The Next Century of War
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, IsaacArthur.net, 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!