of frontline combat, these advantages are battle winners.
But only if they were reliable and nimble enough. Which they're not.
Instead, they can help our soldiers perform much, much better.
"We want a system that has the ability not only to protect a soldier from a threat but to put distance between the soldier and the threat through the use of nano and micro unmanned vehicles," Mr Bussell says.
That means personal drones. It means secure data links to surveillance aircraft, small satellites and guided munitions.
"That is where the future soldiers, Kath and Carl, comes from: The idea that all this can be controlled tactically by a soldier or team of soldiers where a human being remains at the centre of the deployed capability mix," Mr Bussell says.
Military advantage is about staying one step ahead of an adversary. If new technology is rolled out, we may fall behind.
"We would likely have to match capability with capability if needed to," Mr Bussell says. "We may have a lag to catch up, so it's important to have the technology in place and ready to respond. We must not just look at the science and technology we have today, we must look at what we will need in the future. That's where DST excels"
HALO LOSES ITS SHINE
"Exoskeletons aren't being seen as a component of next generation soldiers," Mr Bussell says. "They're unlikely to ever be worn by a combatant."
Bulky suits bristling with weapons, actuators and armour plate may have become a staple of science-fiction movies like Edge of Tomorrow and games like Halo. But their practicality remains deeply suspect.
"There are not many things within science-fiction literature that aren't possible," Mr Bussell says.
But a simple benefit versus burden equation must be applied. Put simply, exoskeletons are power hungry. And the means of providing that energy are both bulky and heavy.
The best exoskeleton designs cannot avoid becoming a physical burden, Mr Bussell explains. And that saps a soldier's agility and endurance.
"Lightweight versions may enable soldiers to run faster or jump higher in the long term. But they're unlikely to be used to reduce load-carriage burdens," he says.
"The added restrictions and complexity they represent has shown them not to be worth pursuing at the moment."
Some research agencies are abandoning any exoskeletal structure above the waist as simply being too inconvenient for the user. And DST discovered its own lightweight prototype, called OX, reduced a soldier's endurance by up to 30 per cent. While unacceptable on the battlefield, it is now being tailored towards rear-echelon logistic operations and emergency services such as firefighters and rescue workers.
So, Australia's boffins have refocused their efforts to improve soldiering.
"The concept is to take the load off them and put it on to an autonomous vehicle that follows them around," Mr Bussell says.
And while current robotic "mules" have been judged as being too noisy for active service, Mr Bussell says such devices are at a stage of refinement where such issues are being identified and overcome.
While armour plate may not yet double as a battery pack, Australia's DST believes it does provide a platform for adaptive camouflage.
It's hoping to exploit the technology behind photochromatic lenses - sunglasses that dim or lighten depending upon their exposure to sunlight.
"Those materials, built into armour as a surface treatment, can respond to light levels in the environment," Mr Bussell says. "The challenge is now to make it resilient for military use. The active molecules in a photochromic material need to be able to reorient themselves, which is difficult to do in solid substances such as armour plate. But now we know what the challenge is, we're working on addressing it.
"It would be nice to make a soldier invisible, but until we reach that stage, camouflage is all about reducing the time to detection. If we can cause a person or sensor to take longer to identify our soldier, that's an increase in capability.
"It's a game of increments."
And that applies to the batteries they must now carry.
People have tried for many years to invent a battery that could double as body armour. But the physics of conventional batteries and armour have little overlap.
Energiser boots also didn't work as intended. They only extract as much energy as is put into them. As it's the soldier that powers their boots, they tire out faster.
But what if the generator came from elsewhere? Such as the inevitable bump and thump of battlefield manoeuvres?
Soldiers already wear impact-resistant knee and elbow pads. Fill these with specially prepared shear thickening fluids - a gel that hardens within milliseconds when struck - and you have the makings of an intelligent energy harvesting and storage unit.
And as soldiers already carry such padding, giving it dual-functionality is a something-for-nothing scenario, weight-wise at least.
There's even the potential to harness a soldier's own body heat and convert it into electricity. "Neither is a complete solution," Mr Bussell says. "They won't give a full recharge. Instead, it's a trickle charge on the go. But they have the potential to extend the operational life of a portable battery for a critical two or three hours."
Information is power. And it's never been more powerful than the modern battlefield.
Which is why Australia's force is determined to put enhanced personal sensors near the top of the list for their future soldier ensemble.
Personal drones - be they on the ground or in the air - offer a separate set of "eyes and ears" through which a soldier hunkered down in a foxhole can safely observe what's going on. Some may even be a weapon in themselves.
"Soldiers will always have a personal weapon with them," Mr Bussell says. "But we don't see them carrying touchpads or remote controls. That functionality must be built into what they wear and carry."
The Australian Army is experimenting with the Black Hornet personal tactical drone system. While barely the size of a human hand, it must be controlled by a joystick console.
This is where science fiction gets a little bit more real.
"We're embedding micro and nano UAVs into their combat ensemble," Mr Bussell says. "With that comes a tactical link and autonomous sensors. These can be deployed on command - or even automatically - when the need arises."
"Fire-and-forget" independent drones are a key component of the Kath and Carl concept. These may be small enough to be recessed into body armour when not in use. And they'll automatically do the searching for a soldier fighting in the mud, too busy staying alive to drive it.
Others may be larger, weapon-carrying devices - such as the RAAF's new "Loyal Wingman" autonomous drones.
These will make their own way to their target where they'll wait for an order to fire from a human.
This is also why defence is demanding a heads-up display. Soldiers must be able to look forward at all times instead of down at their equipment.
"We're talking head-mounted displays similar to what pilots already wear integrating personal sensors, weapons and information relays into a soldier's combat system," Mr Bussell says.
All this must be done "without distracting them from their primary mission of delivering a pointed 'message' to their adversary".
And that's the critical point.
Research is needed into exactly how much - and how - information can be consumed by a soldier fighting for his or her life.
"Too much information can be worse than not enough," Mr Bussell says. "It can result in decision paralysis."
DST cognitive scientists have been testing these limits through virtual reality games and scenarios. Different styles of heads-up displays are being tested to get the right information to the right person at the right time in the right form.
"Defence used to be leaders in pushing technology further. No more," says Mr Bussell.
Now the commercial sector has embraced the idea of pursuing disruptive research and development projects, it's pushing forward far faster than most of the world's defence forces.
"In many areas, defence forces are now technology adopters, not drivers," he says.
But it's not that easy.
The home front is simply not comparable with the rigours of the modern battlefield.
"Everything can be described as fragile," Mr Bussell says. "We face that in defence all the time. The environments we work in are very harsh. So taking technology from the commercial sector and tailoring it to work in the military is something the DST does well."
But now Australia's defence force needs civilian input more than ever before.
"We rely on a lot of existing technologies coming together, integrating into something useful for defence," Mr Bussell says.
Which is exactly why Australia's Federal Government is so keen to get academia and industry on side. It has developed a series of aspirational science and technology "missions" that it hopes will inspire "leap-ahead" capabilities for defence as well as valuable intellectual properties for its civilian partners.
Backing these urgent "Star Shot" projects is the Next Generation Technologies Fund established by the Federal Government to bankroll such risky, experimental projects.
The technologies behind the future soldier are just part of this.
So how real will the Kath and Carl combat ensemble concept become?
"Soldiers absolutely love technology," Mr Bussell says, "but only time and real operational experience can tell us if it improves their effectiveness and helps keep them alive."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @JamieSeidel