The remaking of war; Part 1: Risk of 19th Century international politics being pursued using 21st Century military means looms large

This is the first part of a series on the evolution of war and warfare across decades. Over the course of these articles, the relationship between technology and war will be put under the magnifying glass

Abhijnan Rej March 06, 2020 10:58:32 IST
The remaking of war; Part 1: Risk of 19th Century international politics being pursued using 21st Century military means looms large

Editor's note: This is the first part of a series on the evolution of war and warfare across decades. Over the course of these articles, the relationship between technology, politics and war will be put under the magnifying glass.

The United States went to war against Iraq in 1991 prepared for the worst. Fearful of massive American casualties in the face of Saddam Hussein's battle-hardened and numerically impressive army, the Pentagon ordered around 16,000 body bags. But the Iraqi army proved to be hapless in front of a barrage of American precision-strike missiles, stealth bombers, sensors and especially battle units networked through a constellation of satellites.

For one Pentagon defence-policy wonk this experience proved a hunch he had mulling with a small group of colleagues since the late 1980s, that a revolution in warfare aided by new technologies working in tandem was on its way. As Saddam's forces crumbled, Andrew Marshall, long-time head of Pentagon’s internal think-tank, was validated.

The Yoda — as Marshall was affectionately called by his followers, after the sage-like Star Wars character — was not the only one to notice how different the Gulf War was from previous military engagements the world over. Two years later, in 1993, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army changed its strategy for the third time in its history, gearing up to wars that would be fought over a limited geography using high technology. But the source of Marshall and his acolytes' theory was a Soviet school of thinking since the 1970s that posits that new weapons-technologies configured in novel ways stood to alter the character of war permanently.

Revolutions in Military Affairs: Blending man and machine

When such configurations are backed by appropriate changes elsewhere in defence planning, a "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) will follow — this has been an overwhelming belief of many defence strategists since the early 1990s. As Andrew Krepinevich, a long-time colleague and biographer of Marshall’s put it in an 1994 article, an RMA "occurs when the application of new technologies into a significant number of military systems combines with innovative operational concepts and organisational adaptation in a way that fundamentally alters the character and conduct of conflict."

Note that this formulation is different from saying that tech alone brings about fundamental changes in thinking about war, a point of departure also from the materialist Soviet thinking that inspired it. And history bears this out, beginning with extensive and creative use of artillery and firearms in the European wars of the 16th Century — such as the ones that lead to the rise of England as a preeminent European power under Elizabeth I and the concomitant fall of imperial Spain.

The remaking of war Part 1 Risk of 19th Century international politics being pursued using 21st Century military means looms large

Representational image. AP

As historian Max Boot in his classic book on historical RMAs put it, the terrifying success of the German blitzkrieg during the Second World War was not due to technology and numerical superiority of forces compared to the Allies’. Rather, Boot writes, the Germans "figured out how to make best use of the technology of the day; the Allies did not."

Indeed, academic political-science research has found very little evidence that military technology alone determines whether one side emerges as victor in war, or that technologies that aid offensive action — such as armoured vehicle-launched bridges — will naturally lead the possessor to belligerence. In fact, combat outcomes have often been shaped seriously by defensive military technologies such as the ability to decipher the enemy’s secret communications.

For example, the ability of the British (largely due to the efforts of the mathematician Alan Turing) to break the German Enigma encryption system during the Second World War, helped turn the tide of the naval war. We must also keep in mind that new technologies must support the political objectives behind warfighting. No amount of high-tech wizardry will help a country if it is unclear about political goals it seeks to meet through war. The recent American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan bear witness to this.

However, it is also true that in war overwhelming technological superiority helps in compensating for relative weakness — or a break-even — in numbers. And every so often — Boot could only find four 'true' RMAs between 1588 and 2005 — a technology stands to overturn how wars are to be conceived altogether in turns of who fights what and why. Weapons equipped with artificial intelligence — even in the narrow sense of computers that learn on their own from data (machine learning) — may be the most significant one of all.

A kit for the Once and Future War

In 2018, then US secretary of defence Jim Mattis noted that AI may bring about such a revolution in warfare that the old premise — that the fundamental nature of war, of a conflict fundamentally shaped by humans — may itself be invalid. (In principle, fully automated AI weapons could wage war on their own, selecting and taking down targets without any human intervention.) Such weapons may also end up meeting the political objectives that the aggressor seeks impossible.

Imagine the practice (art?) of strategic bombing, the use of airpower to pulverise an opponent's military, industrial or even civilian base. While it rose during the Second World War — a fight to finish in a "total war" — in practice such campaigns are a form of bargaining where their tempo is controlled – and targets either spared or destroyed – depending on whether the enemy is meeting your demands or not. This was, on and off, the American strategy during the Vietnam War. (It is altogether a different question that the strategy failed miserably despite the US dropping twice as many bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as was used in the entire Second World War.)

But now imagine that AI weapons are fielded in a war where they are programmed to seek out and destroy ever enemy target. Bargaining would be impossible in this case, the destruction of the enemy near total. As every half-decent hostage-taker knows, the trick always lies in her ability to keep the hostage alive or even treat him well, depending on whether the hostage-taker's demands are being met. Fully autonomous weapons make for terrible hostage-takers.

AI is only a part of the contemporary apprehension about disruptive military changes on the horizon. Over the past couple of decades, other technological disruptions such as advanced sensors, quantum communications, hyper-fast weapons, synthetic biology, and undersea- and space-based systems have the potential to radically change the future of warfare even if the final arbiter of life and death remains human. In the recent years, the United States has sought to systematically integrate these technologies into its defence planning first through the so-called 'Third Offset Strategy' and then through the 'Multi-Domain Battle' concept.

Beijing, through its 'Make in China 2025' and civil-military 'fusion' programmes (where the lines between corporate and academic R&D, and military demands are blurred), seeks to blunt the United States' conventional military superiority using innovative asymmetric means. Russia continues to leverage its significant science and technology base to develop weapons that threatens regional — and perhaps global — stability. Others like Israel and Australia also aspire to make disruptive technologies as a part of their defence toolkits. The Indian military over the last couple of years has also started talking the talk, even if we don’t know whether it would ever walk the walk given the state of its modernisation budget.

In some cases, the barrier to entry into the emerging military tech game has become significantly lower, and the technologies themselves comparatively inexpensive, when measured up against weapons we traditionally associate with military might: large tank divisions and squadrons of advanced fighter jets or aircraft carriers. This in turn stands to favour cash-strapped militaries such as India's.

For example, machine learning technology (the "head" of autonomous weapons) is becoming rapidly available, often through open-source software. Even terrorists — not the wealthiest of combatants – have managed to leverage (relatively-new) technology in the recent past; the Islamic State's crude drones (a pain in the neck for US forces) come to mind.

In other cases, disruptive tech capable of serious lethality is both small and nimble, like swarms of tiny drones capable of acting autonomously and in concert. While images of military technology also conjure grey metallic electro-mechanical behemoths — think of the 2011 film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows set in pre-First World War Europe where the villain, Professor Moriarty, is an emerging mil-tech entrepreneur — the fact of the matter is that the ones truly at the cutting edge, such as satellites based on quantum communications like the Chinese "Micius" which became functional in 2017, are for the most parts "invisible" to the human eye (and cameras of photojournalists), their inner workings mysterious enough to remind us of magic.

Tech, meet Demand

The rise of these technologies has coincided with an expanding spectrum of military threats countries face, often from the same adversary. Modern militaries must now deal with an environment where the line between peace and war is blurred (just ask the Indian Army). But their technology kits should also be such that a (supposedly) antiquated military objective, of good old territorial conquest like what Russia pulled off in Ukraine in 2014, can be furthered with the latest in AI-based disinformation tools. To put it differently, there is a real risk now that 19th Century international politics will be pursued using 21st Century military means.

But no matter how wide the threat spectrum is — and how multi-dimensional the battlespace — the coming technological revolutions around how future wars will be fought will augment attributes militaries throughout history have realised as essential. They are: Intelligence, the ability to see as much of the battlespace as possible; autonomy, the ability of weapons to work with minimal supervision; stealth, the ability to attack, defend, or communicate in secret; speed, the ability to disrupt the enemy's response; augmentation, the ability to endow soldiers capabilities to withstand the rigours of battle; and finally, and most importantly, emergence, the ability to put together a bouquet of new weapons systems in such a way that their net battlefield effect is much larger than the sum of its parts.

This Firstpost series each week will explore one of these attributes and the cutting-edge technologies on the horizon that will support them. A final article will revisit what these enhanced attributes mean for the character — or even nature — of war and strategy in this century.

Read the second part of the series here: Machine-learning set to usher in a whole new era of intelligent warfare

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