The Next Century of War

The Next Century of War

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This episode is sponsored by Audible   Some say Humanity’s future will be a  utopian era, where human effort and   ingenuity are focused on the betterment of our  fellow humans and the restoration of nature,   and where conflict is a barely understood  concept from the distant and uncivilized past.   Others believe that in the grim darkness of  the far future there will only be war.   The history of warfare has been one  of constant change and innovation,   even before modern times where technology changed  so fast that each generation saw an entirely new   landscape. So today we will be looking at  what new technologies might be introduced to  

the battlefield and what the impact might be. It’s easy to overestimate the scifi aspect of   military technological changes but it’s important  to keep in mind that military hardware generations   take a long time. Rifle, pistol, and machine  gun technology has changed so little in the last   century that many weapon designs from back then  are still in use, or even the weapons themselves.   Fighter jet generations are currently  around 30 years. By the end of world war II,   humans were sending missiles into space and  had nuclear weapons. All they needed to do  

to make an ICBM was to make the missiles a little  larger, and the nuclear weapons a little smaller,   but it still took 12 years before the  first successful launch of an ICBM.   Technological developments tend to follow an S  shaped curve. Progress will be very slow until   a few breakthroughs make very rapid improvements  possible. After that, the technology will mature  

and further progress in that area becomes  very slow. The ICBMs currently fielded by   the USA are just slightly upgraded versions of  a missile that was first fielded 58 years ago.   58 years before that, the Wright brothers  were the cutting edge of aviation.   Currently things like drones,  AI, surveillance technologies,   and cheap space flight are probably  in that rapid phase of development.   Armor and guns are very mature technologies. This  isn’t to say that it’s impossible for technologies   to deviate from this curve - batteries were  very mature but recently have experienced a   period of comparatively rapid improvement  - but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb.  

Needless to say war is a terrible thing,  and we will not seek to glorify it today.   As someone who spent nearly half their adult life  in the military and over a year of it in the front   lines of a war, I can say what most folks who  have done that will say, war sucks, and it is at   best sometimes the lesser of evils. Only 20 years  in, there have already been dozens of wars, civil   wars, and major conflicts in the 21st century  and so it seems likely there will be dozens more   in the next century. There has been no year during  my lifetime in which there wasn’t a war going on   somewhere on the Earth, and indeed the Next  Century may see the first wars off Earth too.  

War in space has been more on folk’s  minds in recent years as we see our   dreams of space exploration and colonization  surging forward again at a rate they haven’t   done since the Space Race 50 years ago, so  that topic will get special attention today,   but it’s just one of many we will cover. The other elephant in the room for future   war is robots, and we will look at their  possible roles on the battlefield today too,   but this will be our first topic, asking  what the battlefield actually will be.   Prior to the 20th century that was always land or  sea, army or navy, and while terrains mattered a   lot, your two big variations in land warfare were  whether it involved a built up area, like a city,   castle, or fort, or was in undeveloped land, be  it a smooth field or dense jungle or the forest   or mountains. A key notion there, especially with  the invention of cannons, being whether or not the   combatants were trying to preserve any of the  enemy’s infrastructure and people, but for the   moment it emphasizes that each of these sorts of  battlefields has entirely different approaches.  

A fight in a city is usually trying to avoid  blowing everything up, a fight in low Earth Orbit   needs to avoid fragmenting everything and setting  off a Kessler Syndrome event of space debris,   while constantly constrained by both sides  and all third parties being able to set one   off if they choose to. The former variety, urban  warfare, has often resulted in us going backwards   in our combat organization, returning to the  small squad and platoon sized units doing the   fighting instead of huge regiments and giant war  machines. So too, while you can put immensely   powerful weapons in space, as we looked at  a couple weeks back in Orbital Bombardment,   often your only route for true victory will be  small surgical strikes that do little damage.   This is where we get to a notion we will call  Fractalization, the concept that military units   should be deployed at all scales. Not simply  unit sizes ranging from the Squad to Division   or larger, or from the small patrol craft to  behemoth warships potentially kilometers long,   but at the microscopic scale too, and  that these would generally make up the   numerical bulk of your forces. In the past the  smallest possible unit was a lone infantryman,   or the lone fighter plane, but things like  drones make that lower threshold changeable.  

Now not all of our soldiers were human,  we have used a lot of animals in war,   from dogs and horses to pigeons and cats, either  in direct roles like horses carrying us into   battle or dogs joining in the fight to navy ships  keeping cats on board to deal with rat and plague   issues or using pigeons for messengers. We can  use them as a parallel for discussing the use of   robots of lower than human intelligence. We also want to keep in mind that war and   conflict predate humanity, we see it in nature  all the way down to ant hives fighting each other,   and from there we can draw some ideas. We are  not so much contemplating biological warfare,   such as using viruses, as recognizing that we  need to be able to deploy forces at that level,   and might want to emulate virus strategies  in countering them or deploying them. So too,   as we often discuss in regard to nanotechnology,  a single species of nanobot probably isn’t ideal.  

We want something more like an ecosystem of  them, and here we can potentially replicate   military organization down to the microscopic  scale, same as we have mixed force strategies for   deploying tanks, infantry, artillery, carriers,  logistical support, supply chains and so on.   How do you best fight a virus? Obviously  something much on our mind in recent times.   A vaccine itself is one example of nanotechnology,  and our own methods for dealing with it,   multi-front offensives and strategies, reminds  us that might be something we would do at the   nanotech scale too. One set of nanobots is your  recon, looking for viruses, another might be   your big guns, attacking heavily infected cells  while others try to fight off viruses entering   uninfected cells and still others hunting  around for viruses recently entering cells.  

At the higher level you might have larger machines  in people’s mouths, throats, or lungs, microscopic   or larger, who monitored anything entering the  lungs and sterilized problems, for instance. And   those all interfacing with macroscopic systems,  all the way up to national or global systems.   Speaking of viruses though, we also have the  computer sort and the cyberwarfare theater,   and that is exactly where we might need to  fight conflicts of just the sort I mentioned.   Direct attacks to steal secrets or cripple  someone’s computer networks are one thing we   need to be able to defend against, but those more  subtle approaches can be insidious and lethal.   Consider something as subtle as infecting your  enemy’s data mining operation for best recruitment   policies of soldiers. They use something to  help them find ideal recruits and encourage  

them to join, and you tamper with it to instead  highlight folks that look ideal but show sympathy   to your country or cause. Or on the flip side,  to tamper not with who they are focusing on but   instead their actual recruitment, if they  micro-target ads, to misalign them so folks   were offended or discouraged by what they saw.  The easiest way to win wars is to sabotage your   enemy’s ability to fight one before a shot  is even fired, or a fight is even desired.   Weapon power or armor strength remain important  in warfare but over the past century we have seen   an increase in our ability to know where  the enemy is to strike them or avoid them,   knowledge of the enemy’s locations  and abilities is profoundly valuable.   That’s the First Rule of Warfare, know where  your enemy lives so you can drop by for a visit.  

If you know their position and strength, then  given that information, any target on Earth (or   in orbit) can be readily destroyed. In the 1940s  we reached a point where even a battleship could   not carry enough armor to protect itself from  a few cheap airplanes. By the 1970s even deep,   ultra hardened bunkers like NORAD could not  provide enough protection to avoid immediate   destruction by high accuracy ICBMs. In the 1990s  bunker busting smart bombs meant you didn’t even   need nuclear warheads to destroy most bunkers.  In general bullets are cheaper than armor and  

avoiding being hit negates a need for armor,  whether it's by speedy evasion or stealth.   This trend may continue into the next century.  Detecting the enemy, and avoiding detection by the   enemy will be paramount - especially when a human  crew is involved. Every drone, by definition,   has sensors and communications, and is thus  a useful source of surveillance information.  

When one contemplates fielding tens of thousands  or even millions of flying, crawling, swimming,   and orbiting drones at a time it becomes clear  that the problem is not one of having enough   data about the enemy, but rapidly and accurately  sorting through that overwhelming and continuous   flood of data for the critical tidbits needed to  locate and characterize targets. We already know   about how useless a massive amount of data can  be if you can't sort it properly and rapidly.   I say rapidly because knowing where a supersonic  drone was located a half hour ago is useless.  

Almost certainly this will involve simple AI  routines doing the first round of sifting. Only   data flagged as interesting by the AI will make  it in front of a human, who will conduct a second   round of sifting before passing that data along  to someone who can make a decision about it. Being   able to trick those AI will be handy, and they  may be vulnerable to classic tactics like marching   your small army in a parade around the block  repeatedly to make them think you’re bigger.  

Meanwhile one must expend all possible effort  to disrupt the enemy’s efforts to surveil your   own forces, assuming you are not letting  them do it to feed them a pack of lies.   This will involve jamming and providing  disinformation. If your military force doesn’t   have particularly strong ethical concerns,  you will likely disguise your military units   as civilians - for example, by having your  drone radio traffic mimic cell phone traffic,   or putting shrouds on your ground drones  to make them look like civilian vehicles.   Communications will almost always be conducted  by the most tightly focused beams available,   be that by laser, maser, or beam forming radio or  sonar. Units will use the minimum power possible   to still convey the message. Communications will  always be encrypted and unlike in the scifi,  

the encryption will be unbreakable in practical  terms. Even if quantum computers become   ubiquitous, this won’t change that fact as quantum  resistant encryption schemes already exist.   I mentioned fractalization in warfare,  the ability to deploy units at all scales,   be it big or microscopic, but there’s also the  need to do it in all dimensions, as it were,   taking your warfighting capacity into virtual  space. That will also continue to be a great   place to prepare for war too, and militaries  often explore or utilize games as a way of   recruiting or training, all the way back to  encouraging various sports like archery over   those with less obvious battlefield usage. That’s  the First Rule of warfare, Train the way you fight  

because you’ll fight the way you were trained. These too can be hijacked, subtly inserting flawed   training, or putting out free games that appealed  to more peaceful pursuits. Victory in warfare most   often goes to the folks that planned way ahead and  thought outside of the box, and if you put out a   very popular game or movie that predisposes  folks to think conflicts are best conducted   by defeating the foe economically or by  prestige of sports or best research academies,   that could pay dividends down the road. Possibly  by making folks more inclined to less violent   conflict, which I think most of us would agree  was preferable, or alternatively by making them   highly vulnerable to attacks the game or media  convinced them were generally ineffective. They   just never believed you do something as stupid  as roll tanks over their border and sieze their   capital, after all it would be a public relations  disaster. Anyone who's been involved in strategy,   war strategies or other types, can testify how  often ideas are dismissed or ignored because   “everybody knows” something does not work, until  someone makes it work and catches everybody off   guard. As the saying goes, common sense isn’t too  common, but common sense is also often wrong.  

Going back to fractalization, another reason it  would be nice to have units smaller than a single   human is that things can often “punch above  their weight”, like a lone sniper crippling   a whole battalion by shooting their leader.  Theoretically that only costs you one bullet,   but it requires training a sniper both to  shoot and to sneak in and out of place,   and you gamble them every time you use them. A  drone rifle controlled from far away gambles a   lot less, and a self-propelled micro-missile  able to home in on a target from another   continent potentially gambles even less. Not all conflict takes place on a classic   battlefield either, indeed civil wars make up a  huge portion of modern conflicts and casualties.   How big does a drone need to be to have  a camera on it and a GPS sensor and wifi,   so it could facial ID its target and zip in  and get them in the middle of a crowded city?   Does it even need to be bullet-sized? What  about a piece of ordinance small enough and   sharp enough to just sever someone’s spinal  cord? Or to sting them like a mosquito and   inject them with a deadly or disabling toxin  or even self-replicating nano-machines, or even   something which might brainwash them or drive them  nuts? One drone is probably much smaller, cheaper,   and dumber than a person. By this same logic, one  such drone is probably vulnerable to even smaller,  

cheaper, and dumber drones  designed for attacking them.   We discussed before in our Giant Robots &  Power Armor episode that future soldiers   might tend to be accompanied by a small swarm of  robots and drones who were effectively part of   that soldier’s arsenal and defense, that can be  micro-sized too. Indeed as we discussed in our   Force Fields episode, one way to replicate the  purpose of the personal force fields we see so   often in science fiction would be to have  swarms of tiny drones around the person,   able to attack incoming weapons or just throw  themselves in front of them to take the hit.   Smart Swarming is likely to be critical to using  such drone swarms. The ability to use drones   in large quantities lets you minimize the loss  of human life on your own side. Casualties are   demoralizing to the civilian populace. Reducing  casualties means increasing training and improving  

equipment. Increased training increases the cost  of replacing a dead soldier, as well as the time   required to do so. Improved equipment is  more expensive to procure and maintain.   These costs increase exponentially with  each new generation of technology.   All of that changes with the advent of the drone.  Folks back home don't care about drone casualties.  

If you think a lot of drones will die on a  given mission, you can just send more of them.   This radically changes the engineering  requirements of unmanned systems when   compared with their manned equivalents. Manned  systems such as fighter planes, tanks, and   submarines need multiple redundant systems, with a  proportional increase in maintenance requirements.   Unmanned fighter jets don't need  ejection seats and life support systems.   Unmanned tanks don't need very much armor. Since  most of the size and weight of a tank is armor,  

that means unmanned tanks become small and light.  Unmanned submarines don't need life support   systems and their mission duration is no longer  limited by the amount of food they can carry.   A cheaper, unmanned unit might be only 50% as  effective as state of the art manned units,   but cost only 25% as much. This would mean that  overall force strength of an unmanned force   can be double a manned force for the same price. What’s more, with better automation for fighting   you also presumably have better  automation for manufacturing too.  

A military drone might be very expensive but  if it's being built by a manufacturing drone,   probably much less expensive. And this lets  you start fielding vast numbers of them.   Though this raises the issue of how  you control them and how you fuel them,   especially for small ones. Fielding enormous numbers of   cheaper units consumes huge quantities of  fuel though. The principle of smart swarming   suggests replacing those petrochemical  engines with solar panels and batteries.   Combat effectiveness decreases, but effectiveness  per dollar increases even further. Tactics are   shifted. Solar powered drone swarms with batteries  make excellent ambush and denial of area forces,  

as they can lie or fly in wait for weeks at a time  with virtually zero logistical support. Nor should   we overlook the usefulness of RTGs, radioisotope  thermal generators, as a power source,   especially for things with long usage times but  low power draws, like detection or defense uses.   Another solution is the use of fuel efficient  drone carriers to deliver the drones to the   battlefield. Drone carriers need not be especially  well armed or defended as their drones can serve   that purpose more than adequately. Here too our  fractalization notion can come in, with drone   carriers full of controlling software and drones  that are carriers for yet smaller drones and so   on, potentially several varieties too, such as  those focused on a certain type of attack or   defense, or a purpose like repair or scouting.  They probably would not be manufacturing on-site  

replacements and resupply though, as we often  see in video games, it will almost invariably   be better and easier to always keep your  hardware production far behind the front line.   If a military force has been built  to handle the massive data influx,   drone swarms greatly increase the quantity and  quality of military intelligence as well.   While drone swarms can often ignore attacks  against individual units, it is critical   that the design of a drone swarm not make it  vulnerable to single-attack-many-kill weapons,   or AOE. Unshielded drone swarms can be knocked  out by EMPs. Radio controlled swarms can be   rendered worthless by jamming. Swarms entirely  dependent on GPS for navigation are vulnerable   to GPS jamming/hacking. Laser systems can be  rapidly re-aimed to target numerous small targets,   and can be quite deadly against unarmored drones. This is where the "smart" part of smart swarming  

comes in. Drone hardiness vs.  single-attack-many-kill or AOE   weapons must be increased as much as possible  without increasing the dollar cost very much.   EMP shielding can be very cheap as  it is mostly a matter of engineering.   Drones should use GPS when it seems trustworthy,  but be smart enough to ignore it when not.  

They should be designed with at least rudimentary  optical and inertial navigation systems to augment   GPS, or with the ability to fall back out of  the fight if they encounter such tactics.   Drone swarms should keep themselves highly  dispersed, to reduce the danger from large   warheads and rapid laser systems. Use of cover and  concealment are of further advantage against many   weapons, especially lasers which have limited  ability to penetrate light brush or weather.   Light and cheap reflective and ablative coatings  can greatly increase the hardiness of drones   against laser attack. This is also where the  desire for variety and diversification helps,  

a rock-paper-scissors analogy is an  oversimplification but conceptually   you might have 3 or 4 principle attack  methods and 3 or 4 defense methods,   and only give each drone one or two of each, thus  ensuring you always have some drones available   with the ideal attack and defense combinations. Integrating your drones in with conventional   forces will obviously be tricky, but I would  stress that you are integrating not replacing.   In many cases you couldn’t afford the risk of  your operator remotely controlling the drones   from a bunker ten thousand kilometers  away, subject to jamming or interference   along that entire information pipeline, as  vulnerable as any long supply chain to attack.   We also don’t have human-intelligence machines and  might be rather reluctant to employ them in war,   compared to something of a more animal level  of intelligence, in which case a soldier on   the ground controlling or directing the swarm  might be needed. You need this smooth operation   with people anyway since you are likely to  want to use them near your own population,   to defend against attacks on  civilian centers or integrate   with law enforcement and counter  espionage and terrorism units.   If you are using smart bots to control dumber  smaller drones, latency might be an issue too.  

Human reaction rates are slow enough that light  speed lag is irrelevant anywhere on the planet,   but if your drones are acting and reacting  to other drones in periods of milliseconds,   then a drone controller half a planet away  might be too slow, so you would potentially   need nearby command and control, potentially  in the form of Low Earth Orbit Satellites.   Speaking of Satellites, they have obviously  played a growing role in warfare in modern times,   and will continue to do more of that role in  the next century, but may also add in the role   of anti-satellite capabilities becoming more  prominent as well as the orbital bombardment   options we talked about a couple weeks back. That  said, do not expect folks to be running around in   spacesuits or space fighter jet equivalents in  this next century. We may need handfuls of elite   forces ready to deal with hijacked facilities or  satellites, or to hijack them, but while virtually   every war humanity will fight in the future will  involve outer space in some way, the time hasn’t   yet come where significant physical warfare  will take place there. Expect nations to begin  

developing this capacity in coming decades, but  mostly in a theoretical sense, with space-based   military effort being mostly focused on  deploying, protecting, or destroying satellites.   Here too the policy of punching over your weight  comes into play, it only takes a tiny, cheap   satellite to blow up a big, expensive satellite.  In general things orbit the Earth at around 8   kilometers per second, and you can arrange for  one in a reverse orbit to collide at that speed,   so an anti-satellite weapon or ASAT can strike  at 16 kilometers a second or carrying more than   hundred times the kinetic energy of a rifle bullet  of the same mass. Meaning if you could imagine   breaking something by unloading a few magazines  out of an assault rifle at it, then a single   bullet sized ASAT would do the same damage. You can also attack an ASAT with something even   smaller than that. However I suspect the critical  thing to space warfare in the next century  

will be attempts to develop weapons that minimize  debris, since not only can orbital debris you   made damage your satellites and facilities  as well as the enemy’s, they can also damage   neutral third-parties satellites and facilities,  potentially including manned or even civilian   facilities. Since the First Rule of Warfare  is to avoid making enemies out of friends,   it is critical any nation wanting to build a  military presence in space be able to demonstrate   that capacity is constrained to minimize  collateral damage. One example might be that   instead of a simple ASAT that rammed the target,  you had a drone that could latch onto it and   shove both down into the atmosphere to burn up, or  simply cut a wire or burn out a critical chip.   We talk about the future of war being in space,  but another dark and empty theater of war that   is in play is the ocean depths. Submarines were  critical components of the two world wars and   to the Cold War, and remain very useful for  sneaking large objects close to an enemy and   also protecting them from attack. This is one more  area where drones will be very useful for attack,   defense, and recon. However we should also  always remember that War tends to follow people  

and money. Navies are already critical to warfare  but as we begin seeing more internet trunk lines   across the ocean floor, more development of  Seasteading and ocean-based rocket launches,   and more efforts at artificial island  construction or colonizing or farming our oceans,   the need to be able to defend and protect  them, or attack them, will grow.   That’s maybe the most important thing to  keep in mind about the Future of Warfare.   In our Earth 2.0 series we began by looking  at Seasteading and Colonizing the Ocean,  

but also looked at colonizing the arctic and  deserts and even underground or in floating   cities in the sky. So too, the entire notion of  war in space has to do with us colonizing it.   Where people go, war is likely to follow, so if  the next century sees resource disputes in the   Arctic or Antarctic, or colonies in those places,  military strategy will need to evolve to focus   on those places too. If we deploy  vast power satellite arrays in orbit,   or if we build kilometer-wide solar shades by the  thousands to help with climate control, then we   must be able to protect them, even if just by the  threat of retaliation against someone else’s.  

It’s a sad reality that War is probably not  going away anytime soon, and is likely to be a   passenger aboard every colony ship we send out  from Earth in the century’s to come, but often   the best way to avoid a war is to prepare for it,  that is the first rule of warfare after all.   So it’s time for our Audible Audiobook of the  Month, and I’m particularly glad to recommend this   month’s winner as having been written by a member  of the SFIA family, longtime SFIA editor Jerry   Guern and his novel “No Moon to Pray To”. “No Moon To Pray To” by our own Jerry Guern   is a fantasy horror romp set in the era of  the Crusades, and it’s our Audible AudioBook   of the Month. I listened to the pre-release and  thoroughly enjoyed it. There were parts where I   just couldn’t stop listening, and it's definitely  been my favorite novel for 2021 so far.   As mentioned, Jerry is one of our longtime editors  on SFIA, and he’s cowritten several episodes like   Space Whales, Void Ecology, Non-Carbon Based Life,  and most recently Zero-Gravity Civilizations.  

“No Moon To Pray To” brings together everything I  like about Jerry’s writing style. It’s face-paced,   nail-biting, intertwined in some truly  imaginative ways with real history,   and occasionally rather profound. Some  months back I encouraged him to try   recording and uploading his material,  and it is now available at Audible.   Audible has the largest collection of Audiobooks  out there, indeed it is so large you could hit the   play button and still be listening to new titles a  few centuries from now, and as an Audible member,   you will get (1) credit every month good for  any title in their entire premium selection—that   means the latest best-seller, the buzziest  new release, the hottest celebrity memoir   or that bucket list title you’ve been meaning to  pick-up. Those titles are yours to keep forever   in your Audible library. You will also get  full access to their popular Plus Catalog.  

It’s filled with thousands and thousands of  audiobooks, original entertainment, guided   fitness and meditation, sleep tracks for better  rest and podcasts—including ad-free versions of   your favorite shows and exclusive series. All are  included with your membership so you can download   and stream all you want—no credits needed. And you can seamlessly listen to all of those on   any device, picking up where you left off, and as  always, new members can try Audible for 30 days,   for free, just visit Audible dot com slash  isaac or text isaac to 500-500.   So the last few weeks we’ve been contemplating  colonizing the stars and warfare, and next week   we’ll mix the two up in our episode, “Killing  Stars” coming out on Thursday, March 11th.   Then we’ll take a look at civilizations living  without stars that weekend in our mid-month   Scifi Sundays episode, Exo-Stellar  Civilizations, on March 14th.   If you want alerts when those and other episodes  come out, make sure to subscribe to the channel,   and if you’d like to help support future  episodes, you can donate to us on Patreon,   or our website,, which are  linked in the episode description below,  

along with all of our various social media forums  where you can get updates and chat with others   about the concepts in the episodes and many other  futuristic ideas. You can also follow us itunes,   Soundcloud, or Spotify to get our  audio-only versions of the show.   Until next time, thanks for  watching, and have a great week!

2021-03-08 01:03

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