Navy of 2030 could bring sci-fi to reality
By Andrew Tilghman - Staff writer
Posted : Saturday Jan 2, 2010 17:06:25 EST
In the year 2030, sailors may be using laser-based weaponry, flying fighter jets overseas from a computer console in Virginia and spending as much time protecting satellites in space as they will spend guarding strike groups at sea.
Once a far-flung date considered solely by science-fiction writers, the year 2030 is now a potential retirement date for many of the Navy’s youngest sailors. So the Navy’s changes between now and then will affect sailors’ jobs, missions and careers.
What will the Navy look like in 20 years?
What new technologies will emerge?
Who will be the primary enemy?
And how will tomorrow’s sailors — and Navy culture — change?
Most Navy futurists agree that tomorrow’s Navy will be lighter and faster.
“We’re going to need to fight at the speed of light, and by 2030, I think the technology will support direct-energy weapons,” said Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, head of the Office of Naval Research.
Specifically, ONR is working on developing a free-electron laser, with applications on land, at sea and in the air. Its speed will be ideal for ballistic missile defense and could revolutionize the Aegis Combat System. Today, naval officers are getting hands-on experience with the FEL at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., which has a prototype of the technology.
Other projects include the unmanned fighter jets that will join the Navy’s future air wings. The Unmanned Combat Air System is scheduled to make its first test flight this year. Navy leaders openly talk about it replacing the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets after 2025.
Other defining technologies are likely to emerge as well, said John Meagher, a strategic futurist with the TASC Group, a consulting firm in Virginia.
For example: miniaturization.
“We are going to see great strides in being able to make very complicated technological equipment very, very small, and that is going to allow for many new missions in terms of underwater exploration, reconnaissance and surveillance,” Meagher said in a recent interview.
Specifically, he envisions sailors at computer consoles operating unmanned intelligence-gathering devices that look and swim like real fish and can penetrate harbors and other areas inaccessible to today’s Navy.
What it means to sailors
Among the biggest changes sailors can expect to see during the next 20 years is improved safety.
“As we get systems that are more autonomous and unmanned, right up front you have removed sailors from harm’s way and let the machine go into harm’s way,” Carr said.
“Right off the bat, that is very, very important,” he added.
And the devices that affect sailors the most may be those that receive little attention beyond the Navy.
For example, new paints and coatings will reduce maintenance needs for some machinery. And safety devices — like next-generation hearing protection — may eliminate some occupational risks.
Surgical enhancements may be commonplace. In the 1990s, aviators began getting LASIK surgery to correct vision problems. In the future, special warfare troops may get surgery that improves their night vision.
Meanwhile, the way sailors use tomorrow’s technology may move beyond today’s joysticks, keyboards and computer screens, said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”
“That could be very simple. Take the vibrator on your cell phone: You don’t hear it — you feel it,” Singer said.
He also talked about advancements in neuroscience that allow the brain to control devices directly. Doctors have learned how to wire the brain to control computer cursors or even prosthetic limbs. In the future, a skullcap with sensors may allow a user to translate thoughts into actions and operations, Singer said.
Perhaps the hardest thing to predict is the cultural dynamics that will define the future of the Navy and its leadership.
“Somewhere out there, the future CNO is probably a Hannah Montana fan who is reading vampire books. They’ve never experienced the Cold War — it is almost meaningless to them,” Singer said.
“Sometimes we have a tendency to put ourselves in that future,” he said. “But then you realize that the kid texting underneath the dinner table is going to be the leader in that period.”
New missions, enemies
Most Navy planners envision China emerging as a powerful peer competitor to the U.S. Navy.
“China is in an economic war with us in a very subtle way, and if it ever got less subtle, we would look to the Navy to help us keep our shipping lanes open. And I think they’d have a very difficult time doing that, quite frankly,” said Sheila Ronis, a professor at Walsh College in Troy, Mich. Ronis works with the Project on National Security Reform in Washington, D.C.
Others worry less about China and more about a vastly expanded Navy role to protect the seas at a time when those seas are home to vast fish farms and wind-energy generators vital to a world with exploding populations and dwindling natural resources.
“There is going to be a tremendous need to maintain and sustain the technological systems we put into place,” said John Meagher, a strategic futurist with the TASC Group, a consulting firm in Virginia.
In that case, piracy and asymmetrical terrorist threats will top the Navy’s list of concerns.
Asymmetrical threats may not always mean low-tech adversaries. As technology marches on, small countries or even bands of pirates will have access to high-tech devices.
“I’m very worried about our ability to defend our technological edge. We may have it today, but it is going to erode quickly as all of our adversaries are able to buy it off-the-shelf for themselves,” Ronis said.