Thursday, April 29, 2021

Warfare in 2050


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.



Sam L. said...

As a missileer,I spent most of my time underground sitting on my backside. Learning to operate the systems, that took time. Of the 33 holes I served in, only two are left, both as museum sites.

John Prigent said...

Wellington said, "it all depends on that article". Battles are won or lost by the quality of the men in them, even if led by good officers.

LL said...

Or, we're back to sticks and stones.

Aesop said...

Everything they describe is simply so much hogwash.

Build an army like that - I dare you.

I'll pop a nuke in orbit, and fry your entire army into so many blind, deaf, crippled, broken cyborgs in a millisecond, then march onto your HQ base with ordinary dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers grunts, kick down the door, and shoot the drone operator/director in the face.

Game. Over.

Military mental masturbation indeed.

All that Tom Swift And His Electric Bulls**t fiction does is prime the pump for the military-industrial complex, exactly as intended, for people too dumb to not know what they don't know.

Anything high tech has a low tolerance for exactly the standard environment for combat: freezing, broiling, dark, wet, dirty, and beyond the logistics chain.
Even simple night vision only works as long as you've got batteries.

Armenia vs. Azerbaijan was like watching a slapfight between Paraguay and Uruguay. It was simply the technological equivalent of watching pygmies charge a Maxim gun. Except in 1988, while everyone else was watching.

The lesson to not rely on 1960s tech is rather obvious, but neither is 1990s tech so hot nowadays either. And "true" stealth is a unicorn. Everything has a tailpipe, and leaves a signature. We should take a lesson from H.G. Wells: even the Invisible Man leaves footprints in the sand or on carpeting, and has to walk around naked.

Tech is always just a new mousetrap, and no matter what you build, the mice are still not extinct.

JaimeInTexas said...

Currently reading "Where Is My Flying Car." Sadly, these warfare tech predictions might actually happen because of War, Inc.

Stan_qaz said...

Directed energy weapons are another game changer, if they become practical any aircraft or ballistic object that can be detected can be shot down. Stealth goes from nice to have to being essential to survival.

Even ground based stuff is at risk, you can haul a lot more armor than you can loft but if the enemy can put more energy on you than your armor can defend against they win.

Going way back, David Drake's "Hammers Slammers" books have some interesting directed energy weapons and the interesting impacts of their use in battle.

Directrix Gazer said...

Predictions like this have historically aged like fine... milk.

Trailer For Sale Or Rent said...

And what about when these enhanced soldiers want to leave the service ?

SiGraybeard said...

As a radar designer, let me tell you my First Law. If you can't see a target, you're looking with the wrong eyes. That is, you're looking in the wrong part of the spectrum.

Can't see a B-2 with your existing radar? You can see a stealth bomber with your eyes, right? Same with stealth fighters. Same for sonar stealthy submarines.

More broadband, broad-spectrum systems are coming.

Roy said...

"Same for sonar stealthy submarines."

Yeah? What do you see with your eyes below about 200 ft.?

Stan_qaz said...

Seeing submarines?

Tschifty Mccoy said...

Space platforms could be devastating as well. Coincidentally, Cbina aims to build its own space station by 2022-3. Hmmmm..wonder what peaceful plans they jave for that?

Dave said...

I suspect drone swarms are going to be a major thing in future conflicts. Cheap and easy to kill individually... but combined, they're a whole lot of trouble.

GoldenScrooge said...

Need to develop EMP weapons.

Old NFO said...

Mental masturbation is right...

Roy said...


I guess you assume that I read BRM today but didn't read him yesterday. That's kinda silly really.

Just so you know, I am a qualified submariner and a sonarman to boot. I know a lot more about this sort of thing than I can say, but I will repeat a comment I made to that post:

A lot of this "new" technology has been around longer than you folks think.

Unknown said...

what happens when they go home, see the cobra war series

directed energy and hypersonic projectile weapons will have a huge effect where you have enough energy to run them (ships, bases that have small-scale nuke reactors) and will completely change the effect of air power (adaptive mirrors to correct for atmospheric distortion for targeting as well)

for that matter, we haven't seen the effects of remote controlled guns yet. with the growth of CNC equipment (3d printers, etc) and cameras, rigging up a remote turret and camera you control remotely is getting easier and cheaper, and with mechanical support, you avoid a lot of the human factors in making a first-shot hit.

we've talked about the effects of drones, but that may be mitigated by better anti-air defenses.

David Lang

5stonegames said...

By 2050 baring radical change like a civil war or collapse will be much closer to Latin America and unable to develop or field that kind of advanced equipment in significant numbers if it even exists.

China might in small numbers but demographics are fragging everybody and the now ancient population will eat up so many resources, expensive war toys won't be there.

Noveske's Rock said...

This subject has popped up elsewhere in the past couple years. Tech is tech - anything built can be reverse engineered (eventually) and counter measures devised. Integrating tech directly with wetware (humans) has the same liability. Implants can be detected and targeted. The hot ticket there is genetic engineering to achieve your sensory perception goals springboarding off the existing cell designs. In either case (genetic upgrade or implant) you have the repo / disposal concerns. When the upgraded individual is surplus to requirements do you terminate them or somehow deactivate their abilities. If the upgrades didn't raise ethical questions the downgrades certainly will. Software implants to humans show more promise from a totalitarian perspective. The military has used crude methods to "rewire" civilians into soldiers while sports medicine / martial arts practitioners have also attempted to maximize physical potential, focus, perception, drive, etc. If an individual is "hacked" to fully utilize their full physical / mental potential and simultaneously implanted with a back door "off" switch that might be less expensive and have greater adaptability than simply inserting implants. Totalitarian managers would presumably have loyalty software integrated as a matter of course. Not a pleasant perspective.

A brief hardware observation. Semi-autonomous drone swarms are probably the cheapest way to take out air / space assets until the diffraction issues with beam weapons are eliminated. The Chinese seem to be putting a lot of effort into their hand held laser rifles (PY132A for instance). No way to protect viewers from frequency hopping lasers - they will be permanently blinded. Those weapons are against the Geneva convention - and we all know how well that works. Going to be some awkward times ahead.

Doonhamer said...

I have been reading these posts in reverse order. Catching up.
Maybe that is why I see the link between the earlier post on immigrant invasion and the usefulness of super-duper high tech wet dream weapons of this post.
Never mind 2050. What if the invasion is complete long before then. And you lost, without hardly realising it. And where did all those fatal virii come from. Game over.

Phil said...

Drone swarms are difficult to defeat directly. That’s why you take out the air fields and power grid.

Roy said...

"I'll pop a nuke in orbit, and fry your entire army into so many blind, deaf, crippled, broken cyborgs in a millisecond..." though nobody has ever "popped a nuke" before, and nobody has ever studied the effect of an EMP before, and nobody has certainly ever *hardened* their electronics to EMP effect. Yep. Since oh about 1946 or so.

I'll say it again ad nauseum... This shit has been around a lot longer than you think it has.

Aesop said...

Study all you want.
No one's set one off above-ground since 1963, 57 years ago.

We'll see how "hardened" anything is in fact, since high tech then was transistors instead of vacuum tubes, the Nautilus sailing under the polar ice, and F-4 Phantoms. That's three generations ago, just in fighters and submarines.

Tech things have changed a wee bit since JFK was president.

"This shit" has been around in reps' sales brochures and sci-fi novels for decades.

Real-world, it's all so much gas coming out the stack of an outhouse. Pretty much like laser small arms, jet packs, and flying cars. If we could've done it, we would've done it, long since.

Somebody above nailed it: Predictions like the OP age like fine milk. Since ever.