Weapons of World War III: How new technology will affect the next great conflict

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Extreme Tech

During a panel this week at South by Southwest Interactive 2015, authors Peter Singer and August Cole discussed their collaboration on Ghost Fleet, a novel about the next great superpower conflict. Part of the reason they wrote the book is to be able to paint a picture, in fiction, of how big future wars might be fought — and it can be pretty scary to think about.

First, a bit of background: Peter Singer is a former Brookings Institution Fellow now with think tank NewAmerica.org, and consults to both government security agencies and the private sector. August Cole is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and has covered defense issues and the defense industry for both The Wall Street Journal and Marketwatch.com. Dave Anthony, the director and producer of the Call of Duty video game franchise, moderated the panel.

As the authors mentioned — and it was a bit of a theme elsewhere at SXSW — there is a long history of works of science fiction predicting the future. Jules Verne’s classic 20,000 Leagues under the Sea sparked the public imagination in submarines. Arthur C. Clarke proposed geostationary satellite communication in 1945, and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot series of short stories in the 1940s prefaced the fear of modern smart robots running amok.

The authors drew some historical reference with how each great conflict radically improved previous technology and introduced new ones. In World War I, the tank was invented, and while fearsome when it first rumbled past the trenches, it wasn’t mobile enough, and also came too late to be a factor in the ground war. Airplanes also first saw large-scale use in combat in this war, but again air power did not prove to be a decisive factor in the outcome.

By World War II, both the tank and airplane were radically improved, and both proved huge factors in the war, in large part because equally spectacular advances in mass production enabled them to be deployed at incredible scale. In the initial stages of the war in Europe, the German army — while not necessarily having a vast superiority in the technology — gained shockingly rapid victories in Poland and France by innovating in the tactics using tank technology and air power. Airplanes saw huge development in speed and range.

Aside from fighters, the development of the long-range bomber brought the ability to bring war rapidly — for the first time — to civilian populations and the manufacturing centers for making the weapons and supplies of war. The new technologies that World War II ushered in — jet propulsion for airplanes, self propelled missiles, and the nuclear bomb — help shape the balance of power in today’s world.

Encryption

So what could the next great war look like? The authors say that two new domains will figure prominently: space and cyberspace. While war will still be fought on land, sea, and air, war in (and from) space and in cyberspace could, like the long range bomber and the missile in World War II, prove another way to bring the effects of war to any population on any continent on the planet. While the technical abilities of the NSA and other U.S. agencies in cyber tactics is extremely strong, Singer pointed out that the United States may be vulnerable due to the sheer size of cyber attacks we could face. Think of an army of thousands of hackers from another country conducting zero-day attacks on a variety of government and private systems. The recent Sony hack caused huge economic loss and problems for Sony. If that were multiplied many times in a war scenario, economic activity could grind to a halt.

Each new weapons technology in wars past brought moral, ethical and political considerations in their use. Singer and Cole noted that in World War I, the Germans’ sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania brought worldwide outrage about the use of submarines in war. In World War II, shortly after Pearl Harbor, the US adopted the German tactic and declared unlimited submarine warfare on Japan. The same essentially happened with bombing non-strategic parts of civilian cities.

Today’s new weapon is the drone, which has been used with great success in targeted situations by the U.S. The next step in its evolution is the autonomous drone. The next generations of drones will use artificial intelligence (AI) to identify unfriendly targets among friendly ones, and learn and adapt from what it runs into — much the same way Google’s autonomous car does. The thought of turning loose machines that can “think” — and control — themselves in war will give political leaders and many others pause. But it is very likely to happen as we continue to try to limit the risk of human casualties.

In the same vein as drones, autonomous robots are also on the horizon. And since we already have very smart drones, the Air Force is experimenting with unmanned fighters and bombers. The refinement of the technology with today’s drones will enable those much more complex machines to be controlled remotely as well. Like how the driverless car can cause a major rethink of what a car does and how it’s designed, a pilot-less fighter could cause the same for airplane design.

Part of the technical challenge will be the risk of a major failing of part of the backbone that our fighting forces rely on, like the GPS infrastructure. Today we all rely on GPS satellite information in daily life and perhaps forget that it was initially build for military purposes. If it was infiltrated in cyberwar, and an army of drones, missiles, and other weapons were given the wrong information, chaos could ensue. The initial fallings of Apple Maps would pale by comparison. Other infrastructure, like the Internet, is also vulnerable. As most of the world now runs on open source software, the knowledge to modify a system for nefarious purposes is fairly well known. As the recent Shellshock scare points out, many of the devices and systems that we rely on every day need to be adequately protected, because if taken over they have the ability to severely affect the use of the Internet.

In today’s hyper connected world, the general public with multiple connected devices might learn something is happening faster than government officials. A great example is the well known story of the Pakistani IT consultant who live-tweeted the secret raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in 2011. The Islamic extremist organization ISIS has social media feeds in 23 different languages. The ability to shut down or damage the communication capabilities of enemies will be as important as always, but much harder with the easy availability of today’s technologies. Distributed networks can use easily available strong encryption, and even new peer-to-peer networking technologies, to make it harder to shut down centralized control.

Quantum Encryption

From a political standpoint in democratic countries, the power of social networks, as witnessed by some of its effect in the so-called Arab Spring, could have far reaching implications in the next conflict. From disseminating certain news about the war that the government and traditional media may not want to deal with, to giving voice to dissenting opinions at great scale, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other networks could drive political opinion in ways not seen before.

Bio hacking is another new set of technologies that could also play a role. Loosely defined, it refers to an augmentation of our basic biology to give us supernatural powers and skills. Today our smartphones can give us some of these powers (or perhaps we like to believe that), from being our off board memory by enabling us to look up practically any piece of information, to guiding us in an unfamiliar place. Embed that power in a chip, as Moore’s law shows no sign of abating, and implant that computing power in a human, and the enhanced capabilities could make the next generation’s ultimate computing platform. Enhanced vision through embedded retinal implants and processors, software that controls nanobots with drugs released into the body at the right time to combat fatigue or fear, and software controlled exoskeletons, are all technology that can make a class of super-warriors like Robocop and Terminator closer than we think.

Today’s art, in movies and video games, often shows us some of these new weapons and technology years before the reality. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare featured a weapon called the Railgun, which is a revolutionary electric-powered weapon that can shoot a projectile at 5,000 miles an hour, without that projectile needing any explosive. It is slated for testing by the US Navy in the next year or two, and could revolutionize firepower in its deadliness, range, and cost to manufacture.

Lastly, a couple of other interesting concepts were brought up. One is that we are very dependent on technology that we don’t understand very well. Perhaps it is a facet of living in today’s modern high tech world, but there was a time when people knew more about their cars, radios, and appliances, and could at least attempt to fix basic problems with them. Our cars, computers, and devices are so complex now that it usually takes specialists to fix them. In a future war, the lack of skill at understanding how the technology we rely on works could be a weakness. Much of that complexity comes from the information technology that is now embedded in them.

That the US ranks 27th in the world among developed countries in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) graduates should be a worrisome fact. In a future war, there will be many roles to be played behind the front lines that involve very advanced skills in software, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, bioengineering, and advanced manufacturing methods, to mention just a few. Our collective skill set may be just as important to our security as it is to economic competitiveness.