Washington – Given the combination of COVID-19, economic turbulence and an election year, Americans can be forgiven if international security has been pushed out of mind. Congress, fortunately, has not been so distracted: The House Armed Services Committee recently passed a $740 billion annual defense authorization bill.
One dynamic group there, Team Ignite, is looking at how warfare will change in the 2040-2050 time frame. This echoes work done at the Rand Corp. immediately after World War II in understanding how big technology changes can affect warfare. Team Ignite is trying to understand the fusion between artificial intelligence, biotech, space, machine learning and other trends. Another new effort is the Air Force’s Global Futures Report, which is both geopolitical and technological in its approach.
I led a similar effort as a newly selected one-star admiral immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. Our group sought to find emerging technologies (along with new strategies, tactics and procedures) as the Navy changed course to operate in what became the “global war on terrorism.” That small organization, Deep Blue, produced some hits and some misses but was part of a significant shift in how the Navy approached its role in prosecuting wars and what new technologies would move into the fleet.
Today, with the renewed emphasis on peer or near-peer military competitors China and Russia, a similar shift is upon us. Extrapolating from work we did at Deep Blue and surveying all the service efforts at the unclassified level (as well as increased understanding of industry work from my post-military career), I’d say there are six “top of mind” technology zones to watch:
There will be an increasingly seamless merger of AI and autonomous mechanical systems as we collectively work through the degree to which we will be content to take the “person out of the loop” in combat decision-making and operations. During the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. military had zero robots in its inventory and only a handful of somewhat autonomous systems. Today the Department of Defense has over 22,000 robotic systems.
In the private sector, collective spending is approaching $100 billion annually in an AI arms race that is both military and commercial. AI will allow military decision-makers to streamline complex logistics and supply chains, analyze opponents’ moves and make better tactical and operational choices in combat. Think about how AI is allowing machines to dominate global chess and go masters; this will be mirrored on the battlefield.
AI-driven systems will allow better and more “thoughtful” driverless platforms: airborne drones, cars, heavy land vehicles, surface ships and submarines. But an entirely different level of AI will drive “swarm” systems that can put hundreds or thousands of sensors or weapons to use in an autonomous fashion. The fusion of AI and mechanical systems will ultimately produce something akin to the human-like robots that Isaac Asimov imagined 70 years ago in “I Robot.” It will also bring to reality some of the frightening combat technology depicted in Peter Singer and August Cole’s 2015 novel “Ghost Fleet,” in which swarming insect-sized sensing/killing machines flood the battlefield and knock out large enemy systems.
Control of the world’s oceans through denial systems based on commercial AI-driven deep-sea mining complexes is another potential manifestation. So, too, millimeter-wave communications, which allow for extremely high data rates, synced with local cloud and networked solutions. Such systems are highly directional and short burst, and are extremely hard to detect. They would enable swarm attacks and distributed fire control, especially if paired with small solar-powered dirigibles, for example.
All of the AI and autonomous systems will ultimately run on some version of the World Wide Web. Whether it’s best if they reside on a “hived off” segment that is devoted to military use, or end up simply running sub rosa on the general internet, is as yet unclear. It is worth remembering that the Internet of Things is an increasingly populated space, with perhaps 20 billion devices online today — almost three for every human on the planet — and will top 50 billion devices by mid-decade.
All of this provides incredible convenience (“Yay, I can open my garage door from a thousand miles away!”) but also creates an enormous “threat surface” through which malicious state actors, hacktivists and cybercriminals can operate. The military is in most ways dependent on an operational internet, and protecting military action in that so-called fifth domain is crucial. Militaries will have to be capable of integrated cyberwarfare, robust defenses of online systems and a high degree of cooperation with the private sector. Just as the military has created an official Space Force, it must now create a Cyber Force.
There are more than 2,600 satellites orbiting Earth, hundreds of them military in nature. Defense satellites will be used for broad-area surveillance, communications intercepts, intelligence analysis, precision targeting, counter-space operations (attacking other satellites) and commercial disruption. Several companies I advise work in the satellite industry, and the commercial demand for space-based solutions in projects ranging from smart agriculture to deep-seabed mining is skyrocketing. Finding the right public-private mix in space will be crucial to national defense.
If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us nothing else, it is that we should respect the potential for biology to change all of our lives in an instant. Unfortunately, the future will almost certainly include sophisticated bioweapons developed in labs despite international conventions to the contrary. It will be irresistible to smaller nations to think of bioweapons as equalizers. It’s important that they be part of the international security regime and new treaties to ban research and development.
Additionally, vast improvement in what some have called “wetware” — biological improvements in human capability — is coming. Does that mean a real Wolverine from the X-Men is right around the corner? Probably not. But there are efforts to build exoskeletons for soldiers, develop longer-term “go pills” for pilots and navigators to remain alert, and artificially improve human cognitive abilities.
Alongside all the high-technology improvements, one trend in 21st century defense will be reassuringly human: the continued rise of special forces. There have always been commandos as part of warfare going back to the ancient Greeks and Persians. But in today’s world, the need for small, elite teams of warriors with ultrahigh levels of training, intelligence, fitness and advanced equipment will grow.
Massive formations of armies locked in combat appear increasingly unlikely because of the cost of maintaining such forces in peacetime (especially without conscription) and the ease with which they can be targeted by advanced systems and destroyed in the field.
Instead, shadowy teams of highly skilled operators will link together the tools described above: operating with immediate access to satellite-provided precision information, calling on autonomous attack platforms, using cyberwarfare programs to confuse and disrupt the enemy, and relying on human performance enhancements to sustain themselves over long tactical periods. Russian “hybrid warfare” that was used so effectively on Ukraine and Georgia was a nascent version of this.
There is a seemingly endless list of other technologies underlying these six big trends: nanotechnology, metallurgy and materials, hypersonic speed, subatomic particle movement, quantum computing and so on. In my role as a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, I have seen things that were only science fiction just a decade ago. The question is whether the U.S. Defense Department is prepared to embrace this new world.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO.