Warfare is one of the most rapidly advancing areas of technology because the side with superior technology most often wins.
From crude stone and bronze weapons to gunpowder and powered flight, we have come a very long way, but where will we go next in humanity’s bid to find ever more efficient ways of killing?
Apart from cyber-warfare, in which communications can be intercepted or jammed and infrastructure destroyed over computer networks, robotic combat drones have been the most significant recent advance in battle technology.
From massive aerial Predator and Reaper drones that linger for hours over the battlefield until they are ready to launch laser-guided bombs at their targets to their much smaller recon-drone cousins that soldiers in the field can carry, drones have quickly become a key component of many modern armies.
Their offensive capability allows soldiers and aircrews to stay safely away from the action and their intelligence gathering prowess helps pierce the fog of war.
But so far there have been very few land-based drones apart from those used to detonate explosive devices.
There is some indication now that the Pentagon will reduce the numbers of large aerial drones as it prepares for larger scale conflict against adversaries using strong air capabilities, rather than targeted terrorist and militia groups.
In such an air war, today’s models of drones would be easy targets to air superiority fighters.
Instead, the Defense Department is seeking smaller, more agile offensive drones than can be deployed in larger numbers and counter conventional air power.
Imagine a fleet of jet-powered drones carrying air-to-air missiles, dozens all launching at once from a cargo plane and attacking from multiple vectors.
Able to perform maneuvers that would kill a human pilot from g-forces alone and presenting a much smaller radar cross section without the need for a cockpit, the drone fighter swarm would easily counter much larger fighter jets.
The land-based robots under development in DARPA research labs still lack reliable power sources, though their ability to navigate difficult terrain on four or two legs is now similar to or even superior to that of human soldiers.
The immediate use case will be for small squad carrying cargo over difficult terrain, much like a robotic pack mule.
Adding cybernetic enhancements to human soldiers is another area that is seeing rapid advancement.
From powered exoskeletons which will allow a soldier to carry twice his weight in gear for many hours at a sprinter’s pace (the four-minute mile is the project’s stated goal) to communications and combat overlays that will greatly improve the ability to communicate and coordinate in the chaos of battle.
With information fed to a soldier from nearby mini-drones, enemy soldiers won’t be able to take cover effectively on the battlefield and squad tactics will become more effective.
Sensors in the soldiers’ bodies would monitor their vitals and modifications to their biochemistry would allow them to forgo sleep for longer, digest different foods and adapt to new situations more easily.
There is even research being done now (so far on monkeys at Duke University) to implant microchips that would allow soldiers to control weapon’s systems purely with their minds.
Nanotechnology, defined as the use of technology between 1 and 100 nanometers in size, presents strong possibilities for use in warfare as well.
Added to a friendly soldier’s blood, nanites could vastly increase the ability to carry oxygen and fight disease.
Directed at an enemy, a swarm of flying nanobots could carry small amounts of poison, such as the VX nerve agent used to assassinate a man in a Malaysian airport last month, directly into the eyes or lungs of their victims.
They could even be loaded with small amounts of explosive delivered to sensitive areas, as was indicated by a 2010 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
The danger with nano-scale robots is that they can become either a contaminate or a serious threat to humanity if allowed to self-replicate.
The theoretical concept known as “grey goo” refers to the possibility of self-replicating nanobots that are able to convert other matter into more nanobots.
The more they make, the faster they are able to grow until soon the process is out of human control, like a giant robotic mold that can double its weight every few minutes until the Earth is consumed.
Does it make anyone rest easy knowing that a Cambridge University conference on global catastrophic risk found only a mere 5% risk of nanotech weapons causing human extinction before the year 2100?
We are not yet near the precipice of ‘grey goo’, but such possibilities do exist if we lose control of such technology, not unlike the possibility of creating mini-nukes that use lasers rather than other more conventional detonators can now enable weapons designers to build fusion bombs.
Louis Del Monte, a Minnesota-based physicist and futurist, has pointed to the dangers of such laser-based deuterium-tritium fusion bombs as being difficult to detect and highly portable.
Not easy to make, but in some ways not as difficult as larger nuclear weapons, the mini-nukes would have virtually no fallout and could be carried to their targets on drones.
In an age when robotics, genetics, artificial intelligence and computer viruses are changing the face of warfare, its future is increasingly rapid, remote and more deadly.