Disruptive Technology: How the Army Research Laboratory will change the future

Michael Zoltoski leads lethality research at the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate within the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. (U.S. Army photo by Tom Faulkner)

Michael Zoltoski leads lethality research at the Weapons and Materials
Research Directorate within the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. (U.S. Army photo by Tom Faulkner)

By Michael Zoltoski, ARL

Scientists are unlocking the mysteries of power, energy and lethality in the search for new materials and technologies. The U.S. Army Research Laboratory conducts fundamental research, which endeavors to provide revolutionary capabilities to the Army of 2025 and beyond.

In the science of lethality and protection, we face challenges as we look into the future and wonder what it will be like. We make predictions that guide the research of the underlying science that will have a significant impact 20 to 30 years into the future.

Our mantra is “assured delivery, overwhelming effects.” Our research focuses on ballistic science and builds upon ARL’s legacy as the world’s foremost expert in interior, exterior and terminal ballistics.

We rely on sensor and targeting information from other sources as we focus our investigations on weapon launch, flight and target defeat. We further break down our programs into three technical areas:

  • low-cost hyper-accurate weapons
  • disruptive energetic and propulsion science
  • lethal and scalable effects

We also have smaller efforts in the areas of electric fires, directed energy and Soldier lethality.

Low-cost, hyper-accurate weapons

In the future, we see every weapon system as being precise with a grand challenge of hitting moving targets at extended ranges without the use of terminal guidance. We aim to make these systems affordable by relaxing overly stringent constraints placed on the flight actuation and the guidance, and navigation and control technologies. We will accomplish this goal by conducting research in the areas of flight sciences and estimation and control theory.

Since we’re looking far out onto the horizon, we must also consider how we will operate in what I would call a countered-environment, where traditional technologies like GPS are denied. This may happen because the enemy jams or attacks the weapon’s electronics. For example, if GPS is jammed or denied, we can fall back to a different constellation of navigational sensors, which use advanced algorithms and mathematical solutions to guide the weapon to the target. The challenge we face is that some of these advanced algorithms cannot yet be processed in real-time on a chip that meets the size of smaller projectiles.

One nascent research area is image-based navigation at different bands with compressive sensing. This is where we use emerging sensing and blob detection techniques to locate threats, either identified before, at, or after weapon launch.

After threat detection, we must navigate and maneuver the weapon, further complicated by the fact that weapons fly at different mach numbers and may or may not be spinning. We have expanded our research into omnisonics (sub-, trans-, super- and hyper- sonic) as well as morphing airframes, which can change shape depending on what regime it is operating, and thus offer the potential to extend our range by more than 300 percent with unprecedented maneuverability.

While we want to put precision in every weapon, it most likely will be too costly for the Army to field weapons with pinpoint accuracy in large numbers. One of our more far-reaching concepts is called parent-child. In this concept, one weapon is designated as the parent and the other ones are called the children, which have a lower cost than the parent. The parent flies out and collects target information in real-time and then communicates and syncs this information with its children. The weapons then swarm and attack the threats identified by the parent weapon, providing overwhelming lethality when compared to current use of weapons on the battlefield.

Initial modeling shows that we could double or triple our current lethality using this approach.

Army researchers envision a swarming technology for future missile systems.

Army researchers envision a swarming technology for future missile systems.

Disruptive energetics and propulsion science

When combined with our other research areas, disruptive energetics and propulsion science have the potential to bring about revolutionary advances to the way we fight. We have known for several years that the performance of current energetic materials, which are based solely on carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen chemistry, has reached a plateau. As such, several new research endeavors focused on higher density carbon-, hydrogen-, nitrogen- and oxygen-based energetic molecules and novel classes of materials, such as extended solids, were begun at ARL.

These new molecules and materials have the potential to increase energy by up to 30 percent or more, thus resulting in new weapon platforms, which have an order of magnitude more power relative to those using current propellants and explosives.

Before synthesizing higher density novel energetic materials, we use a complex suite of reactive multiscale materials modeling codes, developed using Army mission and high-performance computing resources, to computationally assess the potential performance and vulnerability characteristics of candidate molecules. These codes provide insight into the sensitivity and eventual performance and allow us to screen many different molecules before synthesis, thereby increasing number of molecules that we can investigate while reducing developmental time.

Unlike conventional energetics that are synthesized via traditional bench-top organic synthesis, the new extended solid class of materials, takes advantage of ultra-high pressure, which allows one to increase the energy stored between two atoms through manipulation of the bonding structure.

At our new state-of-the-art laboratory, we start our synthesis with a gas and then through a combination of high-pressure and temperature the gaseous material is converted into a solid with a highly strained network. In many cases, when the pressure is released the material simply converts back to a gas without any significant energy release. However, our computational models revealed several techniques for the stabilization of the highly strained solid, thus preventing the transformation back to the gaseous material. Using these insights, we were recently successful in experimentally recovering an extended solid from its high pressure synthesis conditions, which represents a significant breakthrough and a world’s first. We are in the process of producing additional material so we can characterize several of its energetic characteristics in small scale experimental tests. Additional experimental efforts are also underway to develop techniques for larger scale production.

Lethal and scalable effects

Our final core research area studies the behavior and effects of a projectile when it hits its target. Right now, we focus not only on delivering the right amount of energy to the target but also on delivering that energy more precisely. At the same time, we are studying methods to service multiple threats with a single configurable penetrator that will be effective against armored vehicles, building, bunkers and personnel. Here we rely on the kinetic energy of the penetrator to destroy the varying target.

Another developing concept redistributes the energy on target to make a more effective use of it. Traditionally, if we look at the lethality of a single weapon, we waste a lot of energy because it is concentrated around the impact point and at further distances from the target, there is very little effect. This redistribution, delivered by a parent-child swarms approach, will be a significantly more effective use of the energy against a target.


We are not alone in our pursuit of overwhelming lethality as we partner and collaborate with the other RDECOM centers, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, universities and industries research laboratories, as well as defense research organizations from other countries.

We use communities of interests and practices, technology project agreements, cooperative research agreements and data exchange agreements as the mechanisms for these collaborations. This strategy guarantees information sharing that will be vital in reaching our joint goals of being able to reach farther and more effectively conduct joint operational missions.

There will be other emerging technologies in the Army of 2025 and beyond, like directed energy and electric fires. Directed energy will become more important as it transitions from its current state as a strategic asset with a large footprint due to size to generate, condition, store and deliver power to a tactical asset as the current power and energy footprint for directed energy weapons shrink in size.

We will shortly see high-powered microwaves or lasers on the battlefield accomplishing some of the missions of more traditional weapons for a simple reason: DE provides the opportunity to allow the Soldier of tomorrow to possess an infinite magazine. These weapons will not need ammunition resupply. As long as there is electric power, Soldiers will have an unlimited supply of firepower.

There is still a myriad of challenges to completely fulfill the promise of this technology. As researchers develop solutions for power, energy and thermal management issues, directed energy when combined with ballistic weapons will wield unprecedented lethal effects to accomplish the mission in a decisive manner.

Editor’s note: Michael Zoltoski leads the Lethality Division of the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate within the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. He has published extensively at the classified level and has presented at both national and international conferences. Zoltoski earned a bachelor of science in civil engineering from Bucknell University and a master of science in mechanical engineering from Johns Hopkins University.