The increasing importance of information in military and warfare is making digital technology and its applications, such as analytics, AI, and augmented reality, indispensable to the future of war.
Considering the existing global political situation, where nations are not on the best of terms with each other, it is easier to imagine the possibility of a third World War than worldwide peace. Governments are at loggerheads with other nations, engaged in the acquisition and development of increasingly futuristic weaponry that is capable of causing destruction from afar. This is natural, considering the fact that the victors in battle, throughout human history, have been the ones with the ability to further from the battlefield. Teeth and claws were defeated by knives and swords. Swords were defeated by arrows. Arrows couldn’t hold up against guns. Guns were defeated by guns and cannons that could shoot accurately from further away. These were then trumped by aircraft that could kill from the sky, out of sight. And now we’re witnessing the rapid emergence of unmanned aircraft, armed robotic rovers, autonomous underwater vehicles, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that can carry nuclear warheads over thousands of kilometers, already giving us a glimpse of the future of war.
However, it is also important to see that war has not always been about having the sharpest claws and the longest arms. War is also about having the smartest mind. War is increasingly becoming more about strategy and intelligence than about firepower and weaponry.
The Growing Importance of Information in Warfare
As warfare and conflict evolved, people began realizing the importance of intelligence or information on the enemy that could help predict their moves. Predicting the opposition’s moves can help in formulating strategies that can ensure victory without expending too many resources, without losing too many lives, and sometimes, even with a smaller pool of resources and weapons than the enemy. Hence, espionage became an important part of warfare.
Communicating information to the right people at the right time also became important, and hence newer forms of communication technologies were developed and used. Technological research and development began focusing on information gathering and sharing tools as much as weapons that cause destruction. Spies were trained and sent into enemy territories to gather intelligence that could allow tacticians to anticipate the opponents’ moves. Today, militaries are investing in information technology as much as they are in arms and ammunition.
Militaries have already seen the functional benefits of using unmanned aerial vehicles and drones to gather video footage of geographical areas of interest, such as enemy territory and areas of engagement, i.e., the battlefields. Technologies like big data, machine learning, and deep learning are being incorporated into these reconnaissance systems to quickly and accurately analyze and make inferences from the data gathered. The insights gained from the analysis of data can help military leaders in making decisions and planning their moves for maximum effectiveness. For example, the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding the research of project Mind’s Eye, which is an AI-based system that can find, track, and identify objects from video footages gathered from surveillance systems such as cameras attached to drones.
Information Technology and the Future of War
Information technology will play a crucial role in the future of war, by enabling seamless communication and control to maximize the effectiveness of soldiers. Following are a few technologies that we can see in the future (in the unfortunate event of a war):
1. Augmented Reality: If you’ve ever played any first-person shooter, be it Call of Duty, Halo, Counter-Strike, or the latest trend - PUBG, you’ll realize the handiness of a HUD or a Head-Up Display. On a battlefield, soldiers need immediate access to vital information such as their position and the position of their team members. Eventually, AR HUDs can also be integrated with the weapons that soldiers carry and enable them to improve aiming and keep track of the weapon’s performance. AR can also be used to share information visually between soldiers to better coordinate and communicate without losing focus during critical moments. AR is already being used to make Helmets for air force fighter pilots, which gives them all the situational information they need to make quick decisions even in the most high-pressure conditions.
2. Virtual Reality: Regardless of what technologies in terms of weaponry emerge, the most important weapon for any army is a trained and experienced soldier. Virtual reality can enable soldiers to gain valuable battlefield experience without having to bear the risk of stepping into actual battle for training. This will allow militaries to have their soldiers well-prepared for battle and minimize the chances of tactical failures and the loss of lives. VR is already being used by militaries to train aircraft pilots to preserve equipment and life that may be at risk due to a lack of experience of the trainees.
3. Artificial Intelligence: We all know how capable Artificial Intelligence is getting at replicating the human intellectual process. In fact, AI is also known to be able to outwit us, as was demonstrated last year when an AI player beat the world champion at Go, a strategy game that requires complex strategy and intuition. The ability of AI to strategize, learn, and process large volumes of information almost instantly can make it an excellent battle advisor. In addition to planning war strategies, AI systems can help troops coordinate with each other by relaying mission-critical information to concerned units and enabling them to make the right judgments during combat. This communication can be performed using the head-mounted AR displays that were discussed above.
4. Robotics: Unlike AI, which can merely analyze and communicate information, robots can act on the information. Military robots like UAV’s or drones and unmanned ground vehicles(UGV), possibly powered by artificial intelligence can support human soldiers and even lead the lines in high-risk situations. Drones can fly over enemy territory to surveil huge areas without risking the lives of human pilots. Drones are being infused with smarter control systems that enable them to autonomously perform surveillance missions without requiring human intervention. Missions can be programmed into the drone’s control system before launch and it can carry out every task from take-off to the return journey and landing. UAVs can also carry out strike missions where they can carry and fire ammunition at targets with surgical precision, armed with AI and deep learning, these flying robots can identify and attack moving targets without requiring human control. Although there are many debates regarding the ethical implications of using drones in war, there is little doubt regarding the effectiveness of these machines.
UGVs do on the ground what UAVs do in the air - carry and deliver supplies, perform reconnaissance, provide fire support, and also engage directly with the enemy, minimizing the risk to human troops.
It is highly likely that in the future a majority of armed forces will comprise of drones and robotic weapons (and perhaps even Terminator-esque humanoid robots.)
5. Cyber-warfare: With so many machines interconnected in a wide and integrated network, the biggest threat may not come from the enemy’s guns but from their computers. It is highly possible that wars may be waged in cyberspace, where programmers and hackers from opposing sides will be constantly engaged in efforts to disable the enemy’s military and, sometimes, even civilian networks. When every system is dependent on interconnected digital technology, a failure in technology can lead to a much more devastating outcome than the cumulative destruction caused by an all-out armed attack.
With the rapid propagation of the Internet of Things (IoT), eventually, entire nations will form networks of interconnected devices and systems spanning thousands of miles. These networks will include critical systems like power plants and power grids, and also everyday devices like ID scanners at building entrances. Future cyber attackers may target civilian facilities in an attempt to gain a military advantage, causing nationwide shutdowns. To prevent massive shutdowns, the role of technologies like AI and machine learning in cybersecurity will be crucial.
It is fascinating and at the same time scary to see what the future of war may look like, and how devastating the aftermath can be. However, whether we like it or not, the possibility of war exists and every nation is preparing for it. Continuous investment and research in military technology are giving rise to increasingly autonomous and deadly tools that can cause massive destruction, swiftly and efficiently. At this point, I’m reminded of the words attributed to Albert Einstein - “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”