26 September 2019

The new dictionary of defence: disruptive technologies

Niculae Iancu

The invasion of technical terms in the new vocabulary used to describe the evolution of global security phenomena puts an increasing cognitive pressure on the field’s classical concepts. The continuous inclusion of neologisms into the specialized language brings new opportunities to phrase the ever-changing meanings of security, but also new forms of expression for narrations and speeches in the social side of national security. Specialized language is a living organism, as happens with language in general. However, despite the privilege to permanently enrich security and defence dictionaries, neologisms must be seen with the reserve characteristic for the analyst’s critical thought, who lives with the anxiety of constantly needing to objectivize his language, in order to avoid altering the actual sense of his conclusions.

Image source: Mediafax

The assault of technical terms on security language

The fourth industrial revolution offers one of the most prolific environments to enrich the vocabulary of the field of defence. The fusions of third-generation technologies made it so that the cognitive and applied frontiers of some fields, which in the past were considered niche, were dimmed by integrating solutions which have the potential to fundamentally change how humans live, work and interact in the present. The anticipated direction, intensity and consequences for the transformations impose the adoption of an adequate answer from all social actors, both from the public and private sector and the academic medium or civil society. In defining threats, as well as the strategies necessary to counter them, the language needs to be intuitive, objective and eloquent, in order to give them the meanings required for intelligible communication between the parts involved, from politicians and experts to the public, which ultimately needs to be protected from the new danger.

Disruptive technologies with military appliance

The messages promoted by the large platforms debating the world’s political and security evolutions, be them in Munich or Davos, in the centres of big international organizations or in the diverse locations which host the G7 or G20 meetings, are converging towards the conclusions that the military technologies which can disrupt international security in the near future are AI, autonomous weapons systems, hypersonic weapons, directed energy weapons, quantum technology and biotechnologies.

The disruptive military technology is an improved or completely new technology which is capable of fundamentally changing the traditional models of security and defence. The impact of these technologies will be in the necessity to redefine classic security strategies, modify military doctrines, adapt operational context or even the logic of war. Furthermore, transforming disruptive technologies into military capabilities will provoke a paradigm shift in international relations and security studies.

For example, realists consider that power is the central unit of analysis for the states’ security behaviour within the international system. The essence of the realist school of thought concludes that power is found in the volume and complexity of the military capabilities a state owns. In order to ensure significant military capabilities, a state must have sufficient financial, economic, technological and demographic resources. The main conditions to accumulate such resources have remained the same since statehood appeared as a political unit in 1648. These are the surface of the state’s national and controlled territory and the size of its populations.

However, the new technologies have a huge potential to remodel all these premises to a level which can change how the global balance of power functions. The states that will hold the supremacy in the field of disruptive technologies will dominate the world, without being essentially dependent on their geography and demographics. In order to understand the scale of these transformations, we could imagine a space of military power, crowded with autonomous lethal weapons systems, killer robots or ultra-intelligent combat systems. The new weapons will be deployed with unprecedent speed, anywhere and anytime on the Earth’s surface, making geography become insignificant. Furthermore, the future military capabilities will have a huge potential of analysis and self-learning which will allow them to make tough decisions on their own, including those decisions which can decide the fate of conflicts. The new intelligent combat systems will replace the large cohorts of military servants and civilians which are currently involved in affairs of defence.

Going beyond the current debates on the ethics of such a scenario – a subject which obviously cannot and should not be neglected – artificial intelligence is at the centre of such developments. In concise terms, artificial intelligence refers to a machine capable of imitating the cognitive functions which we conventionally associate with humans and create human-level knowledge. AI is already used in a various range of military appliances, such as ISR and C2 systems, combinations of the two, semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles, cybernetic operations, intelligent logistics etc. The technological process will lead to further integration for such systems. They will become capable of carrying out increasingly more complex tasks in a coordinated manner. The missions they carry out will facilitated the automated acquiring of effective methods, and the lessons they learn will be stored in real-time in a new type of artificial conscience of the concept of operations, in order to be instantaneously transformed into commands, which will impede the enemy from fully adapting to the dynamics of the operational field.

At the same time, as AI will proliferate, a grey area will appear regarding “deep fake” informational operations, with a huge potential to influence narrations and security though. They will especially aim to degrade public trust and support for the defence process, but also to blackmail and manipulate. Equally, AI will be used by opponents to generate false intelligence reports on the situations in the field. It is true that measures to induce false perceptions have been used throughout the entire history of war, from plating “carboard” replicas of weapons systems up to intoxicating intelligence with regards to the enemy’s intentions. However, AI will make all this become more sophisticated, and the virtual reality generated by intelligent devices will be capable of inducing powerful perceptions, with a potential to credibly deform the objectivity necessary in moments where major decisions must be made.

The autonomous lethal weapons will be a category of weapons systems which can identify, engage and destroy targets without human intervention. In the configuration of such weapons we find advanced calculations, analysis and decisions systems; sensors which can observe, identify and classify an object as hostile, as well as target guidance equipment. Their autonomy will allow them to operate in difficult environments for long-distance communication, command and control means.

For the moment, the completely autonomous lethal weapons have not become a part of military equipment. Engaging and destroying targets without the human decisions is a critical subject currently. The proposed solutions vary from total interdictions, as in the case of chemical weapons, up to reserved acceptance, with the imposing of extended legal constraints, capable to assure sufficient credible guarantees that autonomous weapons will respect the rules of engagement in battle the laws of the war which are available for humans.

It is probably that from the hypersonic weapon has become the most well-known of the bunch. Information points to Moscow’s interest for developing such systems, and testing some prototypes could confirm the existence of an at least two-year advantage for Russia ahead of the US in the competition to earn supremacy in the field. It seems that programs to develop hypersonic weapons systems are also carried out in China, France, Germany, Australia and India.

Hypersonic weapons will fly at speeds at least five times faster than the speed of sound. For comparison, commercial jets reach speeds below the speed of sound, while some hunter jets can accelerate to speeds three times faster than it. The new weapons are split into two large categories: hypersonic aerodynamic vehicles transported by ballistic missiles and hypersonic cruise missiles. The first are launched from a carrier missile at the limit of cosmic space and have advanced aerodynamic properties which allow them to “slide” towards the ground following trajectories which are hard to intercept, sometimes at speeds higher than 20 Mach. The latter are usually aircraft-launched missiles, equipped with missile engines which are capable of ensuring hypersonic speeds for their entire length of trajectory. Russia has stated that its Kh-47M2 Kinzhal is a hypersonic missile which has a range of 3,000 km, also taking into account the flight autonomy of its carrier aircraft, if it is launched from the supersonic Tu-22M3 bomber, and 2,000 km if its launched from a MiG-31K fighter jet, the configuration on which the first tests took place. Among the missile’s potential targets are static or mobile objectives, either terrestrial or naval. At the same time, Moscow announced that it already has aerodynamic hypersonic weapons, known as the Avangard HGV. According to the Kremlin, this type of vehicle flew approximately 6,000 km at a Mach 27 speed – around 33,000 km/h – during tests and would be integrated in the various ballistic systems currently in the Red Army’s strategic missile forces.

In the context of Russia’s technological advance, a level at which China also apparently reached, the United States established that developing hypersonic weapons is the Pentagon’s absolute priority. The Department of Defence’s main contractor is Lockheed Martin, which carries out multiple programs at the same time, with budgets of several billion dollars, including the Tactical Boost Glide Vehicle, Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon and Arrow, destined for the air forces, and the Intermediate-Range Conventional Strike Weapon system for naval forces. Programs to develop some hypersonic weapons are also carried out by other big companies, such as Boeing and Raytheon, or a consortium of Aerojet Rocketdyne, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Exquadrum under the umbrella of the special OpFire program.

Alongside their very fast speeds, the superior manoeuvrability of hypersonic weapons gives them a big advantage in comparison to classical ballistic missiles. Consequently, the possibilities to intercept the new weapons with today’s anti-air and anti-missile defence systems are drastically decreasing. Despite these difficulties, new solutions are beginning to appear, also mostly offered by new technologies. Among them, an important place is occupied by laser-type technologies.

Directed energy weapons can be deployed on fixed or mobile platforms, with the potential to enter the endowment of all the categories of armed forces. Starting from public data, the costs for a “laser strike” are extremely low. For example, the naval system 30-kW LaWS, which was already tested by the US naval forces in the Persian Gulf, would have costed approximately USD40 million, and the cost per strike is estimated to only one dollar. Theoretically, the munitions for such weapons is practically unlimited, while their precision is better than any existing kinetical system, and the speed of the “strike” is equal to the speed of light. Currently, Lockheed Martin is developing the HELIOS system  (High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance) with a USD150 million budget, which will have a laser weapon with power between 60 and 150 kW operational by 2020.

A special category of directed energy weapons is that of high power microwave weapons. They are destined to combat electronic equipment and communications, command and control systems, as well as improvised explosive devices. In the past, the use of such systems based on non-lethal electromagnetic impulses was also attempted in missions to control human crowds, if they would degenerate to violence or full-blown revolts, but the ethical consideration made them unusable in the operational space.

Another development direction for the new military technologies is that of quantum technology. Although this field has also yet to go past the stage of developing prototypes, the implications for the future of defence are already shaping up to be significant. For example, quantum computers will be able to reduce the decryption times of an extremely complex code from years to minutes or even seconds. At the same time, quantum radars will more precisely localize different objects compared to conventional systems. In consequence, fighter jets which are invisible or have a reduced radar print will become visible on such radars. The same will apply for submarines and the depths of oceans, which will allow significant progress in military underwater research.

A new field in future technological development is the one of biotechnologies. Biotechnology is the field which exploits biological sciences in order to develop new technologies, some with very serious implications for national security. Genetic modification and DNA creation are probably the most sensible areas currently explored by humans. These technologies could be used in the military to improve or degrade the performances of soldiers. At the same time, synthetic biology will ensure the creations of non-existent genetical codes in nature and will make capabilities to produce chemical and biological weapons more accessible.

What will follow?

The gradual decrease in the prices of new military technologies and the extension of research infrastructures dedicated to them stirred the imagination of security analysts, who began to create ever-more fanciful scenarios of a future world, in which android armies will populate the battlefields or entire races of humans will be destroyed by weapons capable of speculating their genetic vulnerabilities. These types of analyses feed the idea of new types of absolute supremacy that intelligent machines will have the power structures of the future, as well as the imperative of man’s genetical improvement, this time in order to survive the conflict with future killer robots who have their own conscience and are outside of their creator’s control.

Staying within the limits of a predictable future and its realities, the destructive potential of these disruptive technologies must not be neglected. The systemic changes mentioned earlier are inevitable and are becoming imminent. We are nearing the critical point of an accumulation of successive developments which had been anticipated many years ago. In preparing the first strategic analysis of NATO after the end of the Cold War, made in 2010, the group of experts led by Madeleine K. Albright, a former US secretary of state, diagnosed what the future security environment will be at the eve of 2020, concluding that:

“Less predictable is the possibility that research breakthroughs will transform the technological battlefield. Allies and partners should be alert for potentially disruptive developments in such dynamic areas as information and communications technology, cognitive and biological sciences, robotics, and means of aggression have gained the upper hand in the art of waging war.”

The years have passed and the temporal limit of this predictions was reached. We can indeed say that disruptive technologies are nearing the moment in which they will be able to capture the traditional logic of war. In order to prevent major mistakes with a tragic conclusion, the scale of today’s transformations requires commensurate solutions. States will not be able to manage the proliferation of new military technologies on their own. Avoiding a new arms race can only be achieved by political and institution collaboration and cooperation.

History is full of examples of the harmful consequences resulted from the failures of states to cooperate in managing sensible subject with a destabilizing potential for the international system’s balance. Unfortunately, in the last period, such examples have been more and more present within the global security architecture. The denouncement of some treaties fundamental for Europe’s security which imposed limits on the developments and accumulation of strategic and nuclear weaponry is only one of the most concerning current evolutions, which put into question the continuity of the post-WW2 global order. The international community’s failure to create some viable mechanisms to control the development of disruptive technologies with military appliances could bring the end of human society as we know it.

Translated by Ionut Preda