Technology, Uncertainty, and Future War


In a paper published recently, I explore some of the challenges of thinking about technology and the future of war. We’ve seen in the world in the last fifty years or so what many consider to be an unprecedented rate of technological change, a process that seems to be speeding up. For example, the number of continuously internet-connected devices that communicate with one another is doubling every five years, a process building the phenomenon of the ‘internet of things.’The impact on human affairs of this process of change may prove to be profound, no more so than in the military sphere. War, after all, is often assumed to be a particularly technological human enterprise.

As I argue in my paper, however, our ability to determine with reasonable certainty what sort of future war it is that technology will shape is undermined by fundamental problems.

It would seem reasonable to assert that the role played by technology on future battlefields will depend to an important extent on the sorts of wars in which that technology will be used. High-intensity conventional conflicts, for example, might emphasise technology in a way that low-intensity, unconventional conflicts might not. But there is no consensus on what that future might be. Indeed, there may be as many different futures for technology in warfare as there are belligerents in the wars that are fought. Our future may therefore be very different from the futures of others because differences in national contexts can shape complex mixes of technological change and continuity in wars.

Even if the future of warfare is one of radical change, can we assume that technology will play a decisive role in driving that change? This question speaks to the lack of consensus on how and why military change occurs. The idea of a strong causal relationship between technological change and change on the battlefield is well established in military history. But actually, there is no consensus on the relationship between technology and change. Many writers have identified the importance, not so much of technology, but of ideas: that what matters in driving military change is howone uses technology, not necessarily technology itself. New technology often is simply appliquéd onto old ideas, reducing its impact. In the same vein, existing technology can effect profound change when it is used in new ways. Other perspectives have focused instead on the role played in driving military change by political, social and economic forces. So, to what extent will the future battlefield be shaped decisively by new technology; or by new ideas; or by broader strategic changes in society?

Moreover, technology rarely delivers as much in practice as it promises in theory because war is messy, physically testing, and it’s human. War is just too complex, too challenging, for technology to provide all of the answers. War is also by its nature adversarial and paradoxical. In war, strengths can become weaknesses because adversaries adapt. If technology lies at the root of our future strengths, then our enemies are likely to focus on ways of negating it. As one US official has noted: ‘capabilities create dependencies, and dependencies create vulnerabilities.’ The West’s increasing reliance on networks and digitisation, for example, invites enemies to crash these capabilities, perhaps through hacking, or electro-magnetic pulse devices, or the destruction of critical nodes. The reality of war in the future could consist of what’s left when our technology has failed us.

In addition, there is often a tendency in assessments of technology and the future to focus on the ways in which technology will allow us to do existing things better: the unconscious assumption being that technology will sustain current methods and techniques.As the strategist Colin Gray notes:  ‘In the technology realm in particular, there is a popular tendency to assume that the future will be like today, only more so.’ But technology often is disruptive, and the assumption that new technology will simply fit into existing military practices is actively dangerous. Technology may instead be disruptive, undermining current approaches in ways that may leave us floundering for alternative solutions.

In the end, we’re left with a range of critical and unanswered questions concerning technology and its ramifications for the future of war. It is possible that technology will revolutionise warfare; but we cannot assume that that is a probable outcome – nor can we be sure in what way technology will shape future warfare. There are legitimate questions to be asked regarding how accurate our ability is to see the future; regarding what kind of wars that technology will be used in; about what role technology might play in driving future change; about how effective technology will be in the future; and, even if technology is important, over the effects that it will have. In consequence, the more definitive is an assertion regarding the future of technology and warfare, the more suspicious we should be of it. History demonstrates that it is difficult to answer accurately any of these questions regarding the future. Today, there remains a lack of consensus on what the future holds; there is a marketplace of ideas on what the future will look like and what technology’s role might be in shaping it. One crumb of comfort is that these challenges affect everyone, including potential adversaries. There is no reason to assume that our enemies will be any better placed to predict the impact of technology than we are.

Image: The MQ-9 Reaper uses a multi-spectral assembly during a mission, via the US Air Force.

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