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Emerging Weapons Technologies

By January 4, 2001 No Comments

One hundred years ago, heavier-than-air powered flight was still in the theoretical stage and dirigibles looked more promising than the airplane. Automatic weaponry was – as John Ellis points out in The Social History of the Machine-gun – far from being embraced by the generals of Europe. The hand grenade and mortar were regarded as quaint 18th Century relics, and the first diesel-electric submarine was just coming into service.

The motorcar was still a curiosity and the radio was untried. Steam engines and telegraphs ruled while Army officers practiced swordsmanship and equestrian skills. A few pioneering science-fiction writers had hinted at future possibilities: Jules Verne anticipated the nuclear propelled submarine and the first moon shot, while H.G. Wells ruminated about land-battleships.

Yet some of the results of emerging technologies could be guessed at; and one guess was very accurate indeed. In 1898, a Polish railway official predicted the tactical deadlock that governed the First World War. Naturally, being a civilian and civil servant, Ivan Bloch’s gloomy predictions in Modern Weapons and Modern War were almost universally ignored.

By 2001, we have finally learned that conventional armies cannot engage each other without considerable expense in lives and material to both – unless one side is a full technological jump ahead of the other. The thrashing received by the Iraqis in the 1991 Gulf War illustrated the dangers involved when a military with the equipment and techniques of the mid-1970s confronted one that was up-to-date. More recently, during the Kosovo bombings, had Serbia’s Army acted in any manner but that of a woodchuck under the shadow of a hawk, it would have been savaged by NATO war-planes. As it was, Serbia’s economic infrastructure was cheaply and efficiently wrecked.

Should two militaries with the same level of technology confront each other again, the results would be horrifying. Indeed, the concentrated combination of modern firepower in an atmosphere of super-rapid decision-making and information saturation might be beyond the endurance of most human beings. Richard Gabriel’s 1987 book No More Heroes predicted that soldiers in such a conflict would need to be kept under the influence of mind/mood altering drugs in order to function.

In a simple sense, militaries adapt technology to firepower, mobility, protection and what is called C3I – command, control, communications and intelligence. A Marxist dialectic could be applied to the relationship between method (tactics, operations and strategy) and technology, where a new technology is developed to meet a need in method. This then creates a new synthesis of technology and method. This is a simple explanation for a very complex process.

One could suppose that much of what transpired in warfare was inevitable in 1901. Militaries love firepower (usually) and were quick to adapt new developments from the Industrial Revolution. The magazine-fed breech loading rifle and the machine-gun had provided a significant advantage in dealing with non-Europeans and were adopted relatively quickly – although the conservative armies of the time were loath to consider what these developments in firepower would do when modern armies clashed. The competition between European nations also prompted a race in artillery technology, culminating in the first “modern” artillery pieces with hydro-pneumatic recoil systems and reliable time fuses for shells.

Bloch’s prediction about the firepower revolution were right – and the first half of the First World War resulted in immense carnage as all the contenders tried to find a way around the impasse caused by these new weapons. Method, however, can evolve too, and some Armies of 1917-18 did overcome the impasse. One book that describes British innovation in this period is Paddy Griffith’s excellent study Battle Tactics of the Western Front. By 1918, trench-lines had become more of a speed bump than a barrier to the British and Germans.

Part of the 1914-16 impasse in the trenches was a result of the failure of mobility and C3I technologies to keep pace with the new firepower. Attackers could not reinforce success over cratered fields and roads as quickly as defenders could prop up failure with intact roads and rail-lines in their rear. New developments during the Great War matured in its aftermath, and culminated in technology and methods used in 1939-45. One should remember that “Blitzkrieg” was little more than the successful methods of WW-I mixed with reliable vehicles, effective aircraft and workable radios.

In 1901, while Bloch foresaw the results of the firepower revolution, a truly foresighted individual might have guessed that aircraft, radios and weapons like tanks and trucks would soon follow.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, there were two developments. First, the physicists of the 1890s to 1910s, had eventually made possible the nuclear bomb and ballistic missile. For 50 years, these inhibited prospects for major wars like those that dominated the early 20th Century. This then led to a “two-track” method of warfare – limited conventional wars between nation states, and a return to alternative forms of warfare by those who could not afford to invest in the costly new militaries.

Additionally, the Western Europeans and Americans grasped the need that they should always be at least one technological step ahead of potential opponents – particularly the USSR. The resulting arms race was clearly won by the Western Allies when the Soviets fell off the pace and expired on the track. This left Western militaries – even under-funded as they all are – in a position of clear superiority at the end of the Century.

Strategic mobility has been enhanced by giant transport aircraft like the American C-5A Galaxy, while no commander in history has enjoyed the tactical speed possessed by air-assault units. The capability of Western firepower is unrivaled: They can destroy whatever they hit, and hit whatever they see, and can see almost everything. The capabilities of modern C3I are almost beyond the comprehension of anyone who served in any earlier military.

At the dawn of the 21st Century, one might wonder what changes will come.

The next three technological revolutions are already visible. Sweeping developments are underway in the biosciences, particularly with genetic engineering. These naturally were driven by needs in medicine, agriculture and industry, but all human technologies have military applications. The most frightening possibilities lie with a new range of biological weapons – although their classification as weapons of mass destruction should (please God) inhibit their use by nation states. It would be a real miracle if non-state belligerents also refrained from their use.

Other possible applications have been suggested by the fecund imaginations of science-fiction writers. Some suggestions include designed or altered soldiers who are significantly stronger, faster, smarter and more violent than man in his natural state. Other predictions include the use of new pharmaceuticals (which now seem very possible indeed) to inhibit some normal human reactions to fear or stress; and perhaps the use of enhanced animals to partner human soldiers. None of these would be especially revolutionary, but may have specialist applications, particularly in low-intensity conflict. Otherwise, military surgeons will benefit from improved medical technologies as much as anybody will.

What seems much more applicable is the coming boom in robotics. Already used to smart weapons that are largely self-guiding or the complex feed of data that goes to warplane pilots in their cockpits, Western militaries are now inching towards more remote-controlled weapons (perhaps through cybernetic links to well-protected humans) and completely robotic systems. The next generation of warplanes to follow the FA-22 Raptor might not have pilots in cockpits. The next generation of anti-tank mines may scuttle around on their own to look for targets. Successors to police bomb-squad robots could include SWAT-robots that go into close contact with gunmen while their controller sits some blocks away. One system in development consists of humming-bird sized reconnaissance drones that can fly around corners or look into windows, while the tank or infantry section that released them sits safely under cover – viewing the “take” from the drone’s camera.

In some senses, one is reminded of the militaries of 1901 that enhanced their firepower without thinking about all the implications. A war in 2014-2018 or 2039-2045 that pitted two cybernetic-robotic equipped militaries against each other could be a sour one indeed. Humans would be reduced to little more than victims, for there is no heroism in servicing a machine, and no capacity for mercy or empathy in a robot. Most humans have limitations on their capacity to inflict violence, but machines would have no scruples at all.

One can imagine a vast dead wasteland prowled by small deadly machines while their controllers sit in bunkers, in constant fear of discovery. Alternatively, one could imagine a war that seems like no war at all… as the deadly accuracy of modern weaponry is applied with utter discrimination, and a civilian population might live almost normal lives as a remote-controlled conflict weaves in and around them.

The third revolution looming over the horizon is even more interesting. Nanotechnology was a purely hypothetical concept ten years ago. In 1950, the laser was still hypothetical – and then three separate scientific projects built them in 1960. By 1970, the first laser-guided munitions were in use; by 1985, lasers were becoming useful in medical applications and by 1990, CD discs were common for home entertainment. In 2000, nanotechnology started to pass from the hypothetical to the actual.

Nanotechnology entails the use of molecule-sized components and tools to re-assemble other things on a molecular scale. Soon, there will be self-replicating “nanobots” that are a millionth of a metre in size, working on a number of interesting applications – like converting a lump of coal into a flawless diamond, one molecule at a time. Already, a promising new material has been produced – a carbon honeycomb structure that is 50 times stronger than steel – at 1/300th of the weight.

Nanotechnology will change the world in more ways than the industrial revolution and the introduction of the computer combined. Some of the peaceful applications alone can stagger the mind: computer (screens and keyboards too) literally thinner than a piece of paper, or unbreakable sheets of diamond that are almost as cheap as glass is today. One could convert grass-clippings into gasoline or use nanobots to rebuild damaged tissue inside organs.

The reverse side is frightening: Nanotech “dis-assembler” weapons could do more than the Neutron bomb ever promised to kill people while leaving buildings intact. Being dismantled one molecule at a time would be a horrific way to die. One could also imagine dis-assembler weapons that force a return to older technologies (like swords and chain mail) as anything with an electronic or explosive component to it could be destroyed by microscopic virus-like robots.

Warfare is a constant in history, and will no doubt attend the future. There is no reason to suspect that the military history of the 21st Century will be a thin volume, but it should be a fascinating – if disturbing – study.