Future Think: Navy, Marines

By Cid Standifer / October 6, 2010 at 12:27 PM

As if swimming tanks and tracking gear on every Marine wasn’t enough like science fiction already, Navy Under Secretary Bob Work said yesterday that he sees technology right out of dystopian cinema in the future for the Navy and Marines.

After one audience query at the Expeditionary Warfare Conference, Work quipped, “The question was: When does Skynet take over?” a reference to the artificially intelligent system that declares war on humanity in the Terminator movies.

Turning serious, he went on: “Over time, more and more of our operational battle networks will become automated. I don’t believe it’s going to be 20 years. Now, in 19, 20? In 2020 I think you’re going to be able to get a 40 terraflop computer, which is about the capacity of a human brain, but how that is implemented inside the force, that’s going to be a competition that we don’t want to lose, but I think it’s going to be gradual.”

Work said that the battle network is going to be increasingly populated by unmanned systems, a process that has already begun. However, he said he doesn’t see a bipedal android army, a la the Battle Droids in recent Star Wars films, in the near future.

On the other hand, he noted that scientists are surprisingly close to creating exoskeleton armor that can essentially give troops superhuman abilities -- an innovation reminiscent of gear described in Starship Troopers. “I could easily see that within 20 to 25 years, where force recon has a suit which allows him to go all-out for 48 hours -- I mean all-out, cover ground like you used to be able to cover it with tanks. That’s going to be something our enemies are not going to want to see. I think the Marines are going to be in the forefront of that perspective.”

Work told reporters after his speech that scientists have already begun to develop an exoskeleton suit that a Marine could sit inside of that would walk for him and allow him to carry 250 pounds of gear. “It’s kind of bulky and it looks kind of funky,” he added, “but it’s not as far away as you might think.”

Asked if the success of the Rebel Alliance against the Empire in Star Wars gave him any doubts about going down that path, Work said, “We are going to have more unmanned systems in the future and more automated battle systems, but we never ever ever want to lose the human element in our thinking about warfighting, because that is what makes I think this force so special.”