Electromagnetic pulse guns, genetically designed killer diseases and swarms of miniature self-guided missiles — if these sound like the products of a mad scientist, they should. They are among the threats predicted during the U.S. Army's 11th annual Mad Scientist Future Technology Seminar (no, really) in Newport News, Va.
The event, held at the end of January, brought together scientists, science-fiction writers, futurists, academics, students and U.S. officials to brainstorm on ways science and technology might combine in unexpected fashion to challenge U.S. military pre-eminence.
"It is only a matter of time before there is a significant high-tech surprise awaiting U.S. military forces," according to a summary of the seminars conclusions supplied to The Washington Times.
"We were basically trying to work out how people could use new and emerging technologies … to do malicious things," said Jim Bernheimer, 40, a science-fiction and fantasy author who attended the event.
One focus of the discussions was the rapidly expanding capabilities of non-state actors, such as terrorist groups, he said. "Right now, its only major nation states that are using drone technology" to build unmanned aircraft, Mr. Bernheimer said, giving one example. "But in 15 to 25 years … even small groups will have those capabilities.
"I personally find that alarming."
Tom Pappas, director of intelligence analysis for the U.S. Armys Training and Doctrine Command, which organized the seminar, said in an interview that this "proliferation of information" was empowering individuals and small groups — not just well-known terrorist organizations.
"Imagine a technologically enabled Ted Kaczynski," said Mr. Pappas, referring to the lone eco-extremist terrorist better known as the Unabomber, whose 17-year-long campaign with primitive parcel bombs killed three Americans and injured 24.
Mr. Pappas said 105 people — including five science-fiction authors, seven futurists and 14 academics — attended the three-day event.
The summary lists five "significant findings" of the seminar, concluding that "emerging biological technology … especially in the hands of non-state actors, has the greatest potential to catch the Army unprepared in the short term" by allowing the creation and delivery of new diseases for which there is no cure.
The summary states that this capability likely will be available to U.S. adversaries "as early as 2015."
"A realistic example would be to alter a naturally mutating flu virus," it said.
Other specific technologies highlighted as future threats at the event included devices that produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a huge surge of radiation like that produced by a nuclear explosion that destroys electrical circuits over wide areas. EMP devices can render useless communications and other electronic systems — like those used for high-tech weapons — leaving military units that are attacked by them blind, isolated and crippled.
The seminar concluded that "EMP weapons will become available to potential adversaries in mortar and artillery rounds soon," and that "blending the technologies necessary to generate an EMP with advances in miniaturization could produce a hand-held EMP gun before 2020."
The seminar also highlighted the dangers posed by advances in robotics, combined with those in nanotechnology — the science of creating molecule-sized machinery — and advanced computing and artificial intelligence.
"One of the most significant impacts of this blending will be the flooding of the battlefield with swarms of miniature … explosives that will have the capability to … cause severe casualties," the summary stated.
It calls these miniature flying bombs "a more lethal descendant of todays IED," or improvised explosive devices, the homemade bombs that have proved so deadly against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
George Smith, a defense technology analyst and a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, said in an interview that he was skeptical about the value of such exercises.
"It is always easy to find people who will pontificate about these matters and blow smoke in everyones ears," he said. "Its a fancy idea lab, but the ideas are not that good."
"They have been predicting some of these things for 20 years," Mr. Smith said about some of the advanced threats discussed in the summary.
The seminar also addressed broader changes in human development that might prove problematic for the military over the next two decades.
"Science and technology [are] driving potential enemies away from directly attacking the Army," the summary said.
Instead, adversaries are likely to try to bypass the military, shifting "toward a focus on disrupting transportation, banking, and government infrastructure within the United States" by exploiting malicious use of the Internet and other computer networks, "generating greater stress in an increasingly vulnerable U.S. homeland."
"The idea of a [front] line, an area of operations, has fundamentally changed," Mr. Pappas said. The U.S. military, he said, now needs "to protect and to operate in the whole space that goes from the homeland … to where a particular operation [is under way] in a cave in Afghanistan."
One element of those changes, said Mr. Pappas' colleague Rick Goldblatt, another of the event organizers, was driven by the increasing ubiquity of social networking technologies — Web sites such as Facebook and geo-location services for cell phones and other mobile devices such as Loopt.
These technologies present security problems for the military. The Israeli Defense Forces recently called off an operation after a soldier posted advance details of it on his Facebook page.
But they also mean that "a hostile actor could obtain information about an individual [soldiers] family" back home and use it to target them, said Mr. Goldblatt. "The definition of a combatant has expanded," he said, pointing out that pilots who remotely fly the Predator and other unmanned aircraft over battlefields in Afghanistan do so from a base in Nevada.
Social networking also creates potential "force multiplier" effects for U.S. adversaries, especially terrorists, Mr. Bernheimer said.
For a terrorist group, "The more panic you can cause, the better," he said. "Its not necessarily about the event itself, but the impact, how it is perceived, how it is spun."
Creatively malicious use of social networking could enable terrorists to make "a small event seems a lot worse" than it really was.
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