For the past few years, we are constantly being bombarded with articles and opinions that a new wave of transformational technologies is upon us. Some dub it as Industrial Revolution 4.0 (the Digital Revolution is often called the Third Industrial Revolution)1. The technologies usually cited are Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics, Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering, 3D Printing, Big Data, Internet of Things and Quantum Computing etc. All of these (or some) are expected to shape the future of industry and society.
For reasons which are fairly obvious, big efforts are also being made to project these technologies as not just transformational for industry and society but also for the military. Proponents claim that warfare is going to change in a fundamental way.
While “War” has remained a near constant of human existence, the “methods” of waging war have constantly evolved due to tactical or technological “Innovation”. It is also a fact that technological innovations do not occur abruptly, rather they are incremental in nature. Thousands of such innovations have happened in the history of warfare and continuing.
In most cases incremental innovation leads to an improvement in the capability and employability of existing offensive or defensive weapons / systems and often a new sub-class (or generation) of equipment emerges after a period of time. The long term cumulative impact of such innovation may prove to be significant. Precision guided munitions and battlefield surveillance systems are an example.
The second and rarer case is when incremental innovation results in creation of a new class of weapons (or system) which can dramatically shape the battlefield. Machine Guns, Tanks, Submarines and Nuclear Weapons are examples of such breakthroughs.
The third and rarest category is when innovation opens up an entire new battlespace. Fighter aircrafts, space based systems and ICT are examples of such transformational technologies. Air, Space and Information are now acknowledged as unique battlespaces in addition to the traditional ones of land and sea.
Undoubtedly if soldiers and manned weapon platforms on the battlefield are going to be replaced by humanoids, robots and intelligent machines due to Industrial Revolution 4.0 then it would fall in either the second or maybe the third category described above. The reality unfortunately is different.
While there are no doubts that these technologies have diverse application including military, chances are that they fall in the first category of slow incremental evolution and not the more dramatic second and third category. Most of these disciplines have been advancing for two to three decades now and the most visible achievements so far have been driverless car prototypes, a chatbot with human face being given Saudi citizenship, an AI program defeating humans at board games and such like. The inflection point where these technologies grow exponentially and become ubiquitous (like ICT) has not yet arrived. The slow pace of evolution is a clear indication of the gradual, incremental nature of change. The big leap which will transform the landscape is yet to happen.
These so called futuristic (actually ongoing) innovations will therefore most likely only lead to improvement in the range, accuracy, lethality and employability of existing military systems in the near future and not creation of any new class of weapons or opening up a new battlespace (machine warfare). Over the medium to long term (10 to 15 years) the cumulative changes may lead to a significant impact on the battlefield and also a new sub-class of existing weapon systems emerging (similar to UCAVs). The Drone Swarm vs Terminator battle is however likely to remain confined to cinema halls.
Most countries and organisations are encouraging R&D in these new disciplines and rightly so because of the vast potential and innumerable areas of application, particularly in industry. Efforts are also being made to evolve some norms and policies. However, when it comes to military applications, one must be careful not to get carried away by the hype and VFX heavy videos. In a scenario where budgets are limited, other incremental improvement disciplines like stealth technologies, C4ISR, directed energy weapons, cyber-electronic countermeasures, armament and material sciences have equally great relevance if not more. Careful analysis is required to identify specific military domains where emerging technologies can play a role.
- The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Its Security Implications, RSIS Commentaries, 24 May 2018