For better or for worse, one can argue that the military–industrial complex (MIC) - for the purpose of this article loosely defined as:

the informal alliance between a nation's political, military and industrial stakeholders tasked with researching, developing and supplying weapons and tools of war

has been pushing scientific progress ever forward since the dawn of human kind. So... in the spirit of optimism, here are 9 weapons system in active development that stand to remake the present and future of warfare that prove my point (it's a long post so I suggest you use it for navigation):

  1. The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (USA)
  2. RS-28 Sarmat ICBM (Russia)
  3. Status-6 Poseidon Underwater Strike Drone (Russia)
  4. M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile (Russia)
  5. X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (USA)
  6. PL-15 VLRAA Missile (China)
  7. MAHEM Artillery System (USA)
  8. EM Railgun (China)
  9. Hybrid Insect MEM System (USA)

If you are the kind the person who watches news for the fun of it, you probably already know that we are apparently seeing the dawn of a multi-polar world - and the implications for global security are being sold to us as grave to say the least. This being said, it is my belief that the ensuing arms race will accelerate technological progress to levels previously though of as mere science fiction... because let's face it, no-one is dumb enough to start a civilisation ending war... and the threat of war might be bad for business in principle, but it is definitely good for science if we look at history.

1. X-37B (USA)

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is first on this list because of thee words - Prompt Global Strike. That's right... leaving aside the smoke, mirrors and official reasons for the existence of this USV (Unmanned Space Vehicle) the only analysis that makes any real sense when you think about it is that they are nuke/bomb/space-gun carriers.

Source: Boeing

Think about it...  currently the only nation that has 'successfully tested' an anti-satellite weapon is China, and Russia claims that their upcoming S-500 Prometheus SAM packs enough of a punch to one day do the same... and if you really, really think about it... satellites are sitting ducks out there, floating around in their predetermined orbits, easy to track and easy enough even to hit with a high velocity rock if you can throw far enough and aim well enough or if they god forbid find themselves in the path on one... and civilisation as we know it depends on them.  

Officially, The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is an experimental test program, (that much we can all agree on) to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. As the Air Force press releases read, there are two primary objectives of the X-37B;

  1. reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and
  2. operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.

It is worth pointing out at this point that the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is leading the Department of Defence's Orbital Test Vehicle initiative, by direction of the Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and the Secretary of the Air Force.

Translation... the U.S. Air Force needs a space-plane... something that can pretty much do doughnuts around a satellite of their choosing and/or take shit out from orbit, that can be loaded with a mission specific package and return to Earth for maintenance and reloading. Kind of what the lineup of extremely successful (read: cheap) UAV fleet can do...

A bit of history for context... NASA’s original X-37 program began way back in 1999 and was subsequently transferred to DARPA in 2004. In the very beginning NASA envisioned building two vehicles, an Approach and Landing Test Vehicle, or ALTV, and an Orbital Vehicle as test platforms. As DARPA took over the project, they completed the ALTV portion of the X-37 program in 2006, executing a series of captive carry and free flight tests which aimed to reduce the risks to the X-37 orbital vehicle (OV) flight program by:

  1. Testing a subset of OV technologies in a critical portion of the flight envelope.
  2. Validating the calculated air data system (CADS) performance/subsonic aerodynamic database.
  3. Demonstrating OV approach and landing trajectory.
  4. Expending the operational flight envelope of the OV-enabling more landing opportunities for orbital missions. *

With the ALTV test vehicle DARPA successfully validated the flight dynamics of the platform and extended the flight envelope beyond the low speed/low altitude tests previously conducted by NASA on the X-40A, which was a a sub-scale version of the X-37 developed by Air Force Research Labs. NASA’s X-37 Orbital Vehicle was never built, but its design provided a solid starting point for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle program under the tutelage of DARPA and the U.S. Air Force.

The X-37B OTV is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft that we as Joe/Jane Public are currently aware of. As it was envisioned in the initial project, the unmanned OTV is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit where it can hang around for a very long time an conduct 'space experiments'. Upon command the X-37B is capable of autonomously re-entering the atmosphere, descending, and landing horizontally on pretty much any regular Air Force runway. The real scientific milestone worth mentioning here is that the X-37B is in fact the first vehicle since the Space Shuttle with the ability to fly up and then return experiments to Earth for analysis, which wouldn't be anything to write home about if it wasn't for it's reported on-orbit time of 270 days or greater... the X-37B can stay in space for much, much longer... meaning it can idle over an enemy capital for months/years undetected, ready to deploy it's payload at a push of a button.

Since the premise of this article is that we should look at the current arms race as a boon for science and tech, let's end this brief story about the X-37B in practical terms... In the process of making a better space bomber, what we are actually doing as a species is testing advanced guidance, thermal protection systems that can withstand reentry, orbital navigation and control, advanced avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformable reusable insulation, super lightweight electro-mechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems, advanced materials and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing...and that's just the things we know of... Check out the full video of the latest launch of the X-37B below...  Space... here we come!

Source: SpaceX

2. RS-28 Sarmat (Russia)

Back in 2018, during his annual address to the Russian Duma, Putin used the final minutes of his speech to announce a series of weapon systems meant to secure Russia's dominance in the face of the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system. The workhorse of this upgraded nuclear triad is the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile better known under it's ominous NATO designation - SATAN 2...

Considering that up until 2010 when the "comprehensive rearmament" goals were set by Putin, the Russian military was left in disrepair, the speed of development and fielding of their new ICBM is terrifying to say the least. The Sarmat has been designed to replace the aging SS-18 Satan ICBM, and only began first-stage testing in 2016. Little over a year ago, on March 30, 2018, Russia released the first video footage of an apparently successful silo ejection test, confirming their plans to deploy the system in active service later that year, with the 50 missiles initially on order fielded by 2020. Even if we take most of the news coming out of Russia with a pinch of salt, it has become obvious that their military industrial complex has managed to develop, test and deploy a next generation ICBM in under a decade.

Although to a large extent similar to its predecessor, the R-36 Voyevoda  (SS-18 Satan) in both appearance and function, but aims to solve some of the historic shortfalls of Soviet ICBM technology with upgraded electronics and advanced guidance systems, as well as upgraded countermeasures that enable it to deal with U.S. ABM systems and different warhead options. According to Russian media and military sources, the Sarmat is capable of carrying 10 high yield warheads, or up to 16 smaller one combined with said countermeasures. The real game changer though is that it is capable of carrying the upcoming Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicles which are currently impossible to intercept for any western anti-missile system, either fielded or in development. The reported yield of a Sarmat warhead payload is around 8mT. *

The Sarmat is and advanced silo-based system with a heavy liquid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile. In addition to some capability enhancements, the RS-28 aims to overcome obsolescence issues facing much of the Russian ICBM fleet. To put it bluntly, many of the clunky electronic circuits of the Soviet era no longer exist and most of the people who know how to make or fix them are either dead or retired… The main benefit of upgrade then is that the reliability, flexibility, and confidence in the warheads ability to hit their targets will go waay up.

There was a time when the Russians were building stupidly powerful bombs like the now infamous Tzar bomb because their warhead guidance was pretty much crap... so, their logic was if we can't hit a small target, with small yield bombs, let's make bombs that are powerful enough to wipe out anything within our margin of error. This gap is now closed, mainly due to the fact that technology as a whole is way more advanced than it was in the '60s making guidance a much easier problem to solve for engineers. Combine this with the Avangard hyper-sonic glide vehicle - and you have a weapons system that can do things no-one among the broad public ever though possible.

3. Status-6 Poseidon (Russia)

In 2015, Russian state television showed President Vladimir Putin meeting with military commanders. The images revealed a slide with the description of a “Status-6” system. It contained information about a project involving an underwater drone in the shape of a gigantic torpedo. Thanks to a nuclear reactor engine, its range should reach 10,000 km. Its main strategic purpose would be the elimination of important targets along an enemy’s coast and the permanent contamination of huge areas that would become militarily and economically useless. Soon after, the Kremlin declared this had been an accidental disclosure of state secrets, but then Status-6 was further discussed in the government-controlled media. These reports also included a montage of simulated imagery of a 100 Megaton (MT) thermonuclear warhead with the power to cause an artificial tsunami and irreversible contamination because of a cobalt coating, a so-called “cobalt bomb”.

When Russia’s Status-6/Kanyon/Poseidon nuclear torpedo was revealed “accidentally” in 2015, it largely took the world by surprise. Many experts assumed that such apocalyptic weapons were abandoned after rounds of detente during the Cold War and the resulting arms control agreements. However, recent revelations in the Russian military watcher community have revealed that parts of the Status-6 have been in development since 1989, and continued during the early years of the Russian Federation.

This was enabled by the release of the GRAU index (a three to four character code that almost every Russian and Soviet weapon system is assigned) of the Status-6: 2M39. From that index, previous state orders and procurement decisions related to the project could be found in archives, revealing the history of the project bit by bit.

The big revelation was that the reactor for the Status-6 was under development in 1992, in Yeltsin’s Russia. The reactor was planned to be acquired under the 1989 procurement order and continued development at the “Rubin” plant during the early 1990s, despite Yeltsin’s supposed embrace of arms control. Orders for the Status-6 reactor were confirmed in June 1992, despite Yeltsin pledging to eliminate one-third of sea-based tactical nuclear weapons in January of that year.

Websites have speculated that the development of the weapon was initiated as part of a round of Soviet “wonder-weapons” at the time, which were meant to counter the U.S. investment in defense technology in the 1980s. Other projects around this time included the 1K17 blinding laser vehicle and early prototypes of hypersonic warheads. These weapons were envisioned to give the Soviet Union an overwhelming advantage in event of a war. As some Soviets put it, these weapons would allow them to sit on the porch of the White House the next day if war broke out.

To gain the full picture of the situation surrounding Poseidon, it is necessary first and foremost to look at strategic stability between Russia and the U.S. In the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump criticized his country’s continued participation in New START. This agreement was concluded in 2010 and limits the quantity of both powers’ nuclear arsenals to 1,550 strategic warheads and 700 means of delivery—land-intercontinental and sea-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers. It expires in 2021 and the text allows for either signatory to withdraw at that time or for both to extend its provisions for another five years. In February 2018, Trump approved a programme to modernise the U.S. nuclear forces, as recommended by the Pentagon and supported by Congress.

However, since Putin’s speech in March and the U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki in July, Trump has expressed some concerns about a new arms race, partially mirroring Russia’s arguments. It is clear now that Russia’s minimum goal is to extend the provisions of New START beyond 2021, but it might also try to achieve its maximum goal of limiting U.S. plans for the development and deployment of missile defence systems in Europe and Asia, and in space. Poseidon is, like some other Russian projects, not included in the New START limits, so it might become an important bargaining chip in future negotiations and compromises with the U.S.

4. 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile (Russia)

In 208 the Russian ministry of defense published a video of a test launch of this system. The video showcased a cruise missile launched from a ground based launchpad as well as footage from the flight of the missile taken from a fighter jet. The outside of the Burevestnik missile looks a lot like the X-101 cruise missile characterized by sharp angles of the fuselage in all likelihood with the aim of reducing the radar footprint of the rocket... there is one major difference however, the Burevestnik with an estimated length of 9-10 meters is significantly larger than the X-101. The 2-3 meter difference in length is well justified however, seeing as the Burevestnik missile is reported to have a nuclear reactor on board.

So, why does a missile need a nuclear reactor on board and how would it's nuclear powered propulsion even work you wonder? As Russian military bloggers report, along the missile fuselage there are special sections with powerful heating elements powered by the reactor. Atmospheric air is being sucked into these compartments and gets heated to several thousand degrees before being pushed into the propulsion engine where the super heated air is used to generate thrust.

The reason why nuclear powered propulsion was abandoned in the 70s was that any vehicle powered by a nuke was easy to track due to the significant radioactive signature it either emitted from the reactor or left behind in the exhaust (depending on the type of design... you can read more about different types of nuclear propulsion here). Radioactive exhaust occurred as a problem of this type of propulsion because the heating of the air (or other gasses) happened in immediate contact with the radioactive elements of the reactor - the fact that the Russians are openly talking about this system and have acknowledged several tests means that their scientist have managed to significantly decrease or even completely mitigate radioactive leakage - this conclusion is based on the fact that Western military leaders and analysts aren't screaming bloody-murder considering the current state of relations between us and the Russians. Think about it, even if the slightest hint of radioactivity leaking in the atmosphere/environment was detected during the intial test that western intelligence agencies are most definitely watching closely... we would have hear a lot of talk about the careless Russians.  

It turns out that there have already been several tests of the Burevestnik conducted

5. X-47B (USA)

The X-47B is an unmanned combat air system carrier (UCAS) is being developed by Northrop Grumman for the US Navy (USN). The strike fighter size unmanned aircraft is currently in its demonstration phase. The unmanned aircraft was first developed as part of the X-47 programme.

Air worthiness of the X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator was developed at an estimated cost of $813m. The aircraft performed a successful initial test flight at Patuxent River, Maryland, US, in July 2012. The X-47B is expected to enter active naval service by 2019.

The tailless unmanned aircraft is 38.2ft-long and has a wingspan of 62.1ft. The shape of the aircraft is designed for stealth or low observable relevant requirements. The weapons bay can carry 4,500lb of weapons.

Operations of the computer-controlled X-47B UCAS are smart and its flight control system is autonomous. The navigation of the UCAS is controlled by hybrid global positioning system (GPS) vision-based system. The flight path is preprogrammed and its operations are monitored by a mission operator.

The UCAS is equipped with electro-optics (EO), infrared (IR), synthetic aperture radar (SAR), inverse SAR, ground moving target indicator (GMTI), electronic support measures (ESM) and maritime moving target indicator (MMTI) sensors.

The UCAS-D will feature both probe-and-drogue of the US Navy and boom-receptacle mechanisms of the USAF for autonomous air refuelling.

X-47B engine and performance details

The X-47B is powered by a Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220U engine and exhaust system. The aircraft has a high subsonic speed of approximately 0.45M and range of roughly 2,100nm. The UCAS can fly to a maximum altitude of 40,000ft.

Two autonomous jet-powered X-47B aircraft were built under the UCAS-D programme. The two demonstration vehicles have similar design and hardware features. However, only one is equipped to test aerial refuelling tasks. They can accommodate various kinds of sensors for reconnaissance, intelligence and surveillance and have space for weapon systems. Payload is not installed on the demonstration units.

The first X-47B, including structural proof testing, was completed by October 2009. Named air vehicle 1 (AV-1), the aircraft was transferred to Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) for flight testing in July 2010. The second aircraft, named AV-2, arrived at the base for testing in March 2011.

The first flight test of the UCAS-D was conducted in February 2011. The first catapult launch of X-47B was conducted at an onshore catapult facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in November 2012. The first at-sea test phase involving a series of deck handling trials aboard the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) was completed in December 2012.

The aircraft will also be tested for launching, operating and recovering capabilities in a navy carrier operable area of 50nm. The carrier launch, recovery, and deck handling tests were completed in December 2012. The aerial refuelling demonstrations were carried out in April 2015.

6. PL-15 VLRAAM (China)

The VLRAAM is one of the world's largest air to air missiles. Its other advanced features include an AESA radar, a infrared/electro-optical seeker (under the yellow-orange cover on the forward section above the nosecone), and satellite navigation midcourse correction.

An active radar-guidedvery long rangeair-to-air missile developed by the People's Republic of China. Its range is comparable to that of the European Meteor (missile) and the Russian R-37 (missile)PL-15 is inducted into military service in 2016 and is being carried by the J-10C, J-16 and J-20 and JF17 Thunder aircraft.[1] The missile features an active electronically scanned array radar, which makes evasion difficult for the most agile of fighter jets.[2] It is 4 meters long and incorporates a dual-thrust rocket motor. Upon launch, the missile reaches a speed of mach 5 and is capable of engaging targets at a distance of over 200 km. Photos shows it has also been fitted to the newest version of J-11B fighter upgraded with AESA radar.[3] The reported PL-15 missile with a range of over 400 km carried by a J-16 fighter might actually be the PL-21 missile.[4] Compared to Chinese previous generation PL-12, which boasts a maximum range of 100 km, the new and larger PL-15 has a longer radar detection range and increased anti-jamming capability. During the 2018 Airshow China, two J-20 fighters of PLAAF displays their internal payload, with each carrying four PL-15 and two PL-10E in its internal weapons bay. PL-15 effectively increases Chinese Anti-Access/Area Denial capability by targeting key "enabler" targets, such as Aerial refueling and AEW&C aircraft.

Technical data on the missile is hard to come by, but the photos Beijing has allowed to leak do at least establish the weapon’s dimensions, which — along with a raft of publicly-available scientific research — hint at the missile’s capabilities. In the photos, the VLRAAM is clearly around a third the length of the J-16, giving the munition an overall length of around 20 feet and a diameter of roughly a foot.

In any event, the weapon is much more substantial than is the U.S. military’s own longest-range air-to-air missile, the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile. The AMRAAM is just 12 feet long and seven inches in diameter. The latest version of the American missile, the AIM-120D, reportedly boasts a maximum range in excess of 90 miles.

The new Chinese munition closely matches the dimensions of Russia’s K-100 air-to-air missile, which has been in halting development for 25 years now but could, in theory, hit targets as far as 200 miles from the launching plane.

To achieve its apparent long range, the Chinese VLRAAM reportedly relies on a powerful rocket motor than can propel the munition at “hypersonic” speeds of up to Mach 6 — half-again faster than the AIM-120D’s own top speed.

Interestingly, the ability to glide may be a key feature as well. A 2016 research paper by Zhang Hongyuan, Zheng Yuejing, and Shi Xiaorong of Beijing Institute of Control and Electronics Technology linked to the VLRAAM development suggests that the midcourse portion of the VLRAAM's flight will occur at altitudes above 30 km (about 18.6 miles). Flying at such low pressure, low drag high altitudes would allow the VLRAAM to extend its range (similar to hypersonic gliders). The high altitude also makes it difficult for enemy aircraft and air defenses to shoot it down midflight. Finally, high altitude flight means that the VLRAAM would have a high angle of attack against lower flying targets, which reduces the response time for enemy evasive action.

7. MAHEM artillery (USA)

In his 1955 novel Earthlight, science fiction authorArthur C. Clarke thought of an incredible superweapon that used giantelectromagnets to shoot a stream of molten metal at lightning speed. Now, theDefense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)wants one for America's military.

They are calling it MAHEM, which stands for MagnetoHydrodynamic Explosive Munition. The intent is to create a device that createsa powerful enough electromagnetic field to propel streams of molten metal atenemy armor. If it works, the device will be a big improvement on a technologythat got its start in World War II — the self-forging penetrator.

Self-forging penetrators, as they are currently used, resultfrom a conventional chemical explosion directed against a specially-shapedmetal liner. When the device is set off, the blast causes the metal liner toachieve a new shape, suitable for penetrating deep into even moderately armoredvehicles, and driven forward at a high velocity. The technology dates back toWWII.

This kind of weapon can be highly effective (it is currentlybeing used against troops in Iraq). The drawbacks of this kind of weapon fromthe standpoint of US military planners is that they are one-time-use weapons,an

Explosively formed jets (EFJ) and fragments and self-forging penetrators (SFP) are used for precision strike against targets such as armored vehicles and reinforced structures. Current technology uses chemical explosive energy to form the jets and fragments. This is highly inefficient and requires precise machining of the metal liners from which the fragments and jets are formed. The Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition (MAHEM) program offers the potential for higher efficiency, greater control, and the ability to generate and accurately time multiple jets and fragments from a single charge.

The MAHEM program will demonstrate compressed magnetic flux generator (CMFG)-driven magneto hydrodynamically formed metal jets and SFP with significantly improved performance over EFJ. Generating multiple jets or fragments from a single explosive is difficult, and the timing of the multiple jets or fragments cannot be controlled. MAHEM offers the potential for multiple targeted warheads with a much higher EFJ velocity, than conventional EFJ/SFP. This will increase lethality precision. MAHEM could also be packaged into a missile, projectile or other platform, and delivered close to target for final engagement.

8. Electromagnetic Railgun (China)

China’s landing of a rover on the far side of the moon grabbed headlines around the world this week. Less noticed, the country’s state media reported on progress in another arena: game-changing naval weaponry.

The state-run Global Times said on Thursday (Jan. 3) that Chinese warships will soon be equipped with electromagnetic railguns that fire projectiles with “incredibly destructive velocity,” and that the underlying technology was based on ”fully independent intellectual property,” rather than designs copied from other nations. It cited a report that appeared Wednesday on China’s CCTV.

The Type 072II Yuting-class tank landing ship Haiyangshan has been converted from its previous role to become an experimental testbed. This is likely because its open cargo bay is capable of holding the extensive array of batteries and generators necessary to power the next-generation weapon.

While still no warship, the cannon it carries is a fearsome sign of things to come.

Using electromagnetic force, such guns are more accurate and send projectiles up to 125 miles (200 km) at 7.5 times the speed of sound. Because the projectiles do their damage through sheer speed, they don’t need explosive warheads, making them considerably cheaper.

In June, CNBC reported on a classified intelligence report that predicted China’s railgun would be “ready for war” by 2025. “China's (railgun) is capable of striking a target 124 miles away at speeds of up to 1.6 miles per second, according to the report. For perspective, a shot fired from Washington, D.C., could reach Philadelphia in under 90 seconds.” CNBC stated. The rounds for the railgun reportedly cost between $25,000 and $50,000 each.