Since the dawn of civilization, human beings have been going to war with each other. This is not to say that humans weren’t killing each other long before the emergence of agriculture, writing systems, animal husbandry, metal-working, and other “civilized” behaviors. As long as humans have existed, they’ve used whatever means they could to fight each other.
But armies and warfare are something that really only emerged around the 3rd millennium BCE. During this time, the conventions we would recognize as war — standing militaries, coordinated maneuvers, siege warfare, and controlling captured territory — began to appear. As time advanced, armies and warfare evolved to incorporate new technologies and other developments.
You could say that warfare is a yardstick with which the progress of civilizations can be measured. To put it another way, a civilization can be measured by examining the content and disposition of its armies. In the past century, human civilization has changed drastically, and those changes have been reflected in how we go to war.
By the middle of this century, this is likely to change even much, MUCH more! With the rapidly accelerating pace of technology and questions about the fate of human societies, these changes are likely to be drastic. In fact, it could become revolutionized to the point that our ancestors would not even recognize it as “war.”
New Changes & New Threats
Between 1945 and 1991, the geopolitical balance was characterized by two major superpowers and their allies locked in a state of Cold War. In the thirty years that followed, this arrangement changed drastically, because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, shifting alliances, economic change, and technological change.
According to a 2020 report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the greatest threats to national security are no longer nuclear war or conventional warfare. Instead, cyber warfare, terrorism, foreign influence activities, international cartels, illegal immigration, and natural disasters are the main threats.
By 2050, the growth of distributed systems, quantum computing, 3D printing, cryptocurrencies, biotechnology, and climate change is expected to cause an even more drastic shift. For one, some have argued that the power of nation-states is expected to decline considerably and to give way to autonomous regions, megacities, and private interests.
Simultaneously, technologies like CRISPR gene editing, desktop bioprinters, genetic databases, and AI software will create new opportunities for bioterrorism. With the right training, equipment, and supplies, a larger number of threat actors will be capable of engineering viral bodies or toxins in a lab. As a result, the opportunities for conflict, and the range of protagonists will multiply considerably.
Because of these emerging changes, it is difficult to predict what the battlefields of the future will look like. However, examining emerging technologies and changing dynamics does allow for some tentative conclusions and generalizations to be made.
Among them, the future of warfare is likely to come down to a handful of major factors: new technologies, new threats, the obsolescence of heavy armor, and the replacement of humans by drones, robots, and potentially cyborgs.
A Quantum Arms Race
Incidents like GhostNet, #OpIsrael, Operation Olympic Games, and the DNC cyberattacks of 2016 illustrate the stark reality of cyber warfare. Ever since the internet emerged, countries worldwide have been looking for ways to use it as a weapon against other nations’ financial markets, computer systems, and utilities.
Beyond governments and militaries, there’s also the threat of independent hackers and hacker collectives. Groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks have shown how hackers and “hacktivists” are capable of causing considerable disruption and damage. It’s understandable why governments today are looking to recruit hackers to protect vital infrastructure (or mount cyber-attacks).
This situation will change considerably once quantum computing becomes available. Compared to their “classical” counterparts, quantum computers rely on the superposition and entanglement of particles instead of binary digits (ones and zeros). This gives them the ability to compute multiple values simultaneously, which allows them to work incredibly rapidly and with astronomically high numbers.
Two important factors in the development of quantum computing are qubit counts (the quantum equivalent of computer bits ) and coherence time — the amount of time a qubit can hold information. During the 2010s, the most powerful quantum computers had qubit counts of less than 100 and coherence times of nanoseconds to microseconds.
Between the 2030s and 2040s, qubit counts and coherence time will both likely have increased considerably, to the point that they may be able to crack the RSA-2048 encryption in as fast as 10 seconds. Large-scale quantum computers are also predicted to become available beyond laboratories, creating tremendous new opportunities for research, as well as new dangers.
While governments, militaries, and major corporations are likely to be prepared for intrusions, any system still running on older, digital platforms will be vulnerable. For starters, public-key encryption will be useless against quantum-based cyber intrusions, which means people will not be able to trust any data sent or received over the internet. This could make many everyday activities, such as banking or even using debit cards, very uncertain.
This is likely to have implications for cyber warfare as well. As it stands, various governments (such as the US and China) are in a “quantum’s arms race,” which consists of researching new forms of cryptography while also trying to achieve major advancements before the other.
Unless cryptography keeps pace with computing in this domain, whoever achieves “quantum supremacy” first will have a window of opportunity on their hands. Until their adversaries can erect new encryption protocols to stop them, whoever achieves supremacy will be able to peak into everyone else’s databases with impunity.
Since the turn of the century, the use of uncrewed combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) has grown considerably. The reasons for this transition include risk reduction, improvements in remote operation and competition between nation-states, and the desire to reduce the risk of casualties and the growth of anti-terrorism operations.
A 2013 study conducted by the Brookings Institution showed that from 2008 to 2013, the number of remote aircraft pilots who graduated training with the US Air Force (USAF) went from about 500 personnel to 1300 (from around 3.3.% to 8.5% of all new USAF pilots). Beginning in around 2012, in some years, the USAF trains more remote pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.
Right now, UCAV developers are looking to make them smaller, stealthier, and capable of taking on more roles. This is being done through the production of technology demonstrators designed to test new systems that will allow UCAVs to conduct a wider array of strike missions, like aerial refueling, carrier-based operations, high-altitude aerial reconnaissance, and transport.
Following this trend, UCAVs by mid-century could very well replace onboard human-piloted vehicles altogether. There is also considerable research into developing supersonic aircraft capable of flying, dogfighting, and landing without human oversight. However, human aviators may still be used to oversee large-scale aerial operations, with remote-piloted or autonomous drones serving as “wingmen.”
Another possible development is microdrones, UAVs that really live up to that name — measuring at small as 1/1000th of a meter. Swarms of these drones could be coordinated using “swarm intelligence” to seek out and destroy enemy targets.
Sleeker and Stealthier
Another change that is already evident is the growth and proliferation of stealth technology. Development of radar-absorbent material and radar-deflecting surfaces began in the mid-1970s and resulted in the first stealth aircraft by the late 1980s — such as the F-117 Nighthawk and B-2 Spirit.
Some forty years later, stealth technology has expanded to include 5th generation fighters, stealth ships, next-generation drones, and even tanks. Following this progression, stealth technology may well become the norm wherever and whenever battlefield radar or advanced imagining and detection methods exist. Even the infantry are looking for ways to become more stealthy.
While infantry units have used camouflage since the 19th century, modern armies are looking for new ways to remain undetectable. For example, multi-scale (aka. digital) camouflage has replaced older patterns, and more combat units are adopting suppressors — the US Marine Corps recently made them mandatory.
Considerable research is also being directed towards making infantry units “invisible” to detection. Examples include “stealth sheet” technology that can mask thermal signatures and “invisibility cloaks” that allow troops to blend seamlessly into their environment.
If this kind of technology is available to all service branches by 2050, stealth aircraft, ships, tanks, other types of combat vehicles, and even troops will all reach new levels of literalness!
Death Knell of the Tank
For many decades, the mainstay of the modern battlefield was the Main Battle Tank (MBT). Since the end of the Cold War, however, the MBT has faced many challenges that suggest its heydey could be coming to an end. By 2050, the ongoing process of one-upmanship between the tank and anti-tank systems may finally result in them becoming obsolete.
The Main Battle Tank became a mainstay during the 1970s when every advanced nation adopted a single model that would gradually replace all other variants. Different nations produced their own versions, including the US M1 Abrams, the Soviet-Russian T-80/T-90, the German Leopard II, the French Leclerc, the Chinese ZTZ80/88, the Israeli Merkava, the British Challenger 2, and others.
In all cases, these tanks incorporated advances like composite armor, advanced optics (including night vision), stabilization systems, reactive armor, and high-tech munitions. Simultaneously, anti-tank systems rapidly advanced to keep up, ranging from rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and guided missiles, to laser-guided missiles.
The situation worsened as anti-tank systems became more sophisticated and asymmetric warfare more common in the post-Cold War era. During the First Chechen War (1994-1996), the Iraq War (2003-2011), and the War in Afghanistan (2001 – 2021), armored units were either not well-suited to the local geography or suffered heavy casualties in close-quarters urban combat.
To address this, tank designers have been experimenting with active protection systems, integrated fire control, networking, radar decoys, and other counter-measures. However, it appears that in the long run, tanks are destined to go the way of the dinosaur, because it is too expensive to adapt them rapidly enough for changing conditions.
The fact that most combat engagements in the modern era have not included battles between tanks has also shown that their importance may be on the wane. Between the high cost of maintaining armored units and their diminishing role on the battlefield, armies worldwide are considering replacing the tank with more flexible combat systems.
For example, in 2014, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the Ground X-Vehicle Technologies (GXV-T) program to investigate possible alternatives. In 2016, Major Christopher Orlowski (the GXV-T program manager) summarized the purpose of the program as follows:
“We’re exploring a variety of potentially groundbreaking technologies, all of which are designed to improve vehicle mobility, vehicle survivability, and crew safety and performance without piling on armor. DARPA’s performers for GXV-T are helping defy the ‘more armor equals better protection’ axiom that has constrained armored ground vehicle design for the past 100 years and are paving the way toward innovative, disruptive vehicles for the 21st century and beyond.”
By 2050, this could result in the complete abandonment of the MBT in favor of lighter vehicles that have swapped out their treads in favor of wheels, adjustable tracks, or even legs. Rather than heavy armor, these vehicles are likely to rely on radar, AI-driven situational awareness software, and active countermeasures that sense incoming threats and neutralize them in advance.
Other layers of defense could come from deployable hunter-killer drones and active camouflage (similar to the “invisibility cloak.”). Gasoline engines will no doubt be replaced by high-capacity batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. And rather than crews of three or four, a combat vehicle could have one driver, be remotely operated, fully autonomous, or all of the above.
In terms of armaments, the more traditional cannon could be swapped for an electromagnetic induction gun (aka. a railgun) or a directed energy weapon (aka. a laser). Some robotic point-defense machine guns would also be helpful, and less-lethal measures like EMP charges, high-pitched sonic blasts, and other crowd-control measures could also be effective.
Human Machine Interface
Those flesh and blood combatants still on the battlefield by 2050 are sure to have robotic support units to help them with just about everything. In fact, battlefield robots are a major focal point for the DARPA and other developers that want to create machines that can shoulder the responsibility of handling particularly dirty, dangerous, dull, or dear (aka. the “4Ds”) operations.
Some possibilities include robots similar to the humanoid robot known as Atlas, the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), Cheetah, and Spot, all of which are the work of Boston Dynamics. These and other robots are based on the principle of biomimicry, where machinery imitates life to achieve a greater range of motion and flexibility.
There are also Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs), the land-based counterpart of UAVs that are already in widespread use. Examples of these “battlefield robots” include the TALON bomb disposal unit, the Taifun-M armored reconnaissance vehicle, the Multi-Utility Tactical Transport, and Gladiator Tactical unmanned transport vehicles, and the Uran-9, and Guadrium unmanned ground combat vehicles.
These robots handle all kinds of duties, from transporting supplies and disposing of mines, bombs, and IEDs, to performing sentry duty, conducting reconnaissance, and providing fire support. These robotic systems are likely to become more common, more sophisticated, and fully autonomous in the future.
But perhaps the most radical way robotics will be integrated into the battlefield is with soldiers themselves. Soon, exoskeletons are predicted to make an appearance, giving individual soldiers greater strength, endurance, and carrying capacity.
According to a recent report by the US Department of Defense (DoD), 2050 will be the year where cyborg soldiers are a regular feature of the US Armed Forces. According to the report, the following “cyborg technologies” are expected to have the greatest impact:
Ocular Enhancement: Ocular implants of the future offer the potential to enhance sight, imaging, and situational awareness. By integrating circuits into the eye, soldiers see in other wavelengths (such as infrared), have enhanced night vision, discern movement more easily, identify targets, and project heads-up displays (HUDs) in their visual field.
Programmed Muscle Control: Soldiers of the future could also have subcutaneous sensor networks integrated into their bodies that would enhance muscle control by delivering optogenetic stimulation (light pulses). Integrated with an AI-driven situational awareness package, these sensors could also provide automated hazard avoidance.
Auditory Enhancement: By replacing or modifying middle-ear bones and cochlea, soldiers would have a greater range of hearing and protection against hearing loss. Combined with ocular and neural implants, auditory implants could enhance communication and situational awareness. This would include identifying low-intensity sounds, potential hazards, echolocation, and localization.
Direct Neural Enhancement: The ability to graft computer chips directly to the human brain will allow for brain-to-machine interfacing (BMI), as well as brain-to-brain interactions (BBI). In essence, soldiers would be capable of direct communication with autonomous systems and other soldiers, with deep implications for optimizing command, control, and operations. As is written in the report:
“The potential for direct data exchange between human neural networks and microelectronic systems could revolutionize tactical warfighter communications, speed the transfer of knowledge throughout the chain of command, and ultimately dispel the “fog” of war. Direct neural enhancement of the human brain through neuro-silica interfaces could improve target acquisition and engagement and accelerate defensive and offensive systems.”
Cybernetic components will also have considerable implications for medical care and recovery. For example, neural implants could address symptoms that result from brain injuries — such as memory loss, dizziness, headaches, nausea, inability to concentrate, difficulty retaining new information, etc.
These implants will likely take the form of small and flexible integrated circuits placed on injured areas of the brain, providing a “bridge” between damaged neurons. Similar implants could also address the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by breaking the connection between external stimuli and the panic response.
Similarly, bionic prosthetics will become an option for soldiers who suffer irreparable damage to parts of their bodies. These range from bionic eyes and artificial organs to arms and legs, which rely on sophisticated electrodes to merge directly with nerve channels.
These will restore (and enhance) mobility and sensory perception and provide sensory feedback (pressure, vibration, temperature, pleasure/pain). Subcutaneous optogenetic implants could also aid in the recovery process where muscles and other soft tissues have been damaged.
Other advancements of importance include bioprinting and other burgeoning fields of biotechnology. The ability to print organic tissues on-demand — such as skin, organs, muscle tissue, and blood vessels — will drastically improve the survival and recovery rate of soldiers. Permanent injuries, phantom limb syndrome, and maybe even PTSD will become things of the past!
As the old saying goes, “soldiers are always preparing to fight the last war.” This means that armies are always evolving to meet new challenges after they’ve met them (kind of like anti-virus software). This honored tradition is sure to continue into the indefinite future, with difficult-to-predict results.
While making accurate predictions is never easy, the nature of warfare by mid-century is predicted to include a few major shifts:
- Distributed technologies giving rise to new terror threats
- Quantum computing and escalation of cyberwarfare
- Stealth reaching the point of true invisibility
- No more tanks or tank battles
- Robots and cyborgs assuming most (or alinl) combat roles
Alas, some things never change. For one, warfare is and always will be a human-directed endeavor. Even if robots take over the battlefield, they will be fighting at the behest of human beings with human agendas. Second, armies will always be forced to adapt to changing circumstances and technologies, especially the ones that present new opportunities for mischief, mayhem, and destruction.
Last, but not least, warfare will never be predictable, and all our attempts to anticipate future developments are likely to meet with limited success (at most). Even if future armies benefit from AI and quantum computing to assess different scenarios and probabilities, the accelerating nature of technological change will create new levels of uncertainty.
But as AJP Taylor (the famed British military historian) said: “Nothing is inevitable until it happens.” The ongoing struggle between the sword and the shield will exist as long as warfare does. Warfare, in turn, will probably exist as long as humanity does. Until we find a way to resolve all our differences peacefully, we will continue to look for better ways to kill each other.