The weapons and new technologies of future wars are going to involve fewer things that explode. In fact, weapons effects will often be so quick and insidious that victims will be left grasping for clues—perhaps literally in the dark—as to what just happened to them.

Some of those key technologies will include directed energy—such as lasers and high-power microwave (HPM) weapons—and artificial brains that can train themselves to manage dangerous battlefield jobs.

“It's all about saving money,” says Mike Booen, Raytheon's vice president for advanced security and directed-energy systems. “If you can defeat mortars and Kayusha [artillery rockets] with a laser, you can relieve yourself of the big logistics tail required to bring ammunition to the front and having to maintain the guns. By using the speed of light, you can beat the simultaneity problem [of lots of incoming projectiles] that you face with kinetic weapons.”

Finding the right problem to solve is also critical. Raytheon grafted a fiber laser to its AIM-9X missile's pointer-track subsystem. That proved to researchers that they could take a device off a fixed-price production line and add a laser that has been validated in the medical and precision measurement markets.

“You take the risk down to zero for integrating [a small, lightweight] directed infrared countermeasures [Dircm] system that can go on the U.S. Army's smallest helicopters,” says Booen. “That's a great application of the technology,” as opposed to putting a high-energy laser on a large airborne platform full of toxic chemicals and presenting a large target for anti-aircraft weapons to shoot at, he adds. “I can come up with 15 ways to solve that problem kinetically with existing products. The key is focusing directed energy on the problems that require the speed of light.”

A class of problems illustrates the need for HPM. For example, foes could put satellite communications and GPS navigation jammers—to lead precision weapons astray—on top of hospitals and schools. This type of target cannot be attacked with conventional bombs, nor does it lend itself to lasers.

“That's a problem screaming to get solved,” Booen declares.

The precision application of effects will be guided by some new schemes for fusing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

“There are things that are improving dramatically such as connectivity, the quality of information, miniaturization of components and advanced, high-resolution optics that are combined with the ability to link that data and share it,” says a senior ISR specialist. “Once you understand the battlespace and what is happening there, you can make decisions about how to deal with it.

“From a budget standpoint, it is going to be interesting to watch what is done with all the platforms the U.S. has bought,” he says. “We will want to upgrade the sensors and content of those vehicles, UAVs, aerostats and airplanes because there has been such a monumental improvement in the ability to observe things.

“The metric we use operationally is that now you can see the whole town in high fidelity [instead of just a spot within the town],” he says. This is a capability that has only matured since 2006. “If something happens, you can see the reaction. You can track it back to see where people came from and track it forward to see where the participants went. I can see the vehicles, the people and what the people are carrying—a gun or a shovel.”

The need to use lots of battlefield robotics is going to create another opportunity for technology. How can all those unmanned ground, air and maritime robots operate autonomously and then later as part of a group of unmanned systems?

Alan Taub, General Motors vice president of global research and development, says autonomous cars with sophisticated self-driving systems can be ready for commercial sales by the end of the decade. Many are already equipped with sensors, radars, portable communication devices, GPS navigation, cameras and digital maps. Combined with other safety options such as lane-departure warnings and blind-zone alerts, there is a foundation for autonomous driving.

With survival cited as the goal, the system starts sounding familiar to military planners.

Vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems gather information from other vehicles, roadways and traffic signals to warn about possible hazards ahead, including slowed or stalled vehicles, slippery roads, sharp curves and upcoming intersections. These systems can be embedded in the vehicle or be added as applications to portable devices and smartphones that connect wirelessly to the vehicle, Taub says.

The driver's brain, designed to evolve to meet changing demands, may also become a commercial product according to a recent article in New Scientist magazine.

A team at Cornell University's Creative Machines Lab has created digital brains using neural networks that mimic biological evolutionary processes, and researchers are working on how to link them to robot bodies. The best-performing brains are allowed to reproduce to create new generations. Within a few hours of being plugged into the body, one brain was able to make a four-legged robot walk. The Cornell researchers also plan to design soft-bodied robots using printable materials that act as muscles, bones, batteries, wires and computers. The idea is that eventually the entire robot will be printed including the brain.

These battlefield demands and the maturing of new technologies also explain why Raytheon bought Ktech during mid-2011. Ktech is involved in airborne electronic warfare, directed energy and pulsed power. These capabilities are needed for the development of airborne weapon systems that can analyze targets and then tailor a radio-frequency or HPM beam to upset or even electronically damage systems dependent on electronics. A directed-energy beam can be varied in width, energy output, modulation and frequency to create precise effects. Such systems will also have feedback monitoring to analyze the impact of these unseen, non-kinetic weapons.

The vision is to give warfighters variants of virtually all of Ktech's weapon systems on Raytheon missiles.

The only way directed energy can establish itself on the battlefield is to show that it can deliver the effect from a reusable platform like a UAV or service multiple targets from a single platform like a cruise missile, and that it is a more affordable way to prosecute a war. So there may be some new options for the conundrum of how to blow up the enemy command-and-control center operating from the school yard.

“Do I wait until school is out and put a 500-lb. bomb in the middle of it?” Booen asks. “We think there are some other ways. Our time horizons are way shorter than a decade. I think we'll have multiple nonkinetic effectors to offer in the next five years.”

Education of decisions makers both in and out of uniform will be part of the process.

“Knowledge of the effects of HPM kind of lean toward the Ocean's Eleven kind of movies where they shut the lights off in the Bellagio casino to rob it,” says Booen. “I say how about applying it to the bad guys' command-and-control center. If you can find that site and shut it off without the enemy knowing how it happened, tactical commanders will want the capability.”