Technology and the Future of Warfare

Sept. 1, 1999

In 1998, Congress formed the National Security Study Group, a panel of defense experts and laymen now chaired by former Sens. Warren Rudman and Gary Hart. The panel was enjoined to take a hard look at political, economic, military, social, and technical trends in the world and then identify threats and opportunities the US can expect to encounter in the next 25 years. The group’s conclusions could well have a major impact on the next Quadrennial Defense Review, expected in 2001.

Plans call for NSSG’s work to unfold in three phases. Phase 1, conducted over the past year, ended in August. In this phase, NSSG focused on describing the security environment that is likely to exist in the 2000-25 period.

A key to NSSG’s overall “environmental” assessment was its view on future technologies. In a paper entitled “Technology, Society, and National Security,” recently made public, NSSG laid out its assumptions. Of particular interest to experts were two sections– “A Baseline Technology Prospectus Through 2025” and “Implications for National Security.” Here is the text of those two sections:

The Rudman-Hart Commission, working up to the next Quadrennial Defense Review, surveys the most probable trends and dangers.

A Baseline Technology Prospectus Through 2025

Technology consists not only of things, or devices, but also the way that devices are combined and put to use. Hence, the following discussion is divided into a discussion of devices and of likely means of technological adaptation and integration.

Technology Devices

Microelectronics, Computer Networks, and Communications

  • Cheap, high-density microelectronics will proliferate in all our tools and our physical environment. The number of transistors per chip will continue to double every 18 months until roughly 2005 or 2010, when we will run up against the physical limitations imposed by reaching the atomic scale. This physical limitation, however, need not signal the end of progress, for while today’s chips carry an essentially two-dimensional architecture, future ones may be three-dimensional.
  • As processing power continues to expand, it also decreases in cost. Today $1,000 buys about a billion computations per second. By the year 2025, $1,000 of computing will buy about 10 billion billion computations per second. Like processing power, memory capacity will continue to double roughly biennially, and prices will drop accordingly. In 1970 one megabyte of memory cost half a million dollars; in 1996 it cost $38; today it costs less than $3. Our ability to pack information into ever-smaller volume, and ever more inexpensively, will continue to increase. Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman dramatized the phenomenon by noting that, theoretically, one could put the Encyclopedia Britannica on the tip of a pin. More important, such capacities will provide a basis for major changes in how business, education, and government handle information.
  • Between now and 2025, fiber-optic capacity will surpass terabaud rates, which is to say, a thousand billion bits per second. As with electronics, greater power is matched by declining unit costs; cost per network node appears to drop by a factor of 10 every five years. Fiber optics will thus serve as the backbone of an integrated global communications network. Whereas optical fiber communications has until now been limited by the deterioration in the signal power over long distances, new fiber amplifiers will allow signal transmission over thousands of miles of optical fibers. Moreover, the number of signals traveling through a single fiber will increase greatly due to the ability to transmit multiple wavelengths (or colors). Fiber communications will probably be viable for residential use by 2010, as well.
  • Between now and 2025, wireless communication systems (space-based and land-based) will be highly integrated with the fiber-optic backbone to provide specialized and niche services. Constellations of communications satellites will enable voice, e-mail, paging, and limited Internet service from any point on the globe to virtually any other point on the globe. Direct broadcast radio and television is already lifting the electronic silence of the developing world. Cellular and wireless local loops are augmenting telephone capacities worldwide. The implications of such capacities for the abilities of authoritarian regimes to cordon off their populations from information and news are enormous. Compared to the effects of the transistor radio in Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, and of the audio cassette in Iran in the 1970s, the impact of a fast-wired world on the clinging autocracies of the next century may be even more dramatic.

Microelectromechanical (MEM) Devices, Microfabrication, and Nano- or Molecular Fabrication

  • Between now and 2025, MEMs (microelectromechanical devices) will become a major commercial industry. MEMs are microscopic devices in which sensors, transmitters, receivers, or actuators (switches that activate mechanical devices) have been miniaturized to the size of a transistor. The tools that make today’s computer chips also make MEMs. MEMs are already being used to detect movement to activate air bags, but they can be constructed to detect a variety of visual, thermal, acoustic, and biochemical phenomena. Imagine trying to find a bugging device where you need a microscope to see it. MEMs have demonstrated usable microwatt transmissions, and miniature motors have power production capability with an energy density 10 times higher than the best batteries. New “smart” materials will be constructed with MEMs that have microscale features; for example, airplane wings with microstructures will change shape automatically to allow better control and flight efficiency.
  • Other microfabrication techniques will allow the construction of matrix composites of great strength, low weight, high heat tolerance, and low cost. Ceramic composites will enter car and jet engines. Other microstructures have been exploited to develop “see-through” metals, substances that are hard and not brittle, but still transparent.
  • Nano- or molecular fabrication-the taking of microtechnology down to the atomic scale or dimension-is now in its early stages. Applications will involve the manufacture of nanoscale structures that can be embedded on other electronic devices or on materials. Texas Instruments has already manufactured an array containing a half-a-million movable nanomirrors for a tiny high-resolution projector. In 1997 nanotechnology was an estimated $5 billion industry, and it is optimistically projected to double each year over the near term. Nanofabrication will be available commercially only to a limited extent by 2025, however.


  • Biotechnologies may eclipse information technologies after the year 2010 in terms of economic investment and economic impact. Both the commercial world and governments have sustained large R&D funding. This funding and the remarkable developments in genetic engineering, tissue-growth research, and the human genome project will spur rapid growth and innovation. Some of the key developments and indicators are:

    -The mapping of the human genome offers the prospect of making significant strides on the link between genes and disease. Scientists are learning how life works and fails, to an ever finer level of detail, and they are learning with it the pathogenic and genetic correlates of disease. Gene therapies, even in the fetus, are likely. Cells that can normally replicate 50 times will be adapted to be able to replicate 200 times or more. This has started a debate on the possible discovery, and social implications, of a scientific­technical “fountain of youth.”

    -The mapping of animal and plant genetic makeup offers the capability to tailor animals to serve human needs. Agriculture will be transformed with the promise of higher productivity, nutrition- and vaccine-enhanced foods, and greater plant resistance to (known) pests. “Farmaceuticals” will be readily available. Cows, pigs, and sheep with altered genes will provide proteins with medical value in their meat and milk. Bacteria are already being used for environmental remediation-for example, to clean up oil spills.

    -Cloning human organs will be possible by 2025. Animal and human stem cells are now being grown in the laboratory. With the appropriate signals, stem cells can be converted to any specific cell. It is possible to extract one’s own tissue and transfer the DNA to stem cells to generate transplant tissue that your body will not reject. Mouse heart cells have been created from stem cells. Overall, these developments will probably extend the average human life span to at least 85 years in the developed world within the next 25 years. At least theoretically, those born after 2020 may look forward to a life span considerably longer than that.

Technology Integration

Our use of technology has been revolutionized by the way we integrate and conceptualize its use and distribution throughout society. The following discussion highlights what we may expect from science and technology integration over the next 25 years.

Communications, Sensors, and Transparency

  • The Internet, new sensor capabilities, and global communications greatly facilitate both commercial and military intelligence gathering. Mature communications and sensor systems are allowing images, voices, and data from around the world to be gathered and shared. Small personal communications devices will allow point-to-point communications within a 50- to 100-mile radius; in short, the fabled Dick Tracy wristwatch of comic book imagination is now reality. Such a watch could include a GPS receiver to keep track of position. Portable communications devices will provide Internet entry throughout the world, allowing near-instantaneous and independent exchange of commercial and technical information, exhortations and complaints, political ideas and manifestos.

  • Small cheap microphones, electro-optical compact disks, biochemical detectors, and pocket radars for military, security, biomedical, or controller applications will advance sharply. At least one, and perhaps several, commercial surveillance satellite will be able to image at or slightly below one-meter resolutions at optical wavelengths. Commercial all-weather imaging based on synthetic aperture radar at two-meter resolution may follow. Many satellite owners may be free of US “shutter control,” which is to say that both collection and dissemination of such images will be beyond US management. Satellites are getting cheaper; they cost $50 million today and perhaps only $20 million within a few decades. A single commercial global data-relay network would suffice to take advantage of such systems anywhere.

  • Sensor-equipped Unmanned Aerial Vehicles the size of small Frisbees are being tested. UAVs 30 kilometers aloft may supplement space capability, as soon as people learn to fly them reliably. Compared to satellites, UAVs offer near-constant dwell time, a closer look, and smaller power requirements for send/transmit devices. In benign realms, tethered balloons could tote near-weightless electronics high enough for cellular and surveillance applications.

  • Once captured, data from any source can flow anywhere through the global information infrastructure. Copious data files are collected on everyone worldwide-from open sources, commercial firms, and governments. Technically proficient states (or anyone with enough money) will be able to selectively identify and track anyone who ventures into a public place. Today’s devices can match a snapshot of a face to a person by using an imagery database. Constantly shed skin cells contain enough genetic material for accurate identification (even spectrographically read sweat or urine may provide clues). As a consequence, war could become much less anonymous; and it may be possible literally to link specific military acts with the actual warfighter.

Combining and Merging Existing with Cutting-Edge Technologies

  • We are experiencing a revolution in the merging of existing and cutting-edge technologies, particularly micro-technologies, information and positioning technologies, fabrication, and biotechnologies. Combined or merged technologies often yield “emergent” capabilities in the following major developments:

    The merging of macroscale technologies with microscale technologies. Mechatronics will be a major commercial driver. Computers and communications systems will have embedded MEM devices and will be network-ready right out of the box, and perhaps even network-seeking (i.e., when turned on, they look to link to any network they can find). Smart materials or material with special purpose microstructures will be available. Engines having parts made from, or coated with, micro heat shields may run hotter and propel objects faster.

    The merging of information technologies and positioning technologies. Witness the explosion in commercial applications since the introduction of the Global Positioning System. With that technology, cargo and its transport can be tracked, leading to better logistical control. Harbors and airports control traffic using GPS. Farmers plow and plant crops using precision GPS. By 2025, monitoring and analysis of much of human and environmental activity will contribute toward the transparency described above.

    The merging of human-interface technologies with other tools and with our environment. Speaker-independent voice recognition will be available. You will be able to talk to and instruct a wide range of appliances, your computer, and controls that manage your work and home environments. Machines will have sensor devices that will change behavior according to perceived human biofunction readings; for example, your car may not let you drive it if you are too intoxicated.

    The merging of miniaturized power source technology with microelectromechanical devices. MEM devices will have embedded power sources allowing sustained stand-alone performance. Consider, for example, a MEM transmitter­receiver and biosensor that operates in a remote area for a week or more, which today would require much larger devices requiring more energy.

    The merging of biotechnology with microelectronics. MEM sensor devices have been fused onto insects. Soon the direct interface of microelectronics and animal or even human tissue will be possible. Sensing and detection of the environment (biotoxins, pollution, and so forth) will be linked to the automatic transmission of data. It will no longer be a matter of science fiction on the one hand, or philosophical abstraction on the other, to say that humans and machines co-evolve.

Complexity Theory and Interactive Technological Systems

  • Complex systems theory will significantly alter how we view and interact with the world. We will arm our computers and information technologies to use complexity theory to conceptualize the world in a more global, ecological, and dynamic perspective. Today we look more toward nature and naturally occurring complex systems to garner ideas about how to solve a variety of problems-e.g., ecological problems and network security problems. We now use the term “biomimicry” for the process by which ideas are obtained by imitating nature. Complexity theory is too new to know what its full implications may be, but it is already having a major impact on interdisciplinary studies. Some indicators are as follows:

-Adaptive agents are being developed. Adaptive agents are entities that exist in a computer that imitate human agents in some limited form. Computational genetic algorithms will be used extensively to explore or to solve a large variety of problems-from controlling electric and gas distribution systems to analyzing the effect of natural disasters on an economy. Computer programs that use genetic algorithms to create software that can solve problems better and faster than traditional programs have already been developed. In the future we may use software based on genetic algorithms to fly airplanes. New computer architectures will be developed based on human brain functions. Computer architectures that take advantage of the sort of parallelism characteristic of neurological functions in the brain have already been developed, and research is likely to lead to more human-like capabilities.

-Adaptive agents, or “knowbots,” will garner any unprotected information we need on any network. The universal access to information, particularly tailored information, will create the need to maintain a robust monitoring of world developments. Complex Adaptive Systems theory, a subset of complexity theory, is being used to model social interactive systems. We are already developing land warfare models that simulate the interaction of enemies with specific characteristics. By 2015 we might have the prototype of a reconfigurable networked multisensor weapon system that adapts to enemy tactics automatically based on use of adaptive agents.

Implications for National Security

Technology manifests itself in society less through its absolute capabilities than through its interaction with the complex human systems. So complex is this relationship that we do not even know the specific course on which our own technological innovations have launched us. However, we can point out the issues and debate the environment that we will likely face within the next 25 years.

Anonymous intimacy will deepen because of globalized information.

  • Technology will allow the typical Internet user to connect to the Web by “mouth and ear” in addition to “touch and sight.” Any question in any major language may be met by an answer. Through artificial intelligence and adaptive agents the context of any question (and thus how to frame the answer) will be known automatically. This capability allows anyone anywhere to gain access to knowledge that can be used to the benefit or detriment of anyone, any group, any country, or to humanity as a whole. Global interconnectedness will give more people access to more information than ever before, aided by knowbots and high-accuracy universal translators; faster processors will give them new ways to work with it, as well. Among other things, this suggests a growing gap between those few individuals who can afford and use the technology and the mass of the world’s population with limited access to it.

  • The real world is becoming more intimate via the virtual world. Individuals will be linked to cyberspace through eyeglass attachments. Further linkages directly into their eyes, with contact lenses for example, are theoretically possible. By such means, direct sensor information (e.g., infrared, ultraviolet, light polarization) may be fused directly onto the visual sense, of which aviation head-up displays are but a simple precursor. At the same time, machines will become more sensitive to peoples’ faces, the timbre of their speech, and their gestures. Some people will not like the results, but others may see in them a means of limiting still further interactions with other human beings, thus reifying class structures as well as educational and linguistic boundaries among social groups. For those who like human contact, the ability of computers to render others beyond arm’s reach increasingly more vivid (e.g., as with very high-quality videophones with pheromones) may heighten the impact of virtual communities formed by those of similar social or ethnic background (e.g., the Kurdish or Armenian diasporas) or of similar interests (from animal rights activists to coin collectors). Obviously, some virtual communities will have more political content and salience than others.

  • The uses to which we put information are difficult to foresee. On the one hand, the most commercially successful enterprise on the World Wide Web right now is pornography. On the other hand, there are indications that people are using the Internet to process information and solve problems in new ways. The global information network suggests many implications for improved intelligence, C4ISR, knowledge management, training, and education of both the populace and the military.

Trustworthiness cannot be assumed in cyberspace.

  • Technology could facilitate the spread of false images and information, while culture and governance will probably try to restrict access to personal data. There will continue to be competition between transparency and privacy, with technology serving both sides. Global interconnectedness, sensor technology, and improved information technology will increase the amount of information available on each of us, inevitably facilitating the misuse of it by some. Information networks will continue to be targets. So far, the attackers of such networks have yet to cripple a major system, but the battle is intensifying and the ability to hack into networks has been democratized. In 1999, over 10,000 Web sites offered information to novice hackers. Many of these had downloadable programs that automatically probed for weaknesses in networks and common operating systems such as Windows NT, Windows 95/98, IBM’s OS2, and UNIX. The ability to write computer code is no longer a prerequisite to perform mischief. The complexity of the systems involved makes accurate prediction impossible. The most exploitable element in networks and firewalls remains the procedures associated with user access codes. Biometrics will improve the security of user access codes in the future through user specific biological data.

  • Total information security is not possible and global use of encryption will be limited by standardization protocols and government regulations. While encrypted communications may become the norm, it is unlikely because the impact of high encryption on overhead cost in money and efficiency, and the ability of high-end computers to crack low-end encryption, makes regularized encryption cost more than it is worth. Theoretically, the advantage lies with encryption; practically speaking, it may not.

In a transparent world, attempts to dominate neighbors through heavy metal face long odds.

  • The winning edge of a modern conventional military may have shifted from the ability to mobilize forces, through the ability to mobilize fires, and on to the ability to mobilize information. The US military is on a course to being able to detect and defeat armored invasions within days using standoff fires. Better standoff weapons are in the cards. Even short-range missiles will improve range, accuracy, and guidance, which will increase the probability of target kill.

  • Increased reliance on space systems is likely to create both new vulnerabilities and opportunities. Space offers an arena of international cooperation, but it also risks proliferation of technology. Placing weapons in space will be increasingly likely. If a gram can be put into orbit for one dollar rather than 10, then space-to-ground munition rounds may become cost-effective. Oft-touted ground-targeting lasers, high-power microwaves, and neutral particle beams are also possible. They offer near zero time between spotting and hitting a fleeting target, but they must be fielded in constellations to be in position when fleeting targets show up and atmospherics impede their use. Space weapons can also be provocative; it does not take much imagination to get the sense of foreboding that would come with looking up and constantly seeing enemy spacecraft that could kill you with absolutely no warning.

  • Even without space weapons, supporting investments (e.g., sensor-to-weapon linkages) should take the US ability to halt “heavy metal” incursions from the calculus of warfighting toward the realm of conventional deterrence. Like nuclear war, conventional war as we have known it may be planned in total seriousness but without real expectation of being used. Unfortunately, the same logic puts the large ceramic, steel, or titanium boxes that US forces now field in similar peril. Precision guided munitions are proliferating. Commerce supplies most of the information technology behind observing, orienting, deciding, and coordinating actions, which are therefore available to anyone and for less money with every passing year. Stealth helps but it is expensive and therefore likely to be used for only a few platforms. Moreover, because anything that moves must disturb its environment, current stealth technology must ultimately fail before continual and exponential increases in the ability to collect and correlate data.

Future technologies may not prevent natural disasters.

  • The impact of environmental degradation on international security depends on how people react to that degradation. The prospect of water shortages in India or China–both expected to be armed with nuclear-tipped ICBMs–may impel each to seize water-rich areas to their north. Just as likely, however, it may induce them to institute long-range planning to lower water usage and ease peasants from agriculture to urban occupations. Or it may provide the impetus for lacing Asia with water pipelines, thereby increasing mutual interdependence and inhibiting conflict.
    • Even with mediating technology, resource depletion and environmental degradation may increase the frequency and intensity of conflict. Purely natural disasters (e.g., Hurricane Mitch) could, in and of themselves, touch off a large exodus from affected areas that, in turn, destabilizes the broader region. A city used to absorbing 100,000 migrants a year may cope; one that sees little movement in a decade and then suddenly a million migrants after a drought may not. State failure brought on or exacerbated by disaster may complicate US efforts to combat organized crime or terrorism. For instance, disasters that force victims up against or across borders may increase international tension. Further pressure to migrate to the United States (or to its allies) would be a national security issue on its own.
        Environmental consciousness is already affecting the US military, which is not only responsible for remediating the effects of its own facilities but also using environment-friendly ammunition (e.g., replacing depleted uranium rounds). Meanwhile, potential opponents have shown a willingness to use environmental pollution as an offensive weapon-as when Saddam Hussein used oil fires to pollute the land and sea environment in Kuwait in February 1991.

      To find the next apocalypse, think bugs, not bombs.

      • Biotechnology holds great promise but also great risk. While there is no classic military use for biological weapons, they could be used by terrorists. A biological pathogen could also be released inadvertently. Biotechnology and the specter of cheap Weapons of Mass Destruction bring an increasing imperative to a search for new means of prevention or, lacking that, an appropriate defense. In the event of failure to prevent their use, a robust consequence management system is necessary.

      • Weapons of Mass Destruction will become more easily available. Current biological weapons pose a special limited threat because they can be produced cheaply and without the level of expertise required for nuclear devices. They are also more difficult to keep outside our borders. The good news is that biotechnology may offer some antidotes and shields, and MEM technology is being directed toward defensive measures. One danger of which we must be aware is that the successful use of WMDs against a population center will likely create effects, such as panic and shock, disproportionate to the casualties it causes. Such an event could trigger changes beyond our ability to control. Consequence management needs to be carefully considered.

      • More apocalyptic is the problem of a genetically engineered product-weaponized or not. Highly virulent, infectious, and “contagious” germs with long-latency and multiple drug­resistant characteristics could be developed. More sophisticated genetic weapons could also be constructed that selectively target plants or animals, including humans, with specific genetic traits. Whether such “bugs” were released on purpose or by accident may, in the end, be irrelevant.