Now more than ever, the Defense Department is placing a premium on innovation, launching partnerships with Silicon Valley companies and finding ways for smaller firms to sell their wares to the Pentagon. At the same time, leadership has stressed to traditional defense contractors that they need to invest their own money on research and development if they want to keep the Pentagon as a customer.
With that in mind, here are 15 of the coolest, most cutting-edge weapons that defense firms and the Pentagon itself are developing for the near future.
With an acronym from "Star Wars" and capabilities that could help pull off a "Mission Impossible"-style heist, this new technology will allow sailors at sea to spot lasers before they are in the line of target.
At a rock concert, you can see a laser beam only after the venue has been filled with fog. The LITSABR program, which stands for Laser Identification through Scattering and Beam Recognition, will allow sensors and cameras to detect laser beams that have scattered on particles in the air, like aerosols, water vapor, dust and pollutants, said John DeGrassie, a scientist at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific's Atmospheric Propagation Branch.
This will allow sailors to know a laser is being used around them before it is actually being pointed at them.
"If you're at sea, you have to wait until you're lazed to figure out that you're being lazed, and it may be too late. How do we get in front of that?" DeGrassie said.
While the main focus is on detecting laser threats at sea, DeGrassie said it can work anywhere a laser is being used, including in the air or on the ground if a weapon has a laser sight.
The program is still in the basic research stage, yet DeGrassie said the center is "on the path" of developing the technology into a "tangible widget" that can be used by the fleet, but did not give a timeline for doing so.
In the air and at sea, the Office of Naval Research is developing drones that can navigate off each other, mirroring the swarm behavior of birds, fish and insects.
The unmanned aerial swarm vehicles are launched out of tubes, then can navigate and make autonomous decisions once in the air, said Bob Freeman, a spokesman for the Office of Naval Research. He stressed that this autonomous decision-making involves issues such as how to approach a target, and that targeting decisions are always made by troops.
Freeman said this could be useful for deterrence. For example, if a Navy vessel is being approached by a small fishing boat, which could be a suicide bomber, sailors could quickly release a swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles to surround the boat and try to intimidate it.
An at-sea test on a Navy test vessel is set for some time this summer, Freeman said.
On the water, the office is working on unmanned boats that can use other vessels in the swarm to navigate and make autonomous decisions about how to approach a vehicle.
Northrop Grumman is working on Phase 3 of the Navy's Tern program to develop an unmanned aerial vehicle that can take off and land on smaller decks and in rough seas.
The third phase of the joint program between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research will build a full-scale demonstrator of a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle that will be used first in ground-based testing before progressing to at-sea tests, according to a DARPA release.
The UAV is expected to sit on its tail while on the deck of a ship, and have two nose-mounted propellers that can lift the drone like a helicopter, shift to horizontal flight like a plane, then transition back to vertical to land from a ship that's as small as a destroyer, the release says.
DARPA christened its first "ghost ship" this year that can sail for months at a time without any crew on board, according to a release.
The Anti-Surface Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV, is a 130-foot unmanned trimaran that will eventually be able to track submarines or conduct countermine activities all without a single person onboard. The first vehicle was christened "Sea Hunter" in April.
While the ACTUVs can operate independently, navigating varied sea conditions while obeying international rules of the road, it can also be piloted remotely if needed. Both options will cost less than sending a manned ship to do the mission, the DARPA release said.
This high-speed weapon can launch projectiles at speeds greater than Mach 6 with no gun powder, both making U.S. Navy ships more lethal and reducing the amount of explosives they will need to carry.
The Electromagnetic Railgun, an Office of Naval Research project that began in 2001, uses electricity to shoot projectiles and can hit targets more than 100 nautical miles away in about six minutes, according to a Defense Department release.
The railgun prototype will undergo the next phase of testing both on land and at sea starting this year.
Lockheed Martin's Joint Air-to-Ground Missile is a catch-all system that will replace the TOW, Hellfire and Maverick missiles. While the current missile systems are built for specific conditions, the JAGM is equipped with open architecture to allow for laser, millimeter-wave and thermal targeting systems to be installed, giving the operator different tracking options for changing conditions.
The JAGM's advanced motor gives the missile a range of over 12 miles, more than double the distance of previous missile systems. In addition, the missile has flexible targeting methods that allow it to "lock on before launch" or "lock on after launch," allowing the operator to evade enemy airspace quicker if needed.
Lockheed Martin locked down the $66.3 million contract from the Army in 2015. The missile is scheduled for initial operational tests in 2018, according to Frank St. John, Lockheed Martin's vice president of tactical missiles. The JAGM will be produced by the same Lockheed Martin line that builds Hellfire and Longbow missiles.
Raytheon's Pike missile is the answer to long-range ground attacks that usually would be countered by an inaccurate .50-caliber machine gun. The Pike, a hand-held precision missile for soldiers, is 17 inches long and weighs two pounds, small enough to fit in a gun-mounted grenade launcher, allowing for greater mobility for ground troops.
The Pike uses a laser guidance system to amplify effectiveness while reducing collateral damage. It is equipped with a separate handheld laser for a partner soldier to guide the missile on target within five yards at a range of a mile-and-a-half.
The Raytheon missile system is portable across unmanned aerial vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, ground vehicles, small boats and remotely operated weapons stations. It is in initial test phases at the Raytheon missile facility in Tucson, Ariz.
HEL Photon Cannon:
Referred to as a "death ray on wheels," Boeing's High Energy Laser is a solid-state laser capable of destroying mortars, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. The laser, mounted to a large Army truck, can rapidly fire at several moving targets.
The HEL allows troops to augment conventional weapons with something cheaper and more effective. "With only the cost of diesel fuel, the laser system can fire repeatedly without expending valuable munitions or additional manpower," according to Dave DeYoung, Boeing's directed energy systems director.
The Army conducted successful tests in 2013 and agreed to a $16.1 million follow-on contract to continue development.
Raytheon's Pyros missile is a small, lightweight air-to-ground precision weapon built to be used against insurgents.
At 12 pounds and 22 inches long, the Pyros' size and weight, coupled with its laser-guided technology, allows it to be mounted on aerial platforms where weight is a constraint, while still packing a wallop against "soft targets" like cars.
"Pyros is the ideal solution," according to Dr. Tom Bussing, vice president of advanced missiles systems. A successful test with the missile proved its accuracy, hitting a "bullseye" from a drone at 7,000 feet. Raytheon hopes to see the weapons system in use soon.
The Saab M4 Carl Gustav is a multi-role, shoulder-fired weapon optimized by Saab for use in cities and can launch programmable anti-personnel, anti-tank, smoke and illumination missiles.
This recoilless weapon system beats the original Carl Gustavs because it uses programmed missiles and a high-tech scope. The soldier can use the scope to line up the target and program the missile to fly there. In addition, the M4 Carl Gustav is 7.5 pounds lighter than its previous version.
The concept originated over 50 years ago, but testing for this weapons system began in 2014. Saab's newest addition will be heading to the front lines this year after it was granted a $164 million contract to deliver the ammunition through 2019.
The Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile, known as CHAMP, is a non-lethal missile that aims a microwave at a target and shuts down all electronics inside. A big advantage of CHAMP is the ability to blind the enemy's defense systems, according to Greg Zacharias, the Air Force's chief scientist.
The missile's business end, while headlined by Boeing, is actually created by Raytheon Ktech. Raytheon partnered with Boeing to attach CHAMP to the battle-tested CALCM cruise missile, a long-range standoff missile already used in four prior combat operations. "Non-kinetic systems give the U.S. the option to defeat enemy infrastructure with little collateral damage," said Thomas Bussing, vice president of Raytheon advanced missile systems.
In a 2012 test performed by the Air Force Research Lab, CHAMP successfully disabled all electronics in a building without inflicting any physical damage. The Air Force awarded Raytheon a $4.8 million contract to continue development on the electronic payload.
General Atomics, creator of the Predator drone, is preparing to outfit an attack C-130 with a High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, HELLADS for short. This weapon system will give Air Force special operators the capability to attack more quietly than conventional weapons allow as well as counter strike rockets, aircraft and surface-to-air missiles.
Testing on the HELLADS will occur this year at the Air Force Research Lab in New Mexico. Rich Bagnell, HELLADS program manager at the DARPA, said HELLADS produced "unprecedented power and beam quality for its size." The directed-energy weapon system has been in the making for 14 years.
The Air Force Research Lab is also working to develop a similar laser that is small enough to be mounted on a fighter jet. Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, Air Combat Command commander, expects directed energy to be on fighter jets by 2020.
This is Boeing's latest hydrogen-fueled, high-altitude, long-range unmanned aircraft capable of staying airborne for four days at 65,000 feet, longer and higher than any current unmanned aerial vehicle.
The Phantom Eye, created in 2010, is part of Boeing's secretive Phantom Works project. The project will open a new market of data collection and communications, said Darryl Davis, president of Phantom Works. "The capabilities ... will offer game-changing opportunities."
The Defense Advanced Research Lab, NASA and the Air Force Research Lab all have oversight of the Phantom Eye. The project is Boeing's latest competitor to Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk drone.
Lockheed Martin's SR-72 is the unmanned successor to the Cold War-era SR-71. Its main mission is to be a hypersonic intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike aircraft. It will cruise at speeds above Mach 5, similar to flying coast-to-coast in 30 minutes.
The aircraft is able to achieve hypersonic speeds through a combination of a traditional turbine engine and a scramjet. For speeds under Mach 3, the SR-72 will use a turbine engine, similar to those seen on high performance military aircraft.
Once the aircraft reaches a supersonic speed, the scramjet activates. A scramjet works by taking in high-speed airflow from the front of the aircraft, compressing it into a funnel-like compartment, adding fuel and releasing a high volume of thrust.
Hypersonic speeds solve the problem advanced aerial defense systems pose because weapons could be arched from outside the "ring" of the defense system. "I am confident that Lockheed Martin has the technical expertise to make it happen," said Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed Martin.
DARPA, the Air Force Research Lab and NASA have been heavily involved in creating smaller hypersonic planes such as the X-51 scramjet. Experts see the SR-72 fully ready for use in the year 2030.
Small Diameter Bomb II:
The Raytheon Small Diameter Bomb II is an all-weather, GPS-guided precision bomb. Set to begin service next year, this 250-pound bomb uses millimeter wave radar to guide onto moving or stationary targets. Small Diameter Bomb II can also fly up to 45 miles, reducing the time crews are in harm's way.
Raytheon was awarded the $31 million contract for the first round of 17,000 Small Diameter Bomb IIs. The bomb first will be integrated onto the F-15E and F/A-18, with integration onto the F-35 coming in 2022. Initial delivery of this weapon system is set for May 2017. Its precision and range mean the weapons system is cheaper and safer.