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Defense Technology Monitor - No. 20

Edited by Richard M. Harrison
September 11, 2017

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is traditionally known for civilian space operations and exploration. However, NASA has teamed up with researchers from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory on a project designed to defend the planet against large incoming asteroids. Asteroids are constantly pelting Earth, but due to their typically small size they burn up in the atmosphere and do not pose a true threat. The question of how to deal with larger asteroids that are capable of reaching Earth's surface, however, remains a real one. To address it, the two organizations will conduct a Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) that sends a refrigerator sized projectile (traveling around 3.7 miles per second) at an asteroid, which is orbiting another asteroid, to crash into it and change its course. The key to such a program is timing; if a large asteroid is heading toward Earth, striking it with a projectile must occur far enough away that the asteroid's orbit will be sufficiently affected for it to change course. (, July 1, 2017)

Russian hackers, who have gained notoriety of late for their role in compromising email databases during the 2016 election cycle, are now setting their sights on a more ominous target: America's nuclear power plants. According to a joint report issued by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, Russian hackers are targeting employees of the Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation, who have access to critical systems of a nuclear plant in Kansas. Although it is not clear whether the hackers were successful in compromising the facility's external networks - plant representatives have stated that the "operations systems" were air gapped, meaning hackers would not be able to control the systems that could cause massive failure from the outside - the attack nonetheless suggests that the hackers were either mapping the facility for future attack or attempting to steal industrial secrets. (
The Verge, July 6, 2017)

As the field of artificial intelligence continues to advance, the U.S. military will need to prepare to fight "hyperwar," in which battles occur at speeds faster than the human mind can process. This accelerating pace represents a challenge for U.S. military leaders, who prefer to maintain a "man in the loop" to avoid letting machines make moral judgements about killing humans. It is not clear, however, that America's adversaries (including China and Russia) share the same calculus - a state of affairs that could leave the U.S. at a distinct disadvantage, with humans slowing the decision making process.

Retired Gen. John Allen, the four star commander in Afghanistan, believes the answer lies in evolved sensor systems that will provide more clarity to humans about prospective targets, and in being able to establish "kill boxes" where only enemy soldiers are present in order to allow artificial intelligence to make kill decisions. Alternatively, Amir Husain, an artificial intelligence entrepreneur, suggests that morality should be coded into each individual AI and into a greater overarching AI network, so that machines are capable of deciding on their own whether to take human life. (
Breaking Defense, July 10, 2017)

China's Navy may have managed to fix a glaring weakness with its submarines. State media reports that recognized innovator Rear Admiral Ma Weiming has developed a new Integrated Electric Propulsion System (IEPS) that utilizes new design technology to reduce noise and increase the stealthiness of China's underwater craft. Specifically, the new shaftless rim-driven pump jets allow submarines to run much more quietly and produce less bubbles, making the vessels more difficult to detect by enemy forces. Additionally, the IEPS differs from traditional systems in that it utilizes mechanical energy to turn a propeller shaft and generate electrical energy - energy that can then be used not only to drive but also to power directed energy weapons systems. It is not yet clear whether the design has been successfully implemented, but reports indicate that the new technology will eventually be incorporated on Chinese nuclear powered attack and ballistic missile submarines. (
South China Morning Post, July 4, 2017)

The U.S. Department of Defense has been experimenting with various ways to incorporate directed energy weapons, specifically lasers, into battlefield missions across all domains. Recent weeks have brought notable progress in integrating such capabilities into at least one facet of aerial combat. Specifically, after a number of successful tests at the White Sands Missile Range, it appears the U.S. military will now be able to deploy high energy laser weapons on helicopters. An Apache attack helicopter was able to track, target, and destroy simulated adversarial threats with a laser weapon. The development is significant, because such gunships are particularly useful in urban environments, but the explosive ordinance that they were previously forced to rely on caused too much collateral damage - something that won't be a problem if the aircraft can utilize lasers instead. (
, June 30, 2017)

Related Categories: Defense Technology Program

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