Exclusive extract: the future of warfare

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Future Combat: War 2030

The transformative technologies that will redefine the battleground

For a soldier fighting around a century ago, today’s weaponry and assistive technology would, for the most part, appear completely alien. Long gone are the cavalry charges, bayonets and almost exclusively ground-based fighting. Now our ground troops are protected by bulletproof Kevlar while drones and fighter jets patrol above their heads. We may believe that we’ve reached the pinnacle of combat technology, but in another century the battle landscape will have taken another huge evolutionary leap forward.

We stand on the cusp of this new technological era; remote-controlled aircraft surf the skies and revolutionary prototypes are constantly being designed and tested in the field. Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as UAVs, are of particular interest to government-funded research teams. One branch of the Pentagon recently unveiled a swarm of drones that could communicate with each other and provide surveillance of a wide area. They may soon be employed to jam enemy communications.

Infantry units will also benefit from the ascendancy of technology, as engineered exoskeletons will upgrade both their endurance and protection. Lower-limb exoskeletons will be affixed to the flanks of a soldier’s legs and their spine via straps – such as in University of California, Berkeley’s BLEEX design – enabling them to carry heavier payloads and wear more armour. There will also be ‘soft’ exoskeleton variants such as DARPA’s Warrior Web concept: a lightweight under-suit – visually similar to a diver’s wetsuit – designed to protect and support injury-prone soft tissues and help mitigate against muscular fatigue.

Perhaps the most impactful of all incoming technologies, however, is the rise of automation. With our ever-growing ability to write intuitive algorithms and construct sophisticated sensors, it is becoming possible to remove humans from a weapon’s control and decision-making process entirely. Fully automated defence weapons are already in widespread use in the form of the Phalanx system, which is a combination of sensors, software and a Gatling gun found on many naval warships. When the system senses an incoming missile, it will automatically locate, aim at and destroy the threat much faster than any human controller would be capable of doing.

However, aside from dealing with clear threats, such as incoming missiles, it will be much more difficult (and morally questionable) to give an autonomous system complete control. As a result, governments and private companies are hard at work designing and implementing near-autonomous war machines of all kinds, from tanks to drones, all of which will require human input for the use of aggressive force.

This means that we will soon see a surge in the number of soldiers who fight in the theatres of war from safe locations thousands of miles from the action on the front line. Tanks will patrol the ground and drones the air, able to autonomously navigate and take defensive actions in real-time by avoiding the command lag from a human controller positioned miles away. But when it comes to utilising weaponry, a soldier will be able to process the relayed information and dictate the required response. The US Navy, in particular, is so confident in the rise of autonomous war vehicles that the nation’s defence secretary has claimed that their latest batch of manned strike jets will likely be the last they will ever buy…


You can read the rest of the feature in our latest issue


Extract from War 2030 by James Horton. Featured in How It Works 109.


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