From cyber warfare on a quantum supercomputer to invisible infantry troops, experts believe we have much to worry about in the future. We tell you what warfare will be like in the not-too-distant future.
The Beginning of War
Since the beginning of civilization, people have been at war with each other. This is not to say that people did not kill each other long before the advent of agriculture, writing systems, animal husbandry, metalworking, and other “civilized” behaviors. As long as human beings have existed, they have used every means to fight each other.
But armies and wars did not really emerge until the third millennium B.C. This is when its first prerequisites – standing armies, coordinated maneuvers, and control of conquered territory – appeared. Over time, armies and wars evolved, employing more and more technology.
War can be said to be the yardstick by which the progress of civilizations can be measured. In other words, any primitive state can be measured by examining the composition and disposition of its armies. In the past century, human civilization has changed dramatically, and this is reflected in the way people conduct warfare.
By the middle of this century, it is likely that the very concept of war will have changed even more. With the rapidly accelerating pace of technology and questions about the fate of human societies, these changes are likely to be radical. In fact, war will change to the point where our ancestors would not even have recognized it as “war.
So, what should we prepare for?
Quantum arms race
Incidents such as GhostNet , #OpIsrael , Operation Olympic Games , and the DNC cyber attacks in 2016 illustrate the harsh reality of cyber warfare. Since the advent of the Internet, countries around the world have sought ways to use it as a weapon against other countries’ financial markets, computer systems, and enterprise communications.
In addition to governments and military forces, there is also the threat from independent hackers and hacker collectives. Groups such as Anonymous and Wikileaks have shown how hackers and “hacktivists” can do serious damage. It is understandable why governments today are luring hackers to their side to protect critical infrastructure (or conduct cyberattacks).
This will change when quantum computing becomes available. Compared to their “classical” counterparts, quantum computers rely on superposition and particle entanglement instead of binary digits (ones and zeros). This gives them the ability to compute multiple values simultaneously, which allows them to work incredibly fast and with astronomically high numbers.
Two important factors in the development of quantum computing are the number of qubits (the quantum equivalent of computer bits) and coherence time – the amount of time a qubit can store information. In the 2010s, the most powerful quantum computers had fewer than 100 qubits and coherence times ranging from a few nanoseconds to microseconds.
Between the 2030s and 2040s, the number of qubits and coherence time are likely to increase significantly to the point where they can break RSA-2048 encryption in as little as 10 seconds. It is also predicted that large-scale quantum computers will become available outside of laboratories, creating not only new opportunities for research, but also dangers.
While governments, the military and large corporations are likely to be prepared for intrusions, any system still running on old digital platforms will be vulnerable. For one thing, public-key encryption will become useless against quantum cyber intrusions. This will result in people not being able to trust any data sent or received over the Internet at all. This will put banking at risk.
It could have implications for cyber warfare as well. Various governments (e.g. the U.S. and China) are currently in a “quantum arms race” to explore new forms of cryptography, and to try to get ahead of others.
If cryptography does not keep up with computing in this field, whoever is the first to achieve “quantum superiority” will have a window of opportunity. Until their adversaries can create new encryption protocols to stop them, whoever achieves superiority will be able to penetrate others’ databases with impunity.
Drones are everywhere!
Since the turn of the century, the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UAVs) has grown. The reasons are simple – the need for more successful remote operations, as well as the military’s desire to reduce the risk of casualties and the growth of counterterrorism operations.
A 2013 study by the Brookings Institution found that from 2008 to 2013, the number of remote aircraft pilots trained in the U.S. Air Force increased from 500 to 1,300 (from about 3.3% to 8.5% of all new U.S. Air Force pilots). Since about 2012, in some years the U.S. Air Force has trained more remote pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.
Right now, UAV developers are striving to make them smaller, more stealthy and capable of taking on more roles. For example, drones perform a broader range of strike missions, such as aerial refueling, carrier operations, high-altitude aerial reconnaissance, and transposition.
Following this trend, UAVs may well replace manned airborne vehicles entirely by mid-century. Serious research is also underway to develop supersonic aircraft capable of flying, aerial combat, and landing without human control. Nevertheless, human pilots could still be used to monitor large-scale air operations, with remotely piloted or autonomous drones serving as “wingmen.”
Another possible development in UAVs would be the emergence of Microdrones. Swarms of miniature drones would be used as stealth and multiple (multipurpose) scouts to find and destroy enemy targets.
What’s in store for humanity? The growth and spread of stealth technology. The development of radio absorbing materials and radar reflective surfaces began in the mid 1970s and by the late 1980s led to the first stealth aircraft such as the F-117 Nighthawk and B-2 Spirit.
Some forty years later, stealth technology has expanded to include 5th generation fighter jets, stealth ships, next generation drones, and even tanks. Following this progress, stealth technology may well become the norm wherever and whenever battlefield radars or advanced imaging and detection techniques exist. Even the infantry is looking for ways to become more stealthy.
While infantry units have used camouflage since the 19th century, modern armies are looking for new ways to remain undetected. For example, multiscale (aka digital) camouflage has replaced old camouflage, and more and more units are being supplied with silencers. The U.S. Marine Corps recently made them mandatory.
Research is now focused on making infantry “invisible” to detection. Examples include “invisible cover” technology, which can mask heat signatures, and “invisibility cloaks” that allow troops to blend in easily with their surroundings.
If such technology is available for all services by 2050, stealth aircraft, ships, tanks, other types of combat vehicles and even troops will reach a new level.
What’s the bottom line?
As the old adage goes, “soldiers always prepare for the last war.” This means that armies are always evolving to meet new challenges after they have met them (sort of like anti-virus software). This revered tradition will undoubtedly continue into the uncertain future, and the results are hard to predict.
Alas, some things never change. First, war is and always will be a human-driven affair. Even if robots take over the battlefield, they will fight at the will of humans according to human plans. Second, armies will always have to adapt to changing circumstances and technologies, especially those that offer new opportunities for harm, chaos and destruction, the authors of Interesting Engineering note.
Last but not least, war will never be predictable, and all attempts to anticipate future events are likely to yield limited success (at best). Even if future armies benefit from AI and quantum computing to estimate different scenarios and probabilities, the accelerating nature of technological change will create new levels of uncertainty.