Traumatic brain injury has been described as the signature injury of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict partly because our understanding of this injury causes us to approach it differently, but also partly because this injury represents a higher proportion of battlefield injuries in these conflicts than in previous conflicts. This is due, in large part, to the changing nature of battlefield armor and medicine.
Armor in our asymmetrical warfare with forces in Iraq and Afghanistan means that our enemies have resorted to relatively low-lethality and poorly targeted improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which create potentially deadly blasts, but only under certain circumstances, with a wide zone of concussive force that can lead to brain trauma and other concussive injuries. As armor continues to evolve, what will be the signature injuries of future wars?
Armor Prototypes: What Will the Future Soldier Be Wearing?
There are many potential developments in armor that may signal the direction armor is going. One potential development is the HULC suit, a wearable exoskeleton that moves with a soldier, giving him the same maneuverability and responsiveness he had without the armor, but a good deal more in terms of weight carrying capacity. This suit is actually remarkably similar to the armor worn in the upcoming Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow, although it doesn't have the weapon attachments.
Another possibility under development is the use of liquid battle armor, which can be transformed from liquid to solid by the application of an electric current, creating a sheathing armor that would completely protect a soldier from ballistic gunfire. Combining the two technologies along with basic life support functions means that soldiers would be ostensibly protected from every type of battlefield attack.
How Battlefield Injury Will Change--And Stay the Same
Because of these changes in armor, it's likely that we will see many types of battlefield injury virtually go away. For example, gunshot wounds could potentially be eliminated. On the other hand, some types of injury are likely to increase.
Dislocated limbs and broken bones due to malfunctions or damage to the suit will become more common. It's also likely that the increased amount of local electrical equipment will lead to an increased risk of electric shock or burns.
What remains to be seen is whether the new battlefield armor will stop sonic injuries like tinnitus, which are the most common injury not just of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, but of every war for which there are currently surviving veterans, with the exception of Vietnam, where post-traumatic stress disorder was the most common.
Will There Be Soldiers on the Field?
However, another important question to ask is whether the US will soon cease putting soldiers on the battlefield to replace them with drones or robots. Although aerial drones are very limited in their tactical applications and cannot be counted on to perform all major combat roles, automated tanks would replace armored vehicles. The recently developed Atlas robot shows that walking robot soldiers are feasible. Overall, some project that robots could outnumber soldiers on the battlefield by 10 to 1 in the next decade.
When this occurs, we may wonder whether any injuries will remain, with even traumatic stress eliminated by the distance of digital interaction.
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Dr. Matthew B. Candelaria (PhD, U of Kansas 2006) is a freelance writer, futurist, and science fiction writer. His interest in military SF stems from a childhood love of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers, which, unlike the film version, utilized a fully immersive battle armor for troops.