Interesting Engineering has published a forecast of what warfare may look like in 2050 and beyond. They've analyzed current trends and emerging technologies to produce an overview of how combat and its tools are developing. They conclude:
While making accurate predictions is never easy, the nature of warfare by mid-century is predicted to include a few major shifts:
- Distributed technologies giving rise to new terror threats
- Quantum computing and escalation of cyberwarfare
- Stealth reaching the point of true invisibility
- No more tanks or tank battles
- Robots and cyborgs assuming most (or all) combat roles
Alas, some things never change. For one, warfare is and always will be a human-directed endeavor. Even if robots take over the battlefield, they will be fighting at the behest of human beings with human agendas. Second, armies will always be forced to adapt to changing circumstances and technologies, especially the ones that present new opportunities for mischief, mayhem, and destruction.
Last, but not least, warfare will never be predictable, and all our attempts to anticipate future developments are likely to meet with limited success (at most). Even if future armies benefit from AI and quantum computing to assess different scenarios and probabilities, the accelerating nature of technological change will create new levels of uncertainty.
It's a long article, so I can't reliably excerpt each of the sections listed above, but to whet your appetite, here's a more in-depth citation from their discussion of robots and cyborgs on the battlefield.
... perhaps the most radical way robotics will be integrated into the battlefield is with soldiers themselves. Soon, exoskeletons are predicted to make an appearance, giving individual soldiers greater strength, endurance, and carrying capacity.
According to a recent report by the US Department of Defense (DoD), 2050 will be the year where cyborg soldiers are a regular feature of the US Armed Forces. According to the report, the following "cyborg technologies" are expected to have the greatest impact:
Ocular Enhancement: Ocular implants of the future offer the potential to enhance sight, imaging, and situational awareness. By integrating circuits into the eye, soldiers see in other wavelengths (such as infrared), have enhanced night vision, discern movement more easily, identify targets, and project heads-up displays (HUDs) in their visual field.
Programmed Muscle Control: Soldiers of the future could also have subcutaneous sensor networks integrated into their bodies that would enhance muscle control by delivering optogenetic stimulation (light pulses). Integrated with an AI-driven situational awareness package, these sensors could also provide automated hazard avoidance.
Auditory Enhancement: By replacing or modifying middle-ear bones and cochlea, soldiers would have a greater range of hearing and protection against hearing loss. Combined with ocular and neural implants, auditory implants could enhance communication and situational awareness. This would include identifying low-intensity sounds, potential hazards, echolocation, and localization.
Direct Neural Enhancement: The ability to graft computer chips directly to the human brain will allow for brain-to-machine interfacing (BMI), as well as brain-to-brain interactions (BBI). In essence, soldiers would be capable of direct communication with autonomous systems and other soldiers, with deep implications for optimizing command, control, and operations. As is written in the report:"The potential for direct data exchange between human neural networks and microelectronic systems could revolutionize tactical warfighter communications, speed the transfer of knowledge throughout the chain of command, and ultimately dispel the “fog” of war. Direct neural enhancement of the human brain through neuro-silica interfaces could improve target acquisition and engagement and accelerate defensive and offensive systems."
Cybernetic components will also have considerable implications for medical care and recovery. For example, neural implants could address symptoms that result from brain injuries — such as memory loss, dizziness, headaches, nausea, inability to concentrate, difficulty retaining new information, etc.
These implants will likely take the form of small and flexible integrated circuits placed on injured areas of the brain, providing a "bridge" between damaged neurons. Similar implants could also address the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by breaking the connection between external stimuli and the panic response.
Similarly, bionic prosthetics will become an option for soldiers who suffer irreparable damage to parts of their bodies. These range from bionic eyes and artificial organs to arms and legs, which rely on sophisticated electrodes to merge directly with nerve channels.
These will restore (and enhance) mobility and sensory perception and provide sensory feedback (pressure, vibration, temperature, pleasure/pain). Subcutaneous optogenetic implants could also aid in the recovery process where muscles and other soft tissues have been damaged.
Other advancements of importance include bioprinting and other burgeoning fields of biotechnology. The ability to print organic tissues on-demand — such as skin, organs, muscle tissue, and blood vessels — will drastically improve the survival and recovery rate of soldiers.
There's much more at the link. It's a lengthy read, but repays attention if you're interested in the subject.
Of course, this is what a former comrade-in-arms used to cynically describe as "military mental masturbation". We can predict that many technologies currently under development may wind up on the battlefield, but when and how that'll happen, and the extent to which it'll affect warfare, is at the moment only speculation.
Nevertheless, technology has already reached the point where, even taken in isolation, it's a war-winner. We saw that in last year's conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which we've discussed in these pages on two occasions (follow those links for an in-depth look at the conflict, including video). Armenia was hopelessly outclassed on the battlefield by Azerbaijan's superior technology and the way in which they used it. The latter nation suffered very few casualties compared to its foe, and dealt Armenia a swingeing defeat in a matter of just a few weeks.
This has drastic implications for the relationship between armed forces and their societies, too. One of the checks and balances in democratic nations has always been that their soldiers, sailors and aircrew have been drawn from their own citizens, so that there's (supposedly) an inbuilt reluctance on their part to fire on fellow citizens. That's supposed to safeguard against military coups d'état, and make it difficult for a government to use troops against its own people. However, if a military force is primarily comprised of technological tools rather than people, the latter inhibition disappears. A government can deploy robots and drones against civilians with no fear of repercussions from the tools it's using, because they have no morality as such.
Based on the conduct of governments in the past, I suspect that'll soon be more than just a theoretical possibility.