FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Future soldiers may enter a battlefield alongside autonomous fighting vehicles on the ground and a "ghost fleet" of unmanned ships at sea, as swarms of miniature drones buzz overhead.
All the while, commanders will analyze data from social networks to understand the public sentiment and trends as the fighting unfolds.
This is what the battlefield of the future likely will resemble.
But for that to happen, several speakers at the National Defense Industrial Association's annual Armament Systems Forum in Fredericksburg, Virginia, said Tuesday that much has to change about how the military acquires and implements new gear.
And based on what the speakers said, the defense industry, both on the government and civilian side, may need to take some pointers from Silicon Valley's approach to research and development.
The conference schedule this week combines more than 300 military and industrial participants and covers topics that range from leadless bullet primers to special operations equipment acquisitions.
The defense community is in the beginning stages of a "Third Offset" that will radically transform the military in ways that may take decades to unfold. Much of what is going to happen is in testing stages or on the drawing board, and much remains unknown.
But experts at the conference made clear that these changes are happening, and enemies are not waiting. Instead, they are adapting.
The "First Offset" was when the U.S. military shifted from traditional war fighting common during the Korean War and previous modern wars that often resulted in "many soldiers — many bullets — one kill," said Ted Maciuba, deputy director of the Army’s Mounted Requirements Division at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, Georgia.
Then-President Dwight Eisenhower moved the military into a nuclear-focused, Cold War fighting organization that meant "fewer soldiers — one big nuclear bullet — many kills."
But the collateral damage associated with such attacks, along with nuclear waste and the Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, doctrine, was unsustainable and not applicable to counterinsurgency warfare and post-Cold War realities, Maciuba said.
At that time came the "Second Offset," which meant precision-guided weapons and communications systems such as GPS. That is credited for much of the stunning success of the Persian Gulf War, said Vincent Sabio, program manager at the Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office.
The military is in the beginning stages of the "Third Offset," which will include robotics, miniaturization of technologies and big data to produce "one soldier — many bullets — many kills."
But to do that, Sabio argues, the industry/defense partnership needs to move away from a "high quality" production system that sometimes brings costly systems into the inventory, or fails to produce systems after decades of investment, to a "good enough" approach that aims to "fail early and fix early."
That means prototypes being made and tested much earlier in the process, rather than trying to create a perfect system before putting it into the hands of the war fighter, Sabio said.
He quickly cautioned that systems that protect people’s lives must retain the highest standards of quality.
Sabio said there cannot be anymore $100 million field tests where "failure is not an option." He did not specify any program as an example.
The future soldier must be adaptable, but the systems must have an "intuitive interface" like an iPhone, said Maciuba.
Historically, training has been the last consideration when new equipment was developed. But direction from the Joint Chiefs of Staff has integrated training and users into the process, he said.
Maciuba said new systems will require training, but the military cannot equip a high-school educated soldier with equipment that takes PhD-level expertise to operate.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.