I will share with you a vision of the future of war…
Military units, from squads of infantry to tank platoons to UAVs overhead, are bound together by an invisible web of communications and data links. This network contains the digitally represented sum of the perception of each of its nodes, machine and human, and allows leaders thousands of miles away to monitor and manage the actions and reactions of anything from a brigade to a squad.
While there are as many aircraft as ever over the battlespace, pilots are a rarity. Fighters and fighter-bombers are unmanned craft that can greatly exceed the g-loading a human pilot could endure and are controlled from the safety of the combatants’ strategic depth. Reconnaissance is performed by a combination of high-altitude autonomous aircraft and small- to micro-sized UAVs that are an organic part of ground units.
Some of the biggest changes have come on the ground. Autonomous and remotely controlled platforms have made inroads here, too, but in a more limited role; limited by the inherent complexity of land warfare. For the richer countries, traditional land mines have been replaced by more discriminating means like remote box launchers that can pump out a salvo of grenades or an anti-tank missile at authorized targets.
This is not my vision…
It seems, at least to an outsider, that this is the view that many today take of the future of warfare. This seems to hold true even within the defense establishment (in other words, among those who should know better), as attested to by many doctrinal and procurement decisions that have been made in the last few decades. Between Future Combat Systems and its ilk and the many projections of a mostly-UAV air force within my lifetime it would be hard not to be convinced. The question you may have is, why do I have such a problem with the vision outlined above the fold?
To help explain my thinking I’m going to enlist the help of everyone’s favorite dead Prussian, Carl von Clausewitz.
Clausewitz noted that, all else being equal, the defense in war will always be easier than the offense. Almost any pause in the action of war, any disorder that reduces forward motion, and any opportunity uncapitalized on by the other side will favor the defense: “He reaps where he has not sowed.” Entropy, friction, and the fog of war are on the side of the defender as much as they can be on anyone’s side, and destruction is always easier than creation. This is the fundamental fact that the technophilic gee-whiz outlook of current military planners fails to take into account.
It is my belief that the dense webs of communications and data transfer that increasingly bind together military units and allow the real-time control of unmanned platforms will prove highly susceptible to disruption by electronic warfare. Furthermore, the means by which they can be disrupted will generally prove cheaper and less technically demanding than the means needed to keep these relatively high-density data links usable. This isn’t to say that UAVs, UCAVs and the like will be rendered unusable, but that greater expense and difficulty will be encountered in their usage than seems to be expected.
This disruption of communications and data transfer is properly understood as a defensive action, in the sense that it is the combatant trying to keep the data links open who is taking the offensive, creative action. The defender need only destroy that fragile order to prevail. The methods of electronic warfare, countermeasures, counter-countermeasures, and so on are fairly advanced but you can be sure the field will be getting a lot more attention in the coming decades.
There is a danger that, with our military occupied primarily in contests with enormously technologically inferior foes, we will build fragilities into our equipment and procedures that can be exploited by someone who has more at their disposal than mortars and AK-47s. Even our current low-tech foes have surprised us with an unexpected level of tactical sophistication and flexibility, especially in regards to the placement and uses of improvised explosive devices. We may find ourselves unpleasantly surprised in future high-intensity conflicts.