The future of war is bizarre and terrifying
Drones, eternal cyberwar, info ops, and the specter of biological warfare
On December 11, 1941, Winston Churchill received a phone call informing him that the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, a British battleship and battlecruiser in the South China Sea, had both been sunk by Japanese aircraft. At first he couldn’t believe it; no capital ships, moving under their own power and actively defending themselves, had been sunk by airplanes ever before. These were the first. But they would not be the last.
Astute observers had been able to see the signs of the increasing importance of naval aviation in the years prior to the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse. Theorists wrote books about how air superiority would be crucial. Nations had raced to build aircraft carriers between the wars, with Britain, the U.S, and Japan building the first ones in the early 1920s. And in 1940, British carrier aircraft had crippled an Italian fleet at anchor in the Battle of Taranto. The writing was on the wall. But somehow, when the moment came, Churchill was still shocked.
I feel like we’re in a somewhat similar moment now.
New technologies — networking, Li-ion batteries, A.I., various biotech techniques, and so on — have led to bursts of innovation in a variety of fields. I’m a techno-optimist because I think these bursts will soon lead to accelerating productivity growth. But there’s one area where I’m worried about the impact of all these new toys: War. Military technology is a hugely important area of innovation, and yet it generally results in things getting blown up and society going to hell for a while.
Like in the interwar years, we’ve been racing to invent new military technologies, but we haven’t yet had a chance to use them to their full capability. And yet the mere creation of these technologies, like the invention of the aircraft carrier, seems like it alters the international balance of power in ways that make us more likely to try out the new weapons and see where things stand.
But what’s also worrying is how many of the new military technologies are specialized for use off the battlefield.
In 2014, I wrote a post in which I argued that drone dominance of the battlefield would change human society forever:
[I]magine yourself back in 1400. In that century (and the 10 centuries before it), the battlefield was ruled not by the infantryman, but by the horse archer—a warrior-nobleman who had spent his whole life training in the ways of war. Imagine that guy’s surprise when he was shot off his horse by a poor no-count farmer armed with a long metal tube and just two weeks’ worth of training. Just a regular guy with a gun.
That day was the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modernity. For centuries after that fateful day, gun-toting infantry ruled the battlefield. Military success depended more and more on being able to motivate large groups of (gun-wielding) humans, instead of on winning the loyalty of the highly trained warrior-noblemen. But sometime in the near future, the autonomous, weaponized drone may replace the human infantryman as the dominant battlefield technology. And as always, that shift in military technology will cause huge social upheaval.
Six years later, I watched my vision come true. In the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan used drones — purchased cheaply and easily from Turkey and Israel — to crush the vaunted Armenian army in a short space of time. Armenian troops were renowned as masters of infantry warfare and heavy weaponry, but their tanks, missile launchers, artillery, and transport vehicles were sitting ducks for their foes’ cheap disposable drones. No matter how well they concealed their vehicles, the drones could easily spot and destroy them. You can see the incredible toll catalogued at the blog Oryx, with full documentation of each destroyed vehicle.
This should be as big a wakeup call as the Battle of Taranto or the firebombing of Guernica. Drones have changed warfare. Unless electronic countermeasures or directed energy weapons become very good, very fast, drones will scour the battlefield of human-controlled heavy weaponry at a very low cost, with little risk of life. And they create another battlespace to be fought over — the low-altitude air, where traditional piloted aircraft no longer go (for fear of being shot down), where radars have trouble spotting threats.
Already countries are racing to build or buy cutting-edge drone systems; this is a true arms race. But we won’t know who wins that race unless and until there is a major war.
But the real transformative drone technology might still be in its infancy.
The drones that won the war for Azerbaijan are traditional fossil fuel powered aircraft. Advances in Li-ion batteries have given rise to small, cheap, difficult-to-see, difficult-to-shoot quadcopters. Already, militaries are finding creative uses for these:
Another example is the UK, whose air force is testing networked swarms of drones to overwhelm radar systems.
Combined with A.I., tiny cheap little battery-powered drones could be a huge game-changer. Imagine releasing a networked swarm of autonomous quadcopters into an urban area held by enemy infantry, each armed with little rocket-propelled fragmentation grenades and equipped with computer vision technology that allowed it to recognize friend from foe.
But the scariest possibility might be assassination drones. As dramatized in the 2017 film Slaughterbots, autonomous quadcopters might fly around looking for someone’s face in order to kill them. Range is currently a big limitation for this sort of attack, but as energy technology improves, this sort of thing might get very scary. And unlike other military drone applications, assassin drones wouldn’t confine themselves to a traditional battlespace, or even traditional wartime; they would be a lurking, looming, omnipresent threat.
Networking technology — the fact that everything is on the internet now — makes countries’ infrastructure extraordinarily vulnerable. Just the other day, the U.S.’ largest oil pipeline — responsible for about 45% of the East Coast’s fuel — was temporarily disabled by a ransomware attack. In late 2020, a group working for Russia’s intelligence service breached many parts of the U.S. government, including the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the U.S.’ nuclear stockpile. Meanwhile, during a border dispute, Chinese hackers probably caused a blackout in Mumbai.
It’s not clear whether attacks like this can be robustly guarded against. Yes, cybersecurity people will make lots of changes and shore up vulnerabilities. But hacking is a very bespoke thing; each security breach is special and unique. It’s not clear whether there can ever be any system that makes critical infrastructure and information durably, reliably secure from cyberattacks.
But it’s also not clear whether cyberattacks can be deterred. It would be a very bad idea to threaten war as a response to hacking. But it’s also not clear whether tit-for-tat hack attacks could provide a sufficient deterrent to a state like Russia or China.
Which leaves the disturbing possibility that nations might simply exist in a state of low-grade cyberwarfare at all times, attempting to disable each other’s infrastructure as a matter of course. As long as the damage is purely economic and doesn’t immediately and violently kill anyone (e.g. hacking air traffic control systems to cause plane crashes), this constant warfare might become part of daily life, with infrastructure and computer systems just failing at random times.
Already, China and Russia seem intent on bringing something like this about, and other countries are racing to improve their capabilities to catch up.
Another area where we might have to live with never-ending low-grade warfare is information operations. This concept is so nebulous that I’m not sure anyone can give a solid definition of what it means. It includes things like propaganda and fomenting internal dissent and instability in rival countries.
The most famous example of this was Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. But some Russians feel that they were just getting us back for encouraging “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union. At any rate, spamming your rivals’ social media with trolls and bots is now pretty standard practice.
This isn’t a new technique of warfare by any means. What’s new is social media. The U.S. and its allies are open societies that allow mostly unfettered private use of Twitter and other social media networks; people can shitpost to their hearts’ content as long as they obey the terms of service. But China and (to some degree) Russia are closed societies that closely regulate what gets said on their social media platforms. That might give autocracies an inherent advantage in info ops warfare.
Finally, there’s the looming specter of biowarfare. No, COVID-19 was not a biological attack (even if it turns out that it did escape from a lab). A country would have to be pretty dumb to unleash a bioweapon on itself just in the hope of getting at its enemies. But all the same, this pandemic has focused minds around the world on the possibilities of biowarfare and bioterror.
What COVID-19 made people realize was that you don’t need to create some super-deadly virus in order to severely disrupt a society. All you need is a very contagious disease with a mortality rate high enough to scare people. If you’re a very very unscrupulous country, you could surreptitiously vaccinate most of your population against this disease and then unleash it on the world. If you’re a bioterrorist who doesn’t mind dying for the cause, you just let ‘er rip.
New bio techniques make the threat of engineered viruses scarier. Crispr technology and DNA synthesis, which are increasingly available to the public, might conceivably create a lot of weird bioweapons that act very differently to the viruses we’re used to.
The question then becomes: How would countries retaliate against a bio-attack by another nation? Nuclear war? Something else?
Will the future of war be eternal and unlimited?
The world may yet explode into another WW2-style conflagration, or the kind of nuclear holocaust we feared during the Cold War. If so, then my bet is that drones will dominate that battlefield. But most of the modern military technologies led themselves to a very different kind of great-power war — a war of constant sniping and harassment. Assassin drones, cyberattacks, info ops, and bioweapons raise the possibility of never-ending low-grade attacks that are below the threshold of massive retaliation.
To forestall this, military strategists should try very hard to think of new, robust, sophisticated methods of deterrence. Deterrence is the key to peace; it’s risky, but when it’s successful, it makes military technology act as a protector of human life rather than a destroyer of it. If new technology makes deterrence impossible, it might condemn us to a future where everyone is always on the offense.
Recall there was already a drone assassination attempt on Maduro in Venezuela a while back
That kind of thing must give the Secret Service the heebie jeebies.
Very thought-provoking article. A few thoughts:
1. The impact of drones is asymmetric, on two levels:
A. It's much more significant at the low end than at the upper end. Put differently, drones allow second- and third-rate military powers to exploit the aerial dimension more effectively than the would otherwise be capable of. Drones are airpower "on the cheap", as it were. A modern, first-rate air force is today a multi-trillion dollar investment over a period of decades. Drones give you *some* ability to project power aerially, while avoiding this up-front cost.
B. Air defense systems were designed with crewed aircrafts and - to a lesser extent - missiles in mind. (Relatively) slow platforms with small radar cross-sections lacking much in the way of an infrared signature are a mismatch for most of the air defense systems deployed today. (For example, Israel's Tamir interceptor - a component of the famous "Iron Dome" - was only recently upgraded to be able to target some drone types).
This is why (usually) the most effective anti-drone asset (at present) is a crewed fighter - or helicopter - armed with a cannon or anti-aircraft missiles. This is what the Royal Air Force did in World War I with the V-1 "doodle bug" - a fast fighter with a souped up engine would intercept them and either destroy them directly or tip the V-1 drone with its wing, causing the un-piloted aircraft to spin into the ground. On paper, this doesn't pencil out well: you're committing a $100 million asset to destroy something cost 2 - 3 orders of magnitude less, but it *does* work.
2. The Azerbaijanis were lucky in their choice of opponent. The Armenian order of battle was decrepit. It's mostly aging Soviet-era stuff. They didn't take their opponent at all seriously. The Azerbaijan drone buildup was not a secret. They just didn't consider it to be important, nor did they invest in counter-assets of their own. The Azerbaijani drone force would have been much less effective against a component military.
3. The main advantage of battery-powered drones with electric engines is that they give you an ability to "live off the land" - the world is full of electronic devices, you can repurpose batteries, motors, GPS, etc., and repackage them as drones. (In Iraq, insurgent groups used cellular phones, ubiquitously available, to remote detonate IEDs). There's a performance penalty at present, but increasingly there won't be, and every battery-electric vehicle is a treasure trove for this style of "scrounging" warfare. (Imagine what you could power with the Tesla 4680 battery).
4. As you say, regarding swarms, quality has a quantity all its own. The battlefield physics of networked swarms might very well be highly counter-intuitive. At present, this is mostly the realm of think tanks, tabletop exercises, and computer simulations, however.
5. The directionality of aerial combat is clear: ALL aerial assets will be "drones" - uncrewed - at some (indefinite) point in the future. This endpoint will be accelerated if/when a great power conflict occurs. This is a story
6. Electronic countermeasures are increasingly central. It's not an exaggeration to say that the decisive moment(s) will occur in this domain in future wars. In the 1950s, SAGE was one of the first real-world applications of networked computer systems at scale. In the 2020s, one of the first real-world applications of military AI will be in this domain.
7. Regarding assassin drones, I consider the single likeliest threat here to be a short range platform that's guided from the ground by a handler. (The Israelis used something analogous when in February they assassinated an Iranian nuclear scientist using a remote-controlled gun).
8. Regarding cyberwar, states have reached an unstable understanding that cyber-operations do not rise to the level of requiring a military response. This isn't tenable long-term I suspect, as increasingly every process and product and workflow has a digital layer, hacking has real-world effects (for example, the Colonial pipeline on the East Coast. This was a ransomware op by cybercriminals, but if a nation-state was responsible, I think it should be considered tantamount to an act of war (we would consider it such if a team of commandos blew up pumps on the pipe, causing a shut-down. The real-world effect is the same, so should the response be).