Despite all the preoccupation with the current raging pandemic, it sadly appears that there has been no let-up in the global arms race among the major powers. In mid-May, the United States President Donald Trump, at an event for his new Space Force at the White House made a significant announcement, It was that the US was building right now an “incredible” new missile which would travel faster than any other in the world “by a factor of almost three”. This was obviously a response to the latest Russian ‘Avangard’ missile, which Russian President Vladimir Putin claims in invincible, with a speed of twenty times that of sound. The Chinese, reportedly are also feverishly working on their own hypersonic counterparts. All these would be strategic tools to significantly alter the war-fighting capabilities of humanity in the future.
Up until recently, around the times of the First Great War (1914-1918) war fighting was based on come rather simple techniques Battlefield outcomes could be based on certain straight forward equations. One was a mathematical model, named after its proponent, called ‘Lanchester’s Law’. According to it, between two confronting sides, the higher number or greater firepower had better chances of winning. More complex formulae were derived therefrom. But it had too many limitations for use in contemporary conflict.
So, ideas evolved further. A system called ‘network’ enabled smaller numbers with lesser firepower to be more effective in an ‘asymmetric conflict’ which is also now called ‘sub-conventional’ war Non-state actors like the ‘Hizbulllah’ in Lebanon used these principles involving a hierarchical mode of communications effectively against an ostensibly more powerful Israeli army.
In 1996 two researchers of the US Rand Corporation, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt gloated a more refined concept in a document entitled ‘The Advert of Network’. The US has since pioneered an even more sophisticated version, which only modern well-equipped armies were capable of implementing. This was called ‘Network-centric operations’. Simply put, it involved four loops of sensors: First, identification of enemy assets, second, command and control of decision-making; third, target elimination, and fourth, logistics. Most modern armies now have ‘net-work command’, with latest communications and computers, with the Signals Branch at its care.
Now there are those who hold that even this ‘network-centrism’ is vulnerable. This is particularly go with the advent of ‘Artificial intelligence (AI) in warfare. The ‘Networks’ could be susceptible to disabling by such weapons. Today, as the new US space Force makes evident, battlefield domains are no longer confined to land, air, and sea. It now also includes space, deep-sea, cyber-space, and the solar electro-magnetic spectrum. Cyber-attacks can knock-out high value assets, including not only military command and control, but also critical civilian functions like banking, travel and telephony which would paralyze life-style, without a single shot being fired!
Today there is a race to build ever more ‘autonomous weapons’ such as smarter drones. Contemporary ‘intelligent machines’ can react at superhuman speeds, that are hard presses to match. There are those who argue future ‘Artificially intelligent’ weapons may be able to think ahead of the human brain, which could cause unique issues.
Actually, this is not much different from some 2500 years ago, the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote : “speed is the essence of war”. Military analysts are already speaking of a coming “battlefield singularity” in which the pace of combat will eclipse the pace of human decision-making. Fastest reaction in the shortest possible time will be the key to overwhelming the adversary. It would be akin to what is known as “OODA’ in aerial dogfighting. The ‘Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act’. So, will machines in battlefield take over from the human protagonists? The answers, at least for now, is happily, no. Even if fully autonomous weapons could possible led humans to code battlefield control, the ultimate critical decisions about how this technology is used, will still rest in human hands.
The principal security threat that the world confronts now is not military, it is an unconventional one, a malady, COVID-19 like the ‘Smart Weapon’, it is a ‘smart virus’, It is unseen, moves swiftly, adapts fast and mutates easily. Any battle-strategy, classical of modern, would advocates to those equally susceptible, the need to combine budget and brains to combat this unforeseen and deadly foe. True, it is easier said than done. But the clear absence of any-logical alternative would be a powerful factor in achieving this end. Uniting against this common, enemy COVID-19, is our Hobson’s Choice, one that has no option.
Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh.