Thursday, July 26, 2012

Technology and the Future of Warfare

Pretty sure they didn't see it coming
Geopolitically, the world has been structured the way we see it today for a long time.  Major economic powers develop advanced technology and build very powerful offensive military capability in order to dictate the terms of international trade.  Nations form alliances based primarily on compatible political and sectarian ideologies and in response to recognized threats.  At some point, rival coalitions of nations arrive at a rough parity of military capability and settle into an uneasy peace that lasts until either one of the opposing alliances collapses or develops a game-changing technology that allows it to, once again, hold it's adversary at risk and dominate the region or globe.

But now we're seeing a game changing technology that doesn't simply shift the balance of coercive military power, but is poised to radically alter the way wars are fought and power is projected. That technology is, of course, the microprocessor. At this point in the digital technology revolution the advances are building on themselves, and the pace of technological advancement is accelerating - and were seeing that play out in the development of military technology and weapons systems, to the point that a great deal of 'what we know' about the way the world's geopolitical balance works is becoming obsolete to the point of valueless.

But first, one key proviso. Any conversation about the global balance of military power must be undertaken with the understanding that everything is based on nuclear weapons. The strategic arsenals serve as a limiting factor to any military operation - you can never risk being too successful, because if your nuclear armed adversary sees their own destruction as imminent, they may deploy their nukes. And make no mistake - there is no possible conventional response to a nuclear attack. Escalation is baked into the cake, and retaliatory and second-strike capabilities are SOP in everyone's nuclear doctrine. The paradox of strategic deterrence is that the primary purpose of nuclear weapons is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. So any changes in the way the world wages war in the near future will still be constrained by the requirement that the nukes stay in their silos.

With that, let's take a look at how the microprocessor changes everything.

Missile Technology
Missiles are the number one threat to any military force in the world today.  They are small, fast, cheap and extremely hard to defend against.  They've been 'smart' for a long time, but today's missiles are becoming brilliant.  We're beginning to see missiles that can loiter, waiting to observe a specific target or event before striking.  Missiles that can target a specific building or ship, or even a specific point on a building or ship.  Missiles that can maneuver or even work together to evade anti-missile defenses.  And now, most devastatingly, we're seeing the beginnings of precision guided ballistic missiles, the ultimate area denial weapon.  You see, up until now, a ballistic missile was precisely that - launched on a ballistic trajectory, we've gotten very good at getting them to land on a precisely designated target.  But with their impact point specified on launch, there was no way to guide the warhead to hit, say, a moving target who's exact location cannot be known at launch.  But with the ability to build intelligence on-board and to provide real-time data using digital satellite networks, you have the ability to provide terminal guidance to a ballistic missile.  So what, you ask?  Cruise missiles and their bretheren in current inventories can be thought of as very fast airplanes.  It's not easy, but they can be defended against.  Ballistic missiles come screaming down out of space - they can carry a very large payload and once they are on their re-entry phase, they can't be stopped.  Think the end of the Aircraft Carrier.  The end of any naval surface combatant.  Nations able to enforce a "bubble" a thousand miles off their coasts.  One of the keystones of American military superiority is her absolute dominance of the air.  There is simply no other nation that can put airplanes into airspace contested by the US and expect them to survive.  And as long as they can't fly, America's tanks and artillery and infantry are not at risk, while the opposition can never assemble to launch an attack.  But if you take away America's aircraft carriers, you take away her air dominance in many parts of the world.  Without US surface combatants, the Taiwan Strait and the Persian Gulf, just as examples, look completely different militarily.

It's important for the purposes of this discussion to separate drones into two categories.  First there are the big, advanced drones being developed and deployed by the major powers, led by the US.  These are both surveillance and strike aircraft with all the capabilities - or even more - of manned aircraft.  With one major flaw - drones lack any real air-to-air defensive capability and therefore cannot loiter in contested airspace.  So while the technology to produce autonomously guided unmanned aircraft is available to anyone for a few thousand dollars, this limitation requires that any weaponized drone developed by a nation or organization with more limited resources be a second category - what we might call a "kamikaze drone".  Think of them as a (very) poor man's guided missile.  But this is a game changer of the first order.  It is a remarkably powerful and deadly weapons system that can be deployed by terrorists, criminals, resistance fighters, armed political groups or just crazy people with an ax to grind.  Able to be launched from dozens, perhaps hundreds of miles away, to carry a significant destructive payload and to navigate to a precise location without requiring external control, the proliferation of this type of robotic aerial weapons will very likely become a signature event in the next generation of warfare.  Think of the myriad ways it will change the way we all live - air defenses at every event, speech, concert - anything that somebody might choose to attack.  Whole new kinds of blackmail and extortion.  And all punctuated by the steady drumbeat of sudden deadly explosions, the same kind of fear and uncertainty currently only being experienced in the rugged Pakistani mountain villages.

Cyber Warfare
No one really knows what this means, but we do know that the US has opened Pandora's box with Stuxnet, endorsing the use of software as an actual destructive weapon.  And with so much infrastructure running on the same kinds of industrial controllers as the Iranian centrifuges, the US would seem to be particularly vulnerable to exactly this kind of attack.  The only real defense is the so-called 'air-gap', completely disconnecting the devices at risk from the Internet, but in the era of remote and cloud-based management, this seems unlikely to be an effective solution.  Now, whether these attacks will be a regular small nuisance, briefly shutting down water, electrical, communication and financial services delivery in isolated regions or whether we will see massive, sustained blackouts, shutdowns and destruction of manufacturing plants and infrastructure remains to be seen.  This is entirely uncharted territory - unlike the other sorts of attacks we talked about, weaponized software isn't merely a technological extension of an existing model or capability.  It is something altogether new, and the ongoing discovery of what a few very smart people can do with it might be quite unpleasant.

Ultimately, the outcome - in as little as ten years - is a significantly different world.  If the major powers are unable to assert themselves in places where they don't have substantial ground - based air power, it will result in a world of regional fiefdoms, where superpowers can't truly be global powers without the willing assistance of other parties.  In the meantime, small, cheap drones will allow every group with an agenda to launch effective, meaningful attacks against their adversaries.  Heads of State, along with other leadership figures, will find it much harder to operate in public venues.  And importantly, the American people, shielded from the kinds of industrialized violence they have visited on so many others for so long, will have to learn to live with the same kind of uncertainty and fear that others have grown familiar with.  Perhaps this outcome was inevitable, the die cast when Bob Noyce founded Fairchild in 1957, but one can't help but wonder if the choices being made by the American leadership are legitimatizing these kinds of technology-based weapons, and making them more likely to become ubiquitous.


  1. I see you have avoided the "Stupid Bomb".

    What if we dropped Ted Nugent and Glenn Beck on an innocent population?

  2. Depends on the population. If you dropped them in Tehran the only thing they would have to change is 'god' to 'allah' and 'bible' to 'quaran' and the rest of their views would fit right in.

    Also, too, judging by the people I see around me, if we dropped a stupid bomb on them, the only way they could be any stupider is they'd forget how to eat and walk...

  3. " If a guitar player can neutralize a watermelon from 20 feet -"

    Priceless, Ted, and not for the reason you think.

    Didn't I read a similar post somewhere recently, mikey? LGM perhaps, or maybe FDL.

  4. I'm just looking forward to spree killers & other such maniacs using drones to make their revenge & "Look at me!" fantasies come true.

    I'll also be looking for a below-ground apartment.