Tight budgets surprisingly may help Army technologically. 

William Matthews

What if soldiers could print out new equipment parts to modernize their weapons “right there on the front lines?” Think “3-D printing on steroids. I think you will see that in the next 10 years,” said Angela Messer, executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Technology promises the Army extraordinary advances despite a tight budget – or possibly because of them. Some of the high-tech stuff considered by many to be imagination actually already exists, Messer said. And some of it is in development, she told Army personnel and defense contractors at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition Oct. 22.

Driverless vehicles will talk to each other. When one hits a pothole – or worse, an IED – it will warn the vehicles behind it to avoid the hazard and trigger adjusts in their seatbelts and harnesses to save passengers lives.

There will be tremendous advances in “physical and cognitive technologies” to address performance, fatigue and learning, Messer said. Sensors and software promises to “really be able to detect and understand what’s going on in soldier’s body and mind,” she said.

Thanks to nanotechnology, “inexpensive sensors such as health monitors are being expanded upon and miniaturized,” so soon soldiers might be wearing, swallowing or even injecting tiny sensors that will report their physical status to a network watched by medics and commanders,” Messer said.

Other technology is already able to “interpret sentiment from text and voice.” Software that is capable of “interpreting emotions” and analyzing why soldiers make certain decisions might soon be available.

It could help soldiers “with resilience and health,” Messer said. But could it also second-guess battlefield decisions?

Biometrics will become ubiquitous, she said. It could help identify enemies – or keep tabs on U.S. soldiers.

Giant leaps in computing, gains in artificial intelligence and advances in probabilistic programming will all be battlefield game changers, Messer said.

But so will fiscal reality.

The Army faces a three-year budget “trough” from 2015 through 2018. During that time, the Army will have far less money for almost everything than it needs, said Lt. Gen. James Barclay, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for financial management.

“It is pretty clear, we don’t see an end in sight and it looks like we will be living with the Budget Control Act for the next about eight years,” Barclay said.

That 2011 act imposes automatic budget cuts that will reduce defense spending by $454 billion over the next 10 years.

“We’re going to have some very tough times,” Barclay said. From about 2015 to 2018 and perhaps to 2019, “we’re going to take some risks with modernization and with readiness.”

Although the Army is planning to cut 80,000 troops – from 570,000 in 2010 to 490,000 – that won’t save enough money to avoid erosion in modernization and readiness, Barclay said.

Still, the Army has some ideas for minimizing the impact of budget cuts, said Heidi Shyu, assistant army secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology.

* Efficiencies can be gained through multi-year buys of equipment. “It’s a lot cheaper” because companies can develop steady production schedules rather than price in the uncertainty of working from budget to budget and year to year, Shyu said.

* Divest older equipment. A lot of old gear “has been sitting around for a long time” needlessly consuming maintenance dollars, she said.

* Modernize older platforms such as vehicles and aircraft with next generation technologies. That’s important because buying new vehicles and aircraft probably will not be possible.

* “Invest in science and technology to give us the leap-ahead technologies” that the Army will need a few years from now, Shyu said.

For an Army that has grown used to living large off tens of billions of dollars a year in overseas contingency operations funds and emergency budget supplementals, the current shrinking budgets will be tough adjustment, Army officials said.

Today’s large platforms are likely to be around for a lot longer, Shyu said. So get used to the idea of “spiral development” –integrating new technology into old weapons.

Yet the grim financial outlook may contain some hidden positives, said Robie Samanta-Roy, a military technology expert on the Senate Armed Services Committee staff.

“This is a time to take a strategic pause and look at really what are the priorities – the offensive and defensive national security capabilities that we really want to pursue,” Samanta-Roy said. “It is a time and opportunity that should be seized to ask some really hard questions” about the U.S. military, the health of the industrial base, how acquisition might be reformed, and how innovation can be better incorporated into buying weapons and fielding forces.

It will also be a time to revive jointness, Samanta-Roy said. During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when money was flush, each service boosted its own capabilities rather than depend on another service – or even another department of government – for critical capabilities. But that era appears to be over.

Getting back to the idea that each services specialized in certain tasks might not be a bad idea, he said.