Pentagon seeks mini-weapons for new age of warfare

May 31 2011 - 9:35am

Under mounting pressure to keep its massive budget in check, the Pentagon is looking to cheaper, smaller weapons to wage war in the 21st century.

A new generation of weaponry is being readied in clandestine laboratories across the nation that puts a priority on pintsized technology that would be more precise in warfare and less likely to cause civilian casualties. Increasingly, the Pentagon is being forced to discard expensive, hulking, Cold War-era armaments that exact a heavy toll on property and human lives.

At L-3 Interstate Electronics Corp. in Anaheim, Calif., technicians work in secure rooms developing a GPS guidance system for a 13-pound "smart bomb" that would be attached to small, low-flying drone.

Engineers in Simi Valley, Calif., at AeroVironment Inc. are developing a mini-cruise missile designed to fit into a soldier's rucksack, be fired from a mortar and scour the battlefield for enemy targets.

And in suburban Portland, Ore., Voxtel Inc. is concocting an invisible mist to be sprayed on enemy fighters and make them shine brightly in night-vision goggles.

These miniature weapons have one thing in common: They will be delivered with the help of small robotic planes. Drones have grown in importance as the Pentagon has seen them play a vital role in Iraq, Afghanistan and reportedly in the raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Now, engineers are refining drone technology to deliver a powerful wallop with increasingly smaller robotic planes -- many of which resemble model aircraft buzzing around local parks.

This work is aimed primarily at one buyer -- the Pentagon, which is seeking a total of $671 billion for fiscal 2012. Of that, drones represent $4.8 billion, a small but growing segment of the defense budget -- and that doesn't include spending on robotic weapons technology in the classified portion of the budget.

This comes at a time when expensive weapons programs such as Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles and Navy cruise ships are being eyed for trims.

Although some mini-weapons may resemble toys, they represent a new wave of sophisticated technology in modern warfare, which has forced the military and weapons-makers to think small. And they are just a few under development that have been disclosed.

"There are a lot of weapons in the military's arsenal," said Lt. Col. Brad Beach, an official who coordinates the Marines' drone technology. "But what we don't have is something small."

The military is flush with multi-ton bunker-busting bombs designed to reduce fortified buildings into smoldering rubble.

But Marines on the front lines in Afghanistan say there is an urgent need for a weapon that is small and powerful enough to protect them from insurgents planting roadside bombs.

Marines already have small spy drones with high-powered cameras, but what they need is a way to destroy the enemies that their drones discover.

Looking to fill the need, the 13-pound "smart bomb" has been under development for three years. The 2-foot-long bomb is steered by a GPS-guided system made in Anaheim. The bomb is called Small Tactical Munition, or STM, and is under development by Raytheon Co.

"Soldiers are watching bad guys plant" roadside bombs and "can't do anything about it," said Cody Tretschok, who leads work on the program at Raytheon. "They have to call in an airstrike, which can take 30 to 60 minutes. The time lapse is too great."

The idea is that the small bomb could be slung under the spy plane's wing, dropped to a specific point using GPS coordinates or a laser-guidance system, and blast apart "soft" targets, such as pickup trucks and individuals, located 15,000 feet below.

Raytheon does not yet have a contract for the bomb and is building it entirely with its own money.

"We're proactively anticipating the military's need," said Tretschok, who is testing the technology at the Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

In a similar fashion, drone-maker AeroVironment in Simi Valley didn't wait for the government when it started to build its Switchblade mini-cruise missile to seek and destroy nearby targets.

The little missile, which looks less harmless than many Fourth of July fireworks, is fired from a mortar cannon, unfolds its wings as it goes, and begins sending live video and GPS coordinates to the soldier who launched it.

The 2-foot-long battery-powered drone would be tipped with a tiny warhead and remotely operated from a handheld controller. It is being designed to fly above a warzone for at least five minutes for more than a mile at a time.

"This technology gives the war fighter the ability to pinpoint where and when he strikes," said Steven Gitlin, an AeroVironment spokesman. "It's all about precision."

Critics say the technology may be too imprecise and hard to track, said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

But the weapons have sophisticated internal guidance systems, which is key because much of today's fighting takes place in crowded urban environments, such as targets located in or near population centers, he said.

"Weapons are sometimes only usable today if they're small. The bottom line is: You're not going to go around dropping 500-pound bombs everywhere," O'Hanlon added. "Collateral damage is unacceptable in modern warfare."

Knowing this, the military has embarked on using mini-drones for a "tagging, tracking and locating" initiative, which centers on secretly marking a target with invisible sprays and other identifiers so they don't get lost in crowds.

Companies such as Beaverton, Ore.-based Voxtel have benefited from the millions of dollars that the government is handing to contractors for research. The small 30-person company, which makes tagging products to prevent the counterfeiting of bank notes, lottery tickets and other items, now believes its microscopic nanocrystals -- which become part of an invisible spray -- may be exactly what the military needs.

Tagging, tracking and locating "is a hot topic in government work," said George Williams, company president. "It isn't easy tracking somebody in a crowded urban environment like what is seen in today's wars."

Indeed. Earlier this year, the Air Force asked for proposals on developing a way to "tag" targets with "clouds" of unseen materials sprayed from quiet, low-flying drones.

In its request, the Air Force said "one method of distribution would be 'crop-dusting' from a sufficiently high altitude (to avoid detection) and letting the dust cloud fall on a target or in front of it if it is moving."

Other methods suggested to covertly mark the targets were to "pneumatically blow a cloud" or "burst above" them.

As the military moves into miniaturizing its weapon stockpile, contractors believe applications such as these may be crucial to the overall effort. "What we do is just one part of a complex system," Voxtel President Williams said. "We play a small role."

(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

 

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