Anthony G Williams


This is a slightly updated version of an article which first appeared in the Autumn 2007 edition of FOCUS, the British Science Fiction Association's magazine for writers



 It is nearly half a century since Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" depicted future soldiers with powered, armoured exoskeletons fitted with rockets for flight, and wielding flamethrowers, high explosive missiles and mini-nuclear weapons. But reality lags well behind; apart from the use of night sights, there is little in the equipment of the modern soldier which would not be instantly recognisable to his counterparts in the Second World War. So how long will it be before we see developments long-predicted in SF actually in use?

            Powered personal armour is still some way off, but marching up the priority scale. The urgent need to minimise casualties is driving the development of more effective armour, and also increasing its coverage over more of the body. Despite weight-saving efforts, the burden this places on infantrymen (together with weapons, ammunition, and all the other kit) is obvious, especially in the 50C Middle East summers. Power-assisted movement is therefore increasingly desirable, and is becoming more feasible as a result of developments in various fields: high power-density batteries and miniaturised fuel cells for use in mobile phones and zero-emission cars, plus lightweight electric motors.

            An infantryman's weapons use fundamentally ancient technology. Machine guns (MGs) and automatic rifles were developed by the end of the 19th century, and the present versions differ only in detail and materials. Current plans envisage little change, the most radical proposals (in the US Lightweight Small Arms Technologies programme) concerning the adoption of plastic-cased or caseless ammunition to save weight, and these are hardly new. Practical caseless cartridges were developed by Dynamit Nobel twenty years ago for the abortive Heckler & Koch G11 rifle, cancelled at the end of the Cold War.

Intense effort is being put into developing lasers and other beam weapons, but so far mainly with bigger, vehicle-mounted applications in mind. For personal weapons, chemically-propelled projectiles are likely to remain the most efficient way of delivering energy to a target for the next few decades.

            For the immediate future, high-technology weapon developments are focused on grenade launchers. These devices, which are typically fixed under the barrel of a rifle, fire a variety of 30-40mm calibre projectiles. The normal warshot is high explosive/fragmentation (HE/Frag) for anti-personnel use, but other types include HEDP (HE dual-purpose, which can punch through 50+mm of armour plate), thermobaric, anti-diver (designed to explode underwater) and less-lethal impact or irritant chemical rounds for riot control. The latest novelty, shortly to enter service, is HEAB (HE Air Burst).

HEAB requires a ballistic computer taking data from a laser rangefinder and coupled to an automatically-adjusted sight and an electronic fuze setter. The projectiles fired need a special time fuze. The purpose of all of this expensive technology is to permit the gunner to fire at targets which are hiding behind cover; the projectiles can be timed to explode precisely overhead. The USA was developing two gun and ammunition combinations purpose-designed for this system, both in 25mm calibre: the XM25 eight-shot self-loading gun and the belt-fed XM307 MG (although the second has been cancelled and the first is looking shaky). However the technology is also being applied to older 40mm weapons.

            Another development which may be particularly suited to grenade launchers is the Metal Storm system: this involves stacking several caseless rounds of ammunition in one barrel, which are electronically fired in turn a modern version of an idea which has been around for centuries. However, the much-hyped ability of Metal Storm to fire "a million rounds a minute" is purely a publicity gimmick.

            The most radical innovation about to affect the soldier is concerned with communications and information, as a part of the "network-centric warfare" concept. Much attention is being paid to providing the man on the ground with as much information as possible; by radio, projected onto a visor attached to the helmet, or sent to a hand-held PDA. The displays includes maps of the area showing the location of friendly troops, plus real-time video images from day/night rifle sights, small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or parachute-borne cameras fired from grenade launchers.

            In theory, this information revolution has the power to transform warfare, but the first trials of the prototype American "Land Warrior System", which incorporates much of this, hit a snag: the soldiers were being so overwhelmed with information that it was distracting them from the business of fighting. The high cost, weight, technical glitches and reliance on batteries are also worries, but it could be that the main limitation on introducing advanced systems for the infantryman is not the technology but the "wetware": the ability of the human brain to process information under stress.

This connects with another current enthusiasm of the military: the development of unmanned aircraft, vehicles and naval vessels. At present they are remotely controlled or pre-programmed, but the ultimate aim is a fully autonomous system, which can identify targets and decide when to open fire. This is still some way off, and is ethically highly controversial, but robots have major advantages in never sleeping, eating, losing concentration, or having to be sent home in body bags. It may be that the "Terminator" movies provide a more accurate vision of future warfare than Heinlein's.