Flying grenades. Mini spy blimps. Robotic bomb-busters. Suicide-vest spotters. Battlefield 3D printers. The Army is retooling for a very austere, very remote way of war. And the gear that's required is very different from the hardware that came before.
Most American soldiers used to live and fight from massive bases, complete with all sorts of creature comforts and heavy defenses. Today's troops don't have it so good. They're increasingly operating from small, isolated outposts, where they need to spot and ward off attacks without all the gun turrets and heavy armor and surveillance towers found on the old super-bases.
Coming up with that new gear has become a top mission for the Rapid Equipping Force, the Army office charged with getting tools and gadgets out to troops in a hurry. They showed off their latest kit at Ft. Belvoir, Va. just before Thanksgiving. Here's a sample.
Battle Lab in a Box
At Camp Nathan Smith outside of Kandahar, there's a 20-foot cargo container loaded with a 3D printer, a computer-controlled machine for cutting metal, and a couple of Ph.D.s. It's one of three REF "expeditionary labs" placed around Afghanistan that can quickly design and prototype tools for troops on the ground right now.
The Nathan Smith team, on the screen above, printed up new bolt links for the M240 machine gun on their remote weapons system when the old ones broke. They coded a program that plots enemy attacks on Google Earth. And over the course of three weeks, they built in the lab new adapters that extended the battery life of their metal detectors from 45 minutes to 30 hours. The Army liked the adapters so much, they ordered up another 2,000, which will be distributed all over Afghanistan.