Warfare and technology make the perfect partners of destruction. Military innovations from wooden catapults to nuclear bombs have been transforming the way war is waged since prehistoric humans carved arrows from stones some 10,000 years ago.
The visions of futurists don't always match the experiences of military personnel, but the battlefields of the future will bear little resemblance to the war zones of today.
With governments meeting at the United Nations in Geneva yet again to discuss Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) and the 'third revolution in warfare' it seems that highly automated robotic killing machines are closer than ever to going from the realm of science fiction to being deployed in real-world battlefields.
This is the fifth time government representatives have met at the UN to discuss the realities of LAWS and the complications they will bring in to the world. The Guardian reports that America is promoting innovation in the field, but others – including a Venezuela-led group of states seeking to regulate or ban LAWS entirely – fear that the genie could be out of the bottle when artificial intelligence is applied to weapons of war.
The Internet of Battle Things
Dr Alexander Kott of the US Army Research Laboratory recently published a whitepaper (PDF) on future scenarios for the "internet of battle things in highly adversarial environments" that imagines a wide variety of networked intelligent systems competing for dominance on the battlefield.
These won't be too dissimilar from the warfare technology available today according to the report, like unattended ground sensors, guided missiles and drones, but will likely also include physical robots from those as small as insects (see drone swarms) to large vehicles that carry troops and supplies.
"Some will fly, others will crawl or walk or ride," the report notes, adding that their functions will be diverse, from munitions designed to impose physical or cyber effects all the way through to the sensory functions of seeing or listening.
In the cyber realm the report imagines intelligent, autonomous entities that crawl networks to protect communications or defend systems from cyber attack, while others might include the creation of "informational or electromagnetic deceptions or camouflage".
"Yet others will act as situation analysts and decision advisers to the humans or physical robots," the report notes. "In addition to these, cyber robots might also take on more assertive functions, such as executing cyber actions against the enemy systems."
Underpinning all this will be a significant advance in artificial intelligence where the autonomous tools will become 'useful teammates' of humans rather than tools used by them. This is "far beyond" the current state of AI, but the report seems to expect leaps in machine learning will fill the gap and make this a reality.
In summary the author writes that intelligent things, both networked and teamed with human warfighters, will be a ubiquitous presence on the future battlefield – and that major advances in adversarial learning and adversarial reasoning will support the cyber warfare of the future, with AI fighting cyber adversaries.
This is all, Kott notes, his opinion and not that of his employer.
Innovations in efficiency could mean soldiers' presence on the battlefield is no longer required. AI robots would be free of human error, but capable of catastrophic mistakes of their own.
It's a valid concern, as one day machines could be killing on their own initiative. Developments in automation may lead vehicles and weapons to identify and attack targets automatically through pattern-recognition algorithms.
Facial recognition could enable them to detect an individual and pull the trigger as soon as they're authorised.
Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking were among more than 1,000 signatories of an open letter demanding a ban on autonomous weapons published in 2015.
Daniel Jones, a senior analyst specialising in defence, police and security at market intelligence firm Kable, feels these fears are overstated.
"There's this almost sci-fi level of scaremongering about robots," he says. "You can be a little bit more optimistic sometimes and not shut off areas of research. AI could potentially be a benefit."
These benefits could include fewer civilian casualties thanks to enhanced risk determination and a reduction in mistakes caused by stress and exhaustion. But AI warfare remains a long way off.
"We've only just got a computer to beat a human GO player," says Jones. "Warfare is exponentially more complex than that. But what it will be used for initially is to reduce human burden."
The swarm is coming
The US Department of Defence began 2017 with a demonstration of a micro-drone swarm in California consisting of 103 drones collaborating in decision-making, adaptive formation flying and self-healing.
"The types of anti-air defences and missiles that we have in place are not designed to track things of that size. It would be almost impossible," says Jones.
"[But] that is a technology where you're going to have to see massive increases in battery power for things like that to work effectively."
Larger drones are currently limited by their radar observability, but stealth technology is set to change that.
Autonomous stealth drones such as the Taranis concept aircraft designed by British arms manufacturer BAE Systems can find and identify a target then request permission to strike from a human operator.
Cheap swarms of autonomous stealth drones armed with deadly weaponry could be coming soon.
It gets worse. BAE Systems envisions a future of organic drones "grown" in large-scale labs by digitising synthetic and materials chemistry from a molecular level upwards with a new machine called a Chemputer.
They'll be backed-up by self-driving boats in the sea. DARPA are trialling an unmanned vessel that tracks submarines called Sea Hunter which can travel thousands of miles without anyone on board.
Auto-targeting would add efficiency to the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Action) loop decision cycle that guides terms of engagement in combat.
"One of the impacts of ICT generally is to reduce the timescale it takes to go from each of those stages in the loop," says Jones.
"You can describe the impact of technology of warfare in the future is to ever reduce the gaps between these stages."
Self-guided bullets designed by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to follow and strike a moving target and smart bombs that guide themselves towards targets using sensors and cameras have already been successfully trialled.
Railguns that use electromagnetic energy to fire shells faster and farther than ever before are being developed by BAE Systems, but electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons have even greater potential for disaster.
An EMP attack is caused by detonating a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere over its target. It can generate electric and magnetic fields that instantaneously disable a nation's power grid and leave a country without food, fuel, electricity, communications, transportation, and running water.
Closer to home
The military has not been exempt from the smartphone revolution. "Battlefield target acquisition apps, even simple things like enabling personnel to receive training on mobile devices" are now common, says Jones.
Augmented reality and virtual reality are other areas of consumer technology harnessed by the armed forces. AR headsets have long been deployed in F16 fighter jet helmets, but have yet to become common on the ground. That could soon change, with ARC4 headsets in helmets already able to send location and tactical information to soldiers.
"The military are investigating it for Project Cortisone, which is going to be the update of the defence medical information capability programme," says Jones. "It's basically defence medical IT but they are looking it in that space with the HoloLens."
Research suggests that the embodiment enabled through VR could make it an effective torture device.
It could be used to simulate real pain or plunge prisoners into vivid nightmares in psychotechnic torture cells from which they can only escape when the interrogator allows them.
Sometimes soldiers prefer the consumer tech they use as civilians to the equipment provided on the battlefield.
"The British radio system that they currently use is called Bowman," says Jones. "Military personnel gave a joke term that it actually stood for 'Better Off With Map and Nokia'.
"It reflected the development that servicemen would find that they had better technology on them and better computers at home than they did in the military."
Radio jamming and computer hacking could disrupt transmission, hijack drones and even turn weapons against their operators.
Ransomware is another threat that is growing in businesses and could be lethal in war. Gunter Ollmann, CSO of threat management specialists Vectra Networks, says it could be weaponised to disable an entire city.
"The reality is that future cyber warfare will likely resemble medieval siege warfare – as critical infrastructure and vital services to a city's population are shut-down and locked-out as a result of a ransomware attack," he says. "Many nation-state cyber warfare units have adopted and practice such attack doctrines."
Social media has in the past helped mobilise grassroots protests, but has also been used as a weapon of confusion. Russian forces fighting in Ukraine are alleged to have used Twitter and Facebook to spread false information about events on the ground, and to persuade the public to join them in the battle.
Russia was also accused of using malware to hack into an Android app used by Ukrainian troops to improve the accuracy of their artillery in order to geolocate the units.
Psychological operations and 'machine creativity'
Much has been said of botnets being applied to vie for psychological soft power in the cyber realm, particularly centred on the concept of fake news and Russian bots influencing opinion on social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit.
Russia has faced the most public backlash here in the west, including for its 'troll farm' online activists who try to promote public opinion in a way that undermines the west or is useful for the country. But America, China, and Britain all have similar projects – America with an army of convincing but fake online personas with Centcom. The British army has a 'special force of "Facebook warriors" 'skilled in psychological operations' and that the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group from GCHQ secretly conducts online propaganda, while a Harvard report estimated that the Chinese government posts almost 500 million social media comments every year.
Then there is the Cambridge Analytica scandal that erupted in March 2018, with a whistleblower saying the online marketing firm had used Facebook data to target voters with fake news – and the founder of its parent company SCL Group claiming it had the power to topple governments.
Now AI and neuroscience researchers are arguing that 'machine creativity' could make matters even worse. Advances in graphic simulations coupled with artificial intelligence could create convincing fake imagery that could dwarf today's fake news problem, reports Wired.
Lockheed Martin bets big on 'hypersonic weapons'
American 'defence' giant Lockheed Martin recently held a media day where its CEO boasted 'hypersonic weapons' have the capacity to change air supremacy like the stealth fighter jets of the 1990s changed the game then. Citing American Secretary of Defense James Mattis who said the new threat is not from small terrorist units but from the growing global powers, Lockheed Martin Chairman and CEO Marillyn A Hewson described how her company intends to sell weapons to challenge the 'near-peer' military powers.
'Hypersonic' technology could enable aircraft or cruise missiles to fly at speeds "greater than Mach 5," she said, adding that "this could forever change our ability to deter and respond to conflict, allowing warfighters to quickly address threats before an adversary may have time to react."
"It would unlock a game-changing capability – on par with stealth technology, which changed the definition of airpower by giving the US significant tactical and strategic advantages."
Lockheed Martin has long been rumoured to be working on the SR-72 conceptual hypersonic jet. But Hewson's comments – combined with recent comments made by Jack O'Bannion, VP of Strategy at the secretive radical military innovation lab SkunkWorks – suggest that that a working model might now be in production thanks to technological advances in manufacturing (like extremely accurate digital design and 3D printing for example).
Skunkworks hanger in California. Image credit: Wikipedia/Malfita
Hewson added that Lockheed Martin also believes laser weapons to be a transformative technology – more on those below – describing them as the "best match for high-volume, low-cost threats such as drones, which are becoming increasingly prevalent on the battlefield".
Lockheed Martin concept sketch of a US Army laser weapon
The company has already delivered a 60-kilowatt laser to the US Army, and now has a contract from the US Navy to deliver two laser weapon systems for "shipboard integration" by 2020, as well as working with the Air Force Research lab to "develop a high-power fiber laser for testing on a tactical fighter jet by 2021".
Lasers have long been a science fiction mainstay, and it seems that the future is finally catching up. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) recently awarded a £30m contract to a consortium called UK Dragonfire to produce a laser weapon prototype by 2019.
"A novel laser weapon could complement or replace existing weapons systems with the potential for significant benefits," an MoD press release states.
"It could be employed to protect our maritime and land forces; for example, ships from threat missiles or soldiers from enemy mortars."
In the US Navy, laser weapons are already a reality. A XN-1 LaWS weapon system that can burn through slow-flying planes has been authorised for use on the USS Ponce since 2014.
More advanced ground-based laser weapons systems using the speed and power of light have also been tested and could be in operation within the next few years.
The massive levels of power required limit their use for now. More realistic aspirations in the near future are disabling boats or shooting down missiles by overheating their electronics or destroying their sensors.
"Because they're so targetable, they can act in a non-lethal sense," says Jones. "Destroying the engines of, for example, fishing boats in the South China Sea. If China develops that sort of technology maybe you could control the seas in a more non-lethal way potentially as well."
Another popular cinematic creation is Iron Man's exoskeletal suit, but Tony Starks' design is an unwieldy fit for the battlefield.
"I don't think we're yet at the point where someone has developed a suit that isn't actually more of a burden on the individual," says Jones. "It's about the endurance of the average common soldier."
Listen: The UK Tech Weekly Podcast discuss the future of war
They're not there yet, but it's getting closer. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has designed a more practical prototype that transforms liquid body armour into a bulletproof shield at the point of contact through an electric current or magnetic field. They expect it to be completed in 2018.
If that proves too cumbersome, future devices might live under the skin. DARPA is now developing a chip that can deliver data on maps and battle strategy to the brains of human soldiers.
Meanwhile in the cosmos, the US Air Force is rumoured to have designed an unmanned spaceship called "Blackstar" which can conduct orbital reconnaissance and launch nuclear weapons from outer space.
Their old Cold War foes have similar plans. Russia's state-run Sputnik news site claims the country is building a nuclear-weapon space bomber ready to fire at any location on earth within two hours. It will allegedly be ready for launch in 2020.
Military personnel will have little time to rest in big units in future with long-range sensors on drones and satellites constantly monitoring movements.
Large headquarters full of highly detectable electronics are being replaced by mobile units offering smaller targets for long-range weapons and ready to move when required.
Armies may have to destroy sensors to enable air and naval forces to attack, the opposite approach to recent military strategy.
Technologies are already in place to aid adaption to this new reality. The quarter-mile long RAID (Rapid In-Theatre Deployment) military barrier designed by HESCO can be compressed to fit inside a shopping container and then unfolded to set up in 60 seconds.
"The actual size of manoeuvre units has been decreasing for a while," says Jones. "You can have distributed decision-making, and what they used to call network-enabled conflict and network-enabled warfare."
Equipment damaged in future battles could be quickly replaced by 3D-printed substitutes, spare parts, and guns, which were successfully tested in 2013.
Bioweapons are highly complex to develop and their production is banned, but that doesn't mean they aren't being manufactured anyway.
A European Parliament report released in December 2015 suspects ISIS may be developing banned weapons with potentially pandemic consequences.
Biological weapons of mass destruction could wipe out entire regions by fitting missiles or improvised explosive devices with advanced versions of viruses such as Zika.
Gene editing could produce even greater horrors. Current efforts to map the human genome may result in reductions to susceptibility to diseases, better-functioning organs and improved intelligence, but also global catastrophe.
CRISPR-Cas9 technology could alter individual organisms and their offspring to create killer mosquitoes to destroy entire crops, or viruses that attack human DNA to damage the people of today and create genetic changes in future generations.
The advances are another example of the growing involvement of the private sector in military technology.
"That is somewhat worrying," says Jones. "It increases the number of stakeholders that are engaged in the process.
"It used to be that the military or the defence sector would drive technological developments. This has completely changed now. It is the commercial sector that drives developments."