Published May 27, 2009
It's the year 2030. As a soldier enters a crowded marketplace, sensors mounted on his helmet automatically scan faces in the crowd, identifying a known insurgent; a cursor in the heads-up display highlights the target and cues the weapon, which can be set to stun or kill; a simple voice command unlocks the trigger.
Aided by "smart drugs," enhanced with prosthetics, and protected by a lightweight suit of armor, this soldier of the future possesses near super-human capabilities and weapons that would make even Iron Man jealous.
He's suited up in an "exoskeleton" - essentially a Storm Trooper-esque external shell - that allows him to carry heavy loads.
Electronics integrated in his outfit allow for simultaneous language translation, automatic identification of potential foes, and video-game-like targeting. If the soldier is tired, overworked, or injured, neural and physiological sensors automatically send an alert to headquarters.
It's all part of the Army's starry-eyed vision of grunts 20 years from now, and it's just one aspect of the Pentagon's ambitious thinking about technologies that will transform the way the military fights. There are also plans for advanced robotic aircraft; missiles that travel seven times the speed of sound; and ship- and aircraft-based laser weapons that could blast missiles out of the sky.
These aren't fantasy. Many of these technologies are plausible, or in development. Whether the military can afford them is an entirely different question.
Each branch of the military has its own plans, but the Army concept of tomorrow's soldier borrows heavily from nearly every genre of science fiction. Dubbed "Future Soldier 2030," the vision is the brainchild of the Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts, an Army organization responsible for researching and developing new technologies for the individual fighter.