Augmented Reality Warfare

In this installment of my series on future war, I’ll be taking a holistic view of ground combat. Unlike the case for naval warfare, which is going to be revolutionized by new weapons platforms – railguns, battle lasers, and submersible arsenal ships – developments on the ground are slated to be more low-key, albeit no less transformative in their cumulative impact… future wars will be fought in augmented reality.

The effectiveness of armies will come to be defined by the quality and resilience of their networks. Individual platforms will acquire exceptional “battlespace awareness”; coupled with the continued miniaturization and affordability of smart munitions (Moore’s Law), this will empower the common soldier to a degree unprecedented in history. Most importantly, new technologies – the modern IADS, battle lasers, even the humble RPG – will favor the defense over the offense, bringing our Cold War dreams of epic armored thrusts and battles for the heavens to a long stalemate.

The Soldier will be a First-Person Shooter

Let’s start from the most basic Army unit, the individual soldier. He, or quite possibly she, will experience the battlespace as a “live direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are augmented by virtual computer-generated imagery”. This isn’t just a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) or network-centric warfare – it is Augmented Reality Warfare (ARW). To imagine what this is going to be like, imagine the typical first-person shooter game, like Doom or Far Cry.


[Screenshot from the game Ghost Recon 2].

Now video games are, of course, virtual; but augmenting reality can yield similar effects, making the common soldier into a cyborg. Let’s consider:

1. The cyborg will have a head up display (HUD) or even bionic lenses featuring crucial battlespace information such as the firearms status, range-finder, target identification, and a map showing friends, foes, flora, and fauna. Unless an EMP or cyberwar (“assassin’s mace“) attack disables the electronics, this will provide an invaluable advantage to the soldier. No more rummaging in the rucksack or peering at a piece of paper for vital information! It’s all in front of you…

2. One of the biggest advantages in video game shooting is that you can aim from the hip with pin-point accuracy and fire away to your heart’s content, that is, until the enemy is dead (at least if you have a sure hand with the mouse or use an aiming bot). In real life, you’ll just be wasting ammo and revealing your position. But the cyborg will be able to integrate the firearm with the HUD by intercepting a wireless video feed from a camera attached to the muzzle of a gun. (Perhaps this can be changed to a optical wired feed should the electronics become disabled). This will enable the cyborg to shoot around corners or over a ditch without exposing his head.

3. Bot aiming, high jumps, power lifts… enter the exoskeleton. Advanced nanoscale armor will protect soldiers from projectiles fired from today’s rifles. The result is that there may be an increasing emphasis on bombardment – or paradoxically, close quarters combat.

4. Seamless networking with other soldiers, weapons platforms, and specialized sensors will add up to a battlespace awareness that is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. This will enable near flawless coordination with other members of the fire team and the rapid calling of precise artillery strikes on observed enemy positions. Furthermore, an AI observing the entire system can optimize troop movements and firepower – giving orders, or even taking over a soldier’s exoskeleton or body if we want to get really dystopian.

5. There is intensive medical research on instant blood clotting, tissue regeneration, and prosthetics. This would be the equivalent of health packs that give the player HP in video games. Soldiers that would have once been written off as disabled would be able to rejoin the battle. The WIA/KIA ratio will soar.

6. The cyborg soldier will have access to the world’s information at his fingertips, on his HUD, or even transferred directly into his mind. Advanced pattern recognition software will enable him to recognize IED’s or enemy threats faster and better than any ordinary human. When he needs to do something unfamiliar, such as disarm an explosive or operate a forklift, a specialized AI will tell or even show him how to do it.

All that said, the essence of the infantry rifleman will remain the same. (To an extent, even more so, because the rising accuracy and lethality of anti-armor munitions are due to eliminate the main battle tank as we know it from future war). Propagated from the 1950’s, the modern assault rifle should remain the standard infantry weapon. There will be marginal improvements, such as the use of caseless ammunition and a universalization of the “bullpup” configuration. But the prospects of developing effective hand-held laser or “beam” weapons remain unrealistic for the foreseeable future. The true revolution will be in the firearm’s intimate integration with its (networked) platforms, as mentioned above, and the development of smarter and deadlier munitions.

Though smart munitions are expensive today, they are getting cheaper and miniaturized, in line with the progress of Moore’s Law. JDAM’s attached to previously “dumb” bombs have multiplied the effectiveness of American airpower since their introduction in the 1980’s. Now in the late 2000’s, we have the 155mm Excalibur, a small guided artillery round that can land within 10m of a target from 50km away (the Taliban have nicknamed it “The Finger of Death”) and the XM-25 weapons system, which can drop a grenade from up to 700m away with pin-point accuracy. After this, it would seem that “smart bullets” are the next logical step. By the 2030’s, smart munitions will be ubiquitous and even the smallest projectiles will become guided.

The other major dimension of improvement is in the power and versatility of ordnance. Progress in nanotechnology will increase the explosiveness of conventional munitions, while two other types of ordnance will assume a critical role: EMP bombs and fuel-air bombs. Though military C&C nodes can be and are hardened against EMP strikes (though the effectiveness of this hardening hasn’t yet been tested under fire), doing the same for the civilian infrastructure is prohibitively expensive. All it takes is one nuclear explosion high up in the atmosphere, and an entire continent can go black. (Needless to say, this will severely affect the enemy’s military-industrial potential). Smaller e-bombs can be constructed cheaply and dropped by hypersonic drones, or lobbed over by railguns, to disable enemy electronics over a wide geographic area, perhaps prior to an assault.

Fuel-air bombs, or thermobaric weapons, are very effective against enclosed spaces like bunkers or tunnels. The Russians recently used nanotechnology to create the “Father of All Bombs“, which had the power of a small nuclear bomb. Over time it may be possible to miniaturize these creatures into smaller artillery munitions  and grenades, giving even the lowest-level platforms – individual soldiers – immense destructive power.

All these high-powered precision weapons will make slow or stupid military units very vulnerable, and they will have to be countered by an increased emphasis on continuous movement, networking, and dispersion. In future wars, soldiers and industry will be digging themselves in as never before to survive in this brave new world of “cybernetic reprimitivation“.

Defense is King & the Iron-Light Phalanx

The great campaigns of World War Two (and the imaginary Cold War battles on the Central European Plain) were characterized by deep armored penetrations, combined arms tactics, and encirclements. Current technological developments will return us to the future – a stalemate like the First World War, but not along a single front but across a vast, 2-d space in which dispersed troop formations will wage a war of attrition.

Let’s start with the basics, the already existing reality. Guerrilla armies have embraced the RPG, a cheap and remarkably effective weapon against the most modern armor. Despite its high morale and clear strategic thinking, the fact remains that Hezbollah’s forces in 2006 were small and third-tier. But nonetheless, dug-in Hezbollah fighters managed to blunt the advance of a modern Israeli mechanized force. Despite the Israeli Air Force’s best efforts, missile fire from Hezbollah was higher at the end of the war than at the beginning. It was a remarkable success by any standard. And back in 1994-96, Chechen separatists operating in three-man squads – two with an RPG, one with a Kalashnikov to protect them – made modern art out of the Russian tanks idiotically sent into central Grozny. The dynamics are clear. Though MBT’s like the M1 Abrams can sweep an open battlefield of enemy armor with its awesome mobile targeting system, these conditions rarely if ever hold today. We learned some lessons from Saddam. Dig a few tunnels or bunkers, or hide guys with RPG’s in an urban warren (be it Middle East mudbricks or post-Soviet concrete tower mazes), or send over a few heavily-armed drones, and the enemy tank brigade is in deep trouble…

Now what about fighter aircraft? I’ll have more on the future of air and space war in a later post, but speaking of just its ground support role, that too is increasingly threatened by technological developments. At the lower end, we have MANPADS, or Man Portable Air Defense Systems, which any soldier can use. Newer models have very sensitive and sophisticated seekers, allowing them to be fired from further away and making them far less vulnerable to decoys. At the other end of the scale is the impressive artifice known as the modern Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), characterized by high mobility, resistance to jamming, longer ranges, and far better tracking systems. Though stealth aircraft like the (very expensive) F-22 Raptor are believed to be capable of nullifying today’s advanced Russian IADS, almost all experts agree that radar, intertwined as it is with Moore’s Law, will win over stealth in the long term. With their low agility and speeds, even current 5th generation fighters like the F-22 Raptor or Sukhoi PAK FA are doomed to obsolescence within a few decades (or in a general war).

That’s just the beginning. By the 2020’s, developments in battle lasers, railguns, and automation will enable an exceedingly powerful point defense consisting of battle lasers and railguns that I call the “Iron-Light Phalanx”, ready to deliver a “kiss of death” on any projectile passing beneath Mach 3 or so within the horizon. It will have to be mobile (so as to be able to avoid attacks from enemy railgun projectiles) and have some conventional guns, in case the battery power fails or if it is attacked by a particularly big swarm of projectiles. And if a “plasma shield” becomes feasible, this air defense will have almost complete control of the heavens above it… So in sum, the utility of ground support aircraft will greatly diminish, as with tanks.

Airborne Laser (ABL)

[Source. Future battle lasers will be able to provide a robust within-horizon screen when mounted on ships or mobile launchers].

[Soviet Mobile Lasers Defending an Airfield by Edward L. Cooper, 1987. “The Soviets built high-energy laser devices in the 1980s and generally placed more emphasis on the weapons applications of lasers than did the West. The tactical laser program had progressed to the point that by the mid-1980s, U.S. analysts anticipated that laser weapons would be deployed with future Soviet forces.”]

Paradoxically, any future total war will be one of both concentration and dispersion. To take a territory, one would have to occupy it with boots, as has been the case since times immemorial. But at the tactical level, the sheer lethality and accuracy of future firepower will preclude any effective concentration in both time and place (which is the defining factor of the 20th century wars of maneuver). It will therefore be a war run not by human generals but by optimizing algorithms, a war of attrition with no brilliant maneuvers that the human mind can comprehend. Neither great armored thrusts, nor inspirational dogfights in the skies… across a vast, 2-d space, small and dispersed squads will engage in a ruthless, intensive, and deadly struggle, with extensive use of NBC weaponry, until the exhaustion and neo-Malthusian collapse of one or both of the warring blocs.

Finally, I’ll quote myself from the core article On Future War.

… in the case of absolute war between two technologically advanced blocs, the outcome will be determined by the outcomes between these two elements, the hi-tech NCW / “networked” element and the low-tech 4GW / “guerilla” element. However, these elements will inevitable lose their distinctions. The “guerillas” will themselves become networked, while the “networked” will adopt “guerilla” tactics in search of a new, optimal equilibrium. Those who are slow to find this equilibrium, relying either a) too much on small sized networked forces, which although very robust are vulnerable to attacks on critical nodes which will render them helpless [e.g. cyberwar, anti-satellite, EMP’s], or b) on very low-tech [non-networked] forces that can be annihilated easily by hi-tech forces, will lose. …

Another way of imaging future war. Linear, infantry wars fought with rifle armies resembled checkers – relatively simple, one-dimensional, almost intuitive. The “combined arms” / 3rd-generation warfare that saw its apogee in WW2 and Cold War planning for WW3 on the plains of Germany resembled chess – one had to know how to use exploit time and space effectively with a variety of different units (infantry, mechanized, armored, air) to effect critical breakthroughts, encircle enemy units to enable for defeat in detail, and to know how to defend in depth. All of these are of course major elements in chess.

Future iWar is going to be like the Chinese game go (碁) – which despite the relative uniformity of platforms / pieces, is in practice far, far more complex than chess (computers aren’t advanced enough to “brute force” win in the game of go, unlike in chess, due to the sheer number of possibilities; skill is based on pattern recognition). It is characterized by extreme dispersion and inter-meshing of allied and enemy forces; strong point defences (see “[Light Iron Phalanx]”) with tenuous lines holding them together that are vulnerable to concerted assault; extreme mobility; and catastrophic bouts of attrition when large groups are surrounded and captured (equivalent to asymmetric attacks that disable large networks). No “King” that you have to defend at all costs because of the networked aspects; each unit is its own platform.

For a deeper exploration of how a war so intensive in technology and counter-technology, and in industrial and manpower mobilization, will be fought, consult the “Cybernetic Reprimitivization” chapter of On Future War.

… future wars will not necessarily be, as imagined by most commentators, affairs involving small, high-tech elite warriors, as was the case in medieval Europe’s focus on knights. To the contrary, they may more resemble a cybernetic “people’s war“, characterized by the networking of hi-tech and guerrilla forces and tactics, strict political control, and cybernetic planning to optimize the resource flows and output of a mobilized war economy.

A Vision of Reality Augmented Warfare

See the other timelines from On Future War (the main one) and Revolution in Naval Warfare.

1990’s-2000’s: The RMA emerges, and it is recognized that big, clumsy “linear” armies such as Iraq’s are near useless against a modern, networked foe. The US accelerates the implementation of the RMA under Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, which is a very expensive and largely unsuccessful endevour because most technologies are not mature.

2010’s: America’s development of next-generation weaponry is stalled due to budget constraints (already evident – see the cost-cutting pragmatism of Robert Gates), and eventually by the catabolic collapse of Pax Americana. As a result, the Future Force Warrior project remains largely unrealized. Other powers, most prominently China and Russia, will use this “window of opportunity” to close the technological gap. The technological aspects of RMA mature during this period, allowing for its intensified pursuit by the end of the decade.

2020’s: The world’s major political blocs and Great Powers, including the US, China, Russia, Brazil, India, Turkey, Japan, Korea, and the major European Powers, begin to fully implement the RMA in their ground forces, emphasizing networking and battlespace awareness. Due to the progress in Moore’s Law and the proliferation of the requisite technologies, such a project is now much more affordable than during the 2000’s. Even guerrilla armies and low-income national armies become significantly networked.

2030’s: Having been installed on larger ship platforms in the 2020’s, the railgun and battle lasers begin to make the transition onto land. This is a time during which energy shortages and environmental stress are beginning to veer out of control, while technological developments (databases, pattern recognition, surveillance, etc) enable an unprecedented state capability to monitor and mobilize its populations. Needless to say, this capability can be used to organize war and maintain morale, no matter the hardships, until a critical point of total collapse.

2040’s: RAFO. (See my upcoming book).

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