A Glimpse at the Near Future of Combat

12 July 2010


Two news items today provide an interesting glimpse at the near future of combat. (Though allow me to clarify that, in terms of integral history, the near future means the next hundred years or so.) The British Ministry of Defense revealed the prototype Taranis unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) produced by BAE systems. Also, Norway orbited (via an Indian rocket) their AISSat-1 satellite, configured to track all shipping in Norwegian coastal waters over 300 gross tons.

Norway's AISSat-1 satellite for tracking shipping is a small cube only 20 cm on a side.

Earlier in Ecological Succession in Cultural Geography I discussed George Friedman’s book The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. Friedman’s book is a fascinating exercise in military futurism. Friedman in this book argued for the historical uniqueness of US control of all the world’s oceans, and for the future of unmanned combat aviation. While there is much in Friedman’s book with which I do not agree, these are matters upon which I emphatically agree, and today’s news items bring these two trends together in a particularly compelling way.

If unmanned combat air vehicles can be brought to a point of development and reliability that they can be employed in real-world, real-time combat operations, and if these vehicles can in addition be provided with hypersonic flight capability and enough fuel to launch from secure ground facilities, travel to the other side of the planet to strike rapidly, and then return to the launching base, all without refueling, this would be a weapons system of unparalleled opportunity. And there is no reason to be skeptical of any of these developments, since most are already available in a rudimentary form or are in advanced stages of development. Hypersonic aircraft have been available since the development of the SR-71 Blackbird during the Cold War, and the strikes of unmanned Predator drones are in the headlines on a predictably regular basis.

Add to the above weapons system the tracking of every large ship on the world’s oceans, not merely by radar revealing the approximate size and position of the ship, but actually the ship’s identity as revealed by AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponders. If some ships are without transponders (whether from malfunction or a desire for secrecy), it is likely that signals intelligence could reveal the identity of many of these remaining ships. In any case, the greater number of ships on the world’s oceans would be readily identifiable. One would only need enter this information into the targeting computers of smart precision weaponry carried by UCAVs, and the mastery of the world’s oceans would suddenly become a function of air superiority rather than carrier battle groups. Indeed, one can foresee a time in the near future when air superiority is the only military superiority that matters, and becomes the ultimate determinant of combat power and efficacy.

Such scenarios are not speculative, but are actively in development. If the Taranis UCAV and the AISSat-1 are known to the general public, more powerful and sophisticated systems are likely secretly being planned, are in development, or are already deployed. Military planners are futurists with a budget. Those that place their bets wisely win future wars; those than place their bets unwisely lose future wars. Those contemporary nation-states with the most advanced technology have shown, by the technological equivalent of natural selection, that they have, to date, been the most successful in placing their bets and employing this technology on the battlefield. Such trends can be expected to continue, although there is always the possibility of an upset emerging from a strategic shock.

A weapons system born of the synthesis of hypersonic, unmanned UCAVs with precision munitions, coupled with satellite identification of shipping, is potentially a more useful military asset than space-based strategic defense for several reasons, including its likely lower costs, greater precision, and greater reliability. It would be difficult to detail all the benefits and uses that such a weapons system would confer. For example, one’s pilots would not get killed, and they wouldn’t even get tired because several pilots could fly a UCAV in rotation. This would in turn build a highly experienced force that could continue to improve its skills over decades.

It is impossible for me to resist mentioning at this point that some weapons systems would be much better at evading, eluding, and “flying under the radar” of even such an effective weapons system as described above. For example, a dispersed swarming force would be invisible, or nearly invisible, to such a system. And even if a system could be brought to such a level of development that it could detect and track the individual units of a swarming force, it would be no more effective against them than a hawk diving through a flock of starlings, for anyone who has watched a flying predator attempt to catch another bird on the wing knows that the flock of small birds opens up a hole within itself and the predator flies through their midst without so much as touching his quarry, unless the predator is both very skilled and very lucky. Even then, even when the predator gets his meal, the bulk of the flock survives.

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Update 21 July 2014: The BBC has a story today about the rapid growth in the satellite tracking of global shipping, Boom in satellite ship tracking by Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent, BBC News. It is proving more true than ever that knowledge is power, and it is knowledge that these tracking systems provide. Also on the BBC today is Flying spies: Surveillance planes after the Cold War, by Angus Batey, which concerns recent advances and innovations in aerial reconnaissance. We are not far from the day when military supercomputers will track every ship, train, truck, and car in real time, and be in a position to selectively take out any of these by way of precision-guided munitions launched from remotely piloted platforms. This integrated technology will make possible the what I have called qualitative strikes, in contradistinction to quantitative strikes.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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