As the current Middle East conflict continues on, futuristic military systems might be further away because of a new enemy: congressional budgets.
Earlier today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced sweeping changes to the United States defense budget, putting the Pentagon on a track to mount counter-insurgency attacks, as opposed to fighting conventional military forces.
Included in these the changes: cuts to the Army's Future Combat Systems program, a $92 Billion program that was designed to upgrade the military with manned and unmanned vehicles, as well as to introduce such programs as the Future Force Warrior, which explored such concepts such as exo-skeletons and nano technology. The idea was to create a highly mobile fighting force that would use superior communications and technology to gain an edge in battle.
Introduced in 2003, the program was first introduced with the intent to redesign elements of the US armed forces to better conform to network-centric warfare, as well as introducing new vehicles and equipment for soldiers to use. Originally, the plan called for the equipping of 15 brigades, or around 3,000 soldiers, over the next two decades. However, as early as 2005, the program's costs began to skyrocket, and the program has been plagued with technical problems along the way. The entire cost of the program do date is estimated to be around $296 billion, which has left a number of its supporters within the government looking for a way out. Critics of the program have called for its end, saying that the combined technological advances would be too complicated to integrate and put into the battlefield.
A slowdown in funding for the program, along with other elements, means that we're not going to be seeing any powered-armor soldiers jumping between streets in Baghdad any time soon, but it also means the military is adapting to ongoing changes. The futuristic suits that soldiers were envisioned to wear went away as program costs skyrocketed, as well as some of the other requirements that the program had started out with, according to Wired Magazine. But, while this might be a disappointment to science fiction fans who were waiting for the day that Starship Troopers came to life, this move is not necessarily a bad one for the military to make.
If anything, the War on Terror, or whatever we're supposed to call it nowadays, has shown that technology doesn't necessarily equal superiority on the battlefield. Robert Baer's 2003 book, See No Evil, points out that while there was much funding for high tech surveillance, none of it replaces the value of an operative in the field. P.W. Singer's latest book, Wired For War, also brings up the problems inherent on the battlefield with network centric warfare, from computer problems to chain of command issues. Army Col. Thomas Hammes, in his book The Sling and the Stone, cites this very issue as a problem with modern warfare, as the United States sought to fight an Iraqi insurgency, using a high-tech army in a conventional manner.
In a nutshell, right now, the United States fields one of the most advanced militaries in the world, and the need to overhaul how we fight isn't as pressing at the moment, and the money that would otherwise be used for this goal could certainly be used for tools that we know work.
So will we ever see the dawn of exoskeletons and power armor? Probably, because these ideas certainly have merit, but with the constraints of modern technology and the changing nature of how wars are fought, it's always a good idea to question the use of a system that does not necessarily provide an inherent advantage over enemy forces armed with technology from the 1970s.