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Defense Technology Monitor - No. 18

Edited by Richard M. Harrison and Gabrielle Timm
July 25, 2017

Scientists are working on using actual bugs for electronic surveillance. Researchers will soon be able to control a dragonfly's flight using a small electronic backpack, allowing for a light and stealthy micro aerial vehicle. Using a synthetic biological technique, researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Ashburn, Virginia have developed a method to introduce genes traditionally found in the eye into the neurons that steer a dragonfly's flight path. The newly manipulated steering neurons become sensitive to light, and can be controlled from "optrodes" in the backpack, which send the dragonfly flight commands through direct pulses of light. Relying on an actual insect rather than a full machine has the inherent advantage of not using complicated miniature mechanical systems that would require a power source. The cyborg dragonflies could be used for intelligence gathering, search and rescue missions, and medical applications, among others. This research is still in its early stages, however, with prototype backpacks slated for testing only this summer. (Signal, May 1, 2017)


The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the strength of Russia's electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, which have been effective in paralyzing the Ukrainian military by jamming GPS and communications. The war has also provided a teachable moment for the United States, which has fallen behind both Russia and China in its development of ground-based EW. In response, the U.S. Army Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) is working feverishly to make up some ground by field-testing new EW equipment in Germany as a stopgap measure until more robust systems come online in a couple of years. According to RCO director Doug Wiltsie, both light infantry and medium-weight combat brigades in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment are testing vehicle mounted and man-portable EW devices with longer range jammers than are currently available. The new kit will only be deployed to the European theater, and will be used alongside two other projects now under development - in the realms of cybersecurity and GPS alternatives - that will help level the playing field against Russia in the event of a future conflict. (Breaking Defense, May 3, 2017)


Modern militaries rely heavily on electronic systems, and the U.S. Department of Defense is working to exploit this vulnerability through the use of electromagnetic energy. The Air Force and Raytheon have teamed to integrate high power electromagnetic (HPEM) capabilities with cyber and electronic systems that can be deployed using a small portable antennae system. The HPEM device will emit electromagnetic energy pulses traveling at the speed of light and target enemy electronic systems through their antennae. Raytheon hopes to find a way to maximize the range and power density of the pulses, so that the highest amount of electromagnetic energy reaches the circuitry of enemy devices. (Defense Systems, May 15, 2017)

In a matter of just two years, the U.S. Navy hopes to reduce its current reliance on gunpowder weapons and shift to a railgun that utilizes electromagnetic pulse technology to fire projectiles. Railguns are currently being tested at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia and at the Army's White Sands Missile Range as the service works to perfect the system. The railguns in question can fire a 35-pound projectile at speeds of Mach 5.8, with a range upward of 100 nautical miles. When fired from a railgun, as opposed to a gunpowder weapon, projectiles fly further and are so hard hitting that no high explosive warhead is necessary.

The military hopes to achieve a 10 shot per minute capability and a barrel life of approximately 1,000 shots prior to deployment of the technology. However, power remains a major limiting factor, as only nuclear powered aircraft carriers and destroyers can currently provide the necessary 20 megawatts to power a railgun. But temporary stop-gaps exist; although not as effective, in the near-term the Army is capitalizing on Hyper-Velocity Projectiles designed for railguns, and using them in conjunction with traditional gunpowder weapons in order to shoot down cruise missiles. (Breaking Defense, May 19, 2017)

The U.S. military is increasingly serious about understanding and mitigating potential threats to vulnerable space assets. At a recent conference in Washington, Vice Admiral Charles Richard, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, stated that "China is developing an arsenal of lasers, electro-magnetic rail guns, and high-powered microwave weapons to neutralize America's intelligence, communications, and navigation satellites." Particularly at risk are the GPS satellites that both the U.S. civilian and military sectors depend upon. In response, the U.S. military is training an elite unit out of a warehouse in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, with an eye toward combat that may reach outer space. According to Captain Christopher Barnes, the chief of training for the 26th Space Aggressor Squadron, "we study threats to the space realm, either coming from space or based on land. If we can't directly replicate them with hardware, then we figure out if there's a software solution or some way we can train people to the point where they can fight through them, if they have to, in a conflict." (International Business Times, May 26, 2017)