Technology and the future of modern warfare

Niels Bohr – the father of the atomic model – once remarked that “prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future.” This is a dictum with which the founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, might well have disagreed. Moore’s 1965 forecast about the future of computational power was possibly one of the greatest technological predictions of the last century. His projection, which has become known as Moore’s Law, states that we can expect the speed and capability of our computers to incrementally increase every couple of years. The rule has since been shown to be unerringly prophetic and it has become famous as a metric for the rapid technological progress of the last 60 years.

This growth still seems inexorable. The first two decades of the 21st century have witnessed an explosion in technological advances that have affected cultures, economies, and governments around the world. Militaries – and the realm of warfare – have been no different. Technological innovation has slowly been modifying the way armies are engaging with each other, and in doing so, re-mapping the boundaries of how conflicts are fought. Much impetus for this has come from the private sector: as civilian information technologies have become more sophisticated they have gradually percolated into the defence industry; a growing number of startups, for example, are seeking new commercial opportunities for their technology in defence contracting.

While the 20th century has witnessed seismic changes to war – from the horse-drawn 1910s, through the mechanised 1930s and jet-propelled 1940s, to the nuclear age – the gathering pace of present-day technology is foreshadowing another era altogether. This new state of affairs will increasingly be defined by digital capabilities. General Richard Barrons – a former head of Britain’s Joint Forces Command – summarised this well in The Times last November: “We’re seeing changes on the battlefield as profound as anything in the past 150 years as data, artificial intelligence and connectivity become the new, key components of warfare. But we’re still in the foothills of what’s coming.” Indeed, there is little doubt that there will be more radical development on the horizon.

This necessity to evolve is nothing new: for centuries, armies have had to upgrade their weaponry to preserve battle worthiness. Those that fail to modernise forfeit their advantages in theatres of war. Today, however, this focus on physical equipment has begun to make room for a growing preoccupation with innovative capabilities.

What exactly are these? In short: data, artificial intelligence, increased connectivity, and automation. These are all elements that will underpin the digital weapons of the future. It is important, however, to point out that these advances are radically different from anything ever fielded before: they are tools that are for the most part intangible. It is possible, for example, to touch the armour plating of a tank, whereas the latest machine learning algorithms are immaterial, existing only in the interior of a command centre’s computer.

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This digital revolution points to a new kind of hyper-modern warfare. Artificial intelligence is a good example of this. If AI can read more data in a minute than a human can read in a year, then its value to militaries is immeasurable. In a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph, the current Chief of General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, has acknowledged that “we are already seeing the implications of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and robotics, and how they might be applied on the battlefield”. Machine learning, for instance, has already been used to harvest key grains of intelligence from the chaff of trivial information that usually inundates analysts.

All this is not to say, however, that there will be a complete obsolescence of traditional equipment and means. The British Army remains an industrial age organisation with an industrial skill set, but one which is confronted by innovation challenges. Conventional threats can still materialise at any time. The recent stationing of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border and within the Crimea – in addition to the manoeuvring of its naval forces in the Sea of Azov – is a case in point. This overt display of hard power is a timely reminder that militaries are still fundamentally made up of hardware and manpower, and that the manoeuvring of these pieces on the strategic board is still of the utmost importance.

To this end, many theorists powerfully argue that military doctrine and tactics are far more important to battle outcomes than technological prowess, a basic doctrine they say has changed little since WWI. The Taliban’s immanent victory in Afghanistan – once the American-backed government has capitulated, as only seems inevitable – shows that an organised, disciplined, and motivated insurgency can still defeat one of the world’s premier military powers with all the cutting-edge resources at its disposal.

And yet, there is little doubt that the onset of digitalisation has marked the advent of a new type of warfare. This is predominantly defined by a hybridity between established and emergent technologies, or in other words, the fusion of industrial hardware with new electronic developments. Recent conflicts have accentuated this, with “small wars” in countries like Libya and Syria being notable for the decisive involvement of this “hybrid” weaponry.

One such example was the short war in Nagorno-Karabkh – a disputed region in the South Caucasus – between the armies of Azerbaijan and Armenia. It was notable for Azerbaijan’s use of “kamikaze” drones to secure a rapid victory over the Armenian forces. These drones – also known as “loitering munitions” – were able to automatically locate their own targets and then eliminate them through self-destruction. Launched at the press of a button, and a fraction of the cost of any traditional air force, they neutralised Armenian tanks, air defence systems, and personnel, forcing the country to accept punishing ceasefire conditions. Some analysts have gone so far as to say that this particular use of drones in time and space has signalled the death of the tank, with heavy armour becoming, they argue, as obsolete as cavalry in the First World War.

Ethics and regulation

Drones are typical of the recent paradigm of increased automation, a digital capability whose importance has become apparent in the last few years. The rise in military robotics – or Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) as they are known in military circles – has seen nations around the world engaged in an arms race to furnish their militaries with weapons that are self-functioning. The Chinese, for example, observing the effectiveness of Azerbaijani drones, have rushed to test and develop their own “drone swarm” technology. This would see drones being launched from multiple tubes on the back of a truck, or helicopter, that then relentlessly zero in on their targets en masse. Similarly, American scientists have been experimenting with pocket-sized battlefield devices – some modelled on insects, including a “mechanical cockroach” – that could be used to spy or kill enemy troops. These “biomimetic”, or nature-imitating, weapons will soon make an appearance in combat zones – what once could only have existed in the pages of science fiction is now beginning to spill into the realm of the possible.

There are growing fears about the extent to which this automation might be developed. Weapons systems that act, and kill, on their own remove human agency from the equation; this has raised troubling moral dilemmas that are unlikely to be resolved soon. Indeed, the international architecture of treaties and protocols that regulate the world’s weapons are now looking out of step with the recent acceleration of scientific progress. From the exploration of space to cyber attacks, nuclear arms controls, and AI weapons, the speed of innovation is outpacing our attempts to police it.

In the past, nation states have agreed to prohibit particularly horrifying new weapons. By the mid-20th century, for example, international conventions had banned biological and chemical agents. There are as yet, however, no rules governing the ethics of information-age military technology. Take assassination: the cache of futuristic tools now available to nations – AI, sophisticated tracking of potential victims, remotely-controlled precision weapons – has irreversibly changed the assassin’s art. It is now an easy and gratuitous option that can be chosen at will. Officers, intelligence chiefs, and elected officials should be meeting with ethicists and lawyers to discuss the limits of assassination in this new era. The fact is they’re not.

New capabilities

The ascendance of digitalisation has also affected the nature of warfare in other, less obvious, ways. In particular, the militaristic use of newfound information capabilities (including cyber, propaganda, and psychological tactics) is becoming more and more apparent. This is an area where Britain’s adversaries are increasingly operating below the threshold of traditional conflict. In recent years, countries like China and Russia have been harnessing technology to further their omnivorous geo-political ambitions. While Britain and its allies have been trapped in counter-insurgency operations for the last 20 years – draining their strength in interventions such as Iraq and Afghanistan – these countries have won a succession of strategic successes, aided and abetted by digital means.

Russia, for example, has been perfecting information warfare through its subversive campaigns which aim to undermine the cohesion of their enemies’ societies. Through the funding of troll farms, state-endorsed cyber-criminality, election interference, the spread of disinformation, and assassination attempts, they have been quietly working to destabilise Western democracies and recalibrate the balance of power in important regions back to their favour.

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In a rapidly evolving world, the integration of digital capabilities into military affairs has resulted in warfare becoming more asymmetrical and harder to define. Recent conflicts have been characterised by mismatches between belligerents, with countries that can afford state-of-the-art technologies emerging victorious. Nations are now driven by a logic of deterrence: they fear a fait accompli on the battlefield if they are not able to equal, or surpass, their enemies’ martial technology. This new arms race has meant that many new capabilities are unknown quantities; future conflicts are likely, as a result, to be more amorphous and uncertain.

Battles are now also increasingly taking place in the shadows, more often than not in the “grey zone” between war and peace. This has seen technology playing a small, but important, role in the tectonic shifts currently taking place in geo-politics, as long-entrenched fault lines of the international order are slowly being repositioned. Hostile countries are turning to technology as an offensive means beyond traditional warfare to expand their spheres of influence. War is, after all, merely “the continuation of politics by other means”, as Carl von Clausewitz once observed.

Written by Archie Phillpotts, freelance journalist

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