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.

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Revolution in Naval Warfare

A few days ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired a warning shot across the bow of the US Navy, questioning its “need” to maintain 11 carrier strike groups. He justified this on the basis of 1) “the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys”, 2) “the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries”, and 3) the huge costs involved, e.g. a Ford-class carrier with full air wing “would represent potentially $15 to $20 billion worth of hardware at risk”. Though his statements had to take political sensitivities into account, Gates is eminently correct. Not only is such a large force a questionable asset for a fiscally overstretched superpower, but the aircraft carrier is fast becoming to the 21st century what the battleship was to the 20th. This is part and parcel of the biggest paradigm shift in naval warfare since the coming of fossil-fueled ironclads, a paradigm shift that I intend to popularize as the Revolution in Naval Warfare (RNW).

Much has already been written about the dangers to the West’s big surface fleets emanating from the global proliferation of supercavitating torpedoe and hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile technology. I’m not going to recap the debate – see these “classic” articles by David Crane and the War Nerd. Instead, what I’m going to do here is to look “over the horizon” at the impact of three major, ongoing developments on the future of naval warfare: railguns, battle lasers, and naval platforms.

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On Future War

This post is about the future of military technology and war strategy in a world of informatization, resource scarcity, and renewed ideological turbulence. Be forewarned: while some of what I write here corresponds to the conventional wisdom, some is well off the beaten tracks, and some will sound like it’s straight out of a sci-fi dystopia.

The post-Cold War era was, for many, a lovely time. As the Soviet Union imploded, so did the risks of mutual destruction in a global thermonuclear war. At the end of history, the conventional wisdom now regarded rogue states, loose nukes, and transnational terrorists as the main challenges to the brave new world created by globalization. As Thomas P.M. Barnett argued in The Pentagon’s New Map, the primary challenge faced by the US military would no longer consist of planning for a traditional Great Power war with its erstwhile socialist foes, Russia and China. Instead, it would be wiser to focus on policing and “civilizing” the equatorial belt of instability known as the “Gap” – the impoverished, conflicted region stretching roughly from Central America through Africa and the Eurasian Dar al-Islam – in cooperation with fellow stakeholders in stability like Europe, China, India, Russia, and Japan.

However, one of the main assumptions of this blog is that this state of global affairs will not last, if it was ever really valid in the first place. First, many people in the pre-1914 era – an older golden age of globalization and shared international values – also believed that technical progress and increasing interconnectedness had made war obsolete, or at least unbearably damaging if it were to continue for any longer than a few months. They would be disillusioned by the First World War, the genesis of modern total warSecond, the international system today is unstable amidst the shifting winds of change, characterized as it is by a faltering US hegemon beset by challengers such as an expansionist Irana resurging Russia, and a robust China intent on returning to its age-old status as the Celestial Empire. Third, peak oil production, probably reached in 2008, is but one of the first harbingers of our Limits to Growth predicament – in the decades to come, the world’s grain belts will begin to dessicate, high-quality energy sources will become depleted, and ever more human effort under the knout of state coercion will have to be requisitioned to sustain industrial civilization against the mounting toll of energetic shortages, climatic disruption, and system instability.

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