2018 was a pretty good year for military innovation, but 2019 is shaping up to be even better. The Pentagon and DARPA are experimenting with virtual and augmented reality, developing new aircraft and vehicles, and expanding their robotics and hypersonic offerings.
Get the skinny on what will likely break next year in the six entries below:
1. Augmented reality headsets
The Army signed a contract for 100,000 HoloLens headsets from Microsoft for $479 million in late 2018 and they should start reaching combat units within the next year or so, once the Army figures out exactly how to use them. The idea is to give infantrymen and other troops true heads-up displays. Tankers could even see through their armor to better track enemy vehicles.
The Army and other branches have researched augmented reality before, so there's plenty of groundwork already done. Once the HoloLens is incorporated, infantry could just glance around and see where their fire support is, how far it is to their objective, and where their squad support robot is. Speaking of which...
2. Robots joining human squads
Yeah, one of the other additions to infantry squads and other maneuver units could be robots to carry gear, sensors, and electronic warfare modules. It's all part of DARPA Squad X Experimentation Program. The idea is to nest robots into Army and Marine units, especially infantry squads.
Test runs have begun, and Lockheed Martin and CACI are each providing capabilities. The system brings in capabilities from all sorts of robots and drones already on the market. The Marines were able to use the robots to detect enemies and plan their assault before the simulated enemy even knew the Marines were there.
3. U.S. hypersonic missiles get faster, more operable
Hypersonic missiles are the ultimate first-strike weapon. They fly at five times the speed of sound or faster, making it nearly impossible for ballistic missile interceptors to catch them. And reporting in the open seems to indicate that Russia and China are further along than the U.S.
But DARPA is working to change that with a call for new materials that can withstand the forces at Mach 5, especially the extreme heat from friction with the air. That would be a huge breakthrough for the U.S., and it might allow America to leapfrog its rivals.
4. The SB-1 Defiant and V-280 Valor will show their stripes
The Army wants a whole new family of vertical-lift aircraft, starting with a bird to replace Black Hawks. The two top prototypes are going through trials now, and each has some exciting milestones scheduled for 2019. The biggest and earliest is the imminent first flight of the SB-1 Defiant, a compound helicopter that is thought capable of almost 290 mph in flight.
Bell Helicopters, meanwhile, is promising that their tilt-rotor offering, the V-280 Valor, still has a lot more skills to show off, and it's already hit over 120 mph in forward flight and shown off its agility in hover mode. If Bell Helicopters wins the competition, the Army's first order will likely be the largest tilt-rotor sale in military history.
5. Light tank prototypes will be unveiled
Over the next 14 months, BAE and General Dynamics will produce 12 examples of their light tanks, a modified Griffin and an updated version of the M8 Buford. Once the final prototypes roll off the line, the Army will test them side-by-side in exercises and trials, and then choose one design to purchase.
It'll be sweet to see the first prototypes in 2019, but it'll be even greater at the end of 2019 or start of 2020 when the Army starts actually putting them through their paces. No matter which design is chosen, it'll be a big capability upgrade for the infantry.
6. More autonomous aircraft, especially Army helicopters
It seems like the civilian market rolls out a new drone every weeks, and drone designs come around every few months. But the Army is trying to get a kit made that would actually change military aviation: a software and hardware suite that could make every Black Hawk — and other helicopters — into an optionally piloted drone.
The ALIAS program is currently limited to a Sikorsky demonstrator, but if it reaches full production, any and all Army helicopters could be controlled via some commands typed into a tablet. They can even pick their own landing zones and fly at near ground lever, usually better than human pilots.
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