If you take a look at some of the most pivotal battles in global conflict, you notice that many of them have one thing in common. Be it on a beach in Normandy; a swamp in France or a desert in Iraq, the 20th Century theatre of war is largely unoccupied by civilians. That will be one of the first things to change in future conflicts.
Fighting In Our Future Cities: The War For Resources
According to the Australian Defence Force's new Future Land Warfare Report, conflicts staged in 2035 and beyond won't be fought in fields, swamps and deserts. They'll be fought in so-called megacities of 20 million people or morethanks to mass-migration.
The wars of the future, according to the Army, won't be fought over just land, they'll be fought over food and water.
"Where problems of access to food, water and services emerge, non-regulated networks of gangs and quasi-state actors may seek to apply their own rules and codes of conduct in competition with the existing rule of law. The emergence of unregulated cities, or zones of disadvantage where traditional rule of law models do not apply, within otherwise functional cities, provides a potential haven for organised crime, terrorists and insurgents, from which they can organise and launch operations," the Defence Force wrote in its report, adding:
"Expanding urbanisation will diminish population access to forested areas and wetlands. States containing rapidly growing cities may compete for supplies of fresh water, provoking disputes over up-river dam building."
As tens of millions of individuals move into cities, facilities pop up that can be used by soldiers to the playing field so to speak. Facilities like Wi-Fi networks, fast internet capabilities and large social networks like Twitter giving soldiers information on troop movements can all be exploited, according to the Army.
"The trend towards inter-agency and joint operations will make the land force more integrated at lower levels. Thus the force will become increasingly enmeshed with external enabling capabilities and require much greater use of civilian infrastructure in the conduct of operations. If access to digital systems offers Australian forces a ‘competitive advantage’, interdependence will see the land force become increasingly vulnerable to disabling attacks on partner capabilities (in addition to direct attacks on military systems)."
The only problem with tapping into these communication networks in megacities is that the enemy Australia ends up fighting will also likely have access to this information.
"Large populations are also likely to be permanently connected to global networks, providing constant access to new ‘real time’ information. Access to social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, is widespread and accessible to both friend and foe, potentially allowing any individual to influence political outcomes, transform perceptions of events, and create positive or negative responses. This may dramatically affect the future use of military force."
To fight these future threats, Australia has figured out that it needs more than your average soldier to get the job done.
Building A Better Soldier
The soldier of the future, according to the Army's Future Land Warfare Report is going to be smarter, faster, stronger thanks to stimulant serums, and much equipped with gear like futuristic bullet-stopping vests and exosuits.
Right now, we can't predict the moves of the enemy we'll be fighting in 2035 and beyond. What we do know, however, is that they'll probably be smarter than we give them credit for, meaning that Australian soldiers will need to understand potential biological augmentations and how they can be used against them in combat.
"By 2025 we may face adversaries with scientifically enhanced cognitive capacity. The land force will need to develop a better understanding of enhancing human capabilities with, for example, improved human-machine interfaces or better fusing of technology with biology. Targeted research in these areas will be necessary to explore opportunities and threats associated with enhancing human decision-making and performance in the future operating environment."
To combat these artificially-enhanced enemies, the report recommends that the Australian Army experiment with scientific super-soldier serums a la Captain America, and exosuit technologies to give Western Forces the edge.
"Beyond 2025, increasing levels of physical and mental robustness and resilience in soldiers will be essential. Physical and cognitive enhancements such as ‘exosuits’ or long-lasting stimulants need to be considered in the context of amplifying performance and also for their potentially unintended physical and mental health consequences. The study of the physiological effects of these emerging technologies should continue and may evolve into a separate discipline of military medicine, similar to the way aviation psychology matured between 1940 and 1975."
Soldiers will also be better protected thanks to advancements in body armour technology.
"Advances in ultra-strong lightweight materials will boost the protection and mobility of land forces. Weight reduction through the improvement of armour plate, carbon fibre, ceramic and appliqué technologies will continue to improve combat body armour as well as enhancing the physical protection and thus the tactical mobility and endurance of combat vehicles."
The use of cheap, autonomous killer robots is also a good idea, according to the Army. Of course, drones and robots can be used for other things rather than simply killing people.
"Autonomous and robotic systems are expected to increase in sophistication and capability. While this will bring tactical advantages, it will also raise doctrinal and ethical questions for militaries around the globe. Autonomous robots offer considerable initial scope for increased safety and effectiveness in route clearance, bomb disposal and reconnaissance missions. Eventually, robotic systems may be capable of a much broader range of functions that are currently the preserve of humans. Advances in robotics and remote-controlled capabilities will also increase the Army’s effectiveness in cases of natural disaster and humanitarian crises in Australian and overseas. Dual-use technologies mean that equipment designed for the Army’s core function — warfighting — also offer capability in a wider range of scenarios. The Army’s ability to deliver non-military solutions with amphibious, aerial and robotic forces in humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and disaster response will continue to demonstrate its utility to government," the Army writes.
At the end of the day, however, no matter how good bots are at killing people, the Defence Force understands that "close combat will always involve a human presence", adding that said human presence needs to look, think and feel different to the soldiers we have today.
That future soldier must be part-diplomat and part-hacker, understanding that local knowledge and access to communications systems are key to winning a war for the streets fought online.
"Operating in large cities within civilian populations will also require armies to engage with a much broader range of organisations that deliver security and social services than has previously been the case. This may demand that armies deepen their capacity for interoperability and broaden their ability to engage in shared planning with civilian partners. The need and capacity for the land force to exploit situational awareness from other partners, military and civilian, as well as sources outside the battlespace must be reviewed. Moreover, new psychological and intellectual capabilities should be part of the development of the Army, including the ability to negotiate with others, utilise interpreters, operate in ambiguous environments, improvise, make decisions under pressure, and understand local cultures, history and politics so that its ability to engage with and influence humans on the ground is not lost."
Along with physical and mental improvements, the Australian soldier of 2035 will also be retrained to fight differently.
Given the reliance on digital networks and communications gear, soldiers of the future will be trained to fight for communications infrastructure and the subsequent competitive advantage it yields over enemy forces (emphasis added):
The vastly enhanced ability of land forces to communicate and share information in the connected environment will significantly alter the way in which these forces will fight. Current mainstream understanding of digitisation generally assumes that the Army will fight the same way as in the pre-digital era, but do so with better communications and greater access to intelligence and surveillance data. It is likely that changes in the Army’s operating practices will be more fundamental and the Army has only just begun to conceptualise the way it will respond.
Given the increasingly important role of cyber capability in conflict, land forces must constantly evaluate their professional military training to ensure that soldiers understand how to use digital systems and other emerging technologies. Military cyber operations can be as effective as precision-guided munitions against either a nation-state or a non-state actor. Legal and ethical employment of cyber capabilities requires an appreciation that friendly, adversary and civilian forces may rely on the same digital infrastructure. Understanding the second and third order consequences of preventing access to digital domains, particularly for civilians, is critical.
In addition to protecting its access to digital domains, the land force will also need to identify back-ups to digital technologies. To achieve this, land forces must retain skills and equipment that will provide redundancy when digital networks fail. Troops will require the ability to fight effectively without access to digital networks for limited periods of time. The Army will need to imbue its soldiers with the mindset to ‘fight for communications’.
Whereas a 20th Century objective would have been to storm a beachhead and take ground, a 21st Century objective is to storm a networking installation to secure communications networks. It sounds like something out of a Battlefield 4 multiplayer mission, only it's real.
Even the forward-operating bases from which soldiers operate will be different in the future. Large deployments of technologically-advanced soldiers with next-gen equipment means large electromagnetic signatures. That means that a base is easier for insurgents to target in the future. Army bases of the future will need to be smaller, more mobile and protected by Iron Dome-style defence shields.
"Fixed infrastructure, such as headquarters and logistic bases, will become increasingly vulnerable due to their size and electromagnetic signatures. The land force may be required to develop more dispersed headquarters and decentralised logistics infrastructure in its future operating concepts to reduce exposure to long-range kinetic and cyber attacks. Protection against these systems must also include the hardening of fixed installations and security of strategic mobility assets in home stations. This is a challenge that our recent operational experiences has not highlighted. A return to austere, low signature operating practices will confront many approaches developed in the last decade.
"As a result of the ongoing proliferation of more lethal technology, the base level of protection and mobility required of land forces must be improved. Consequently, systems such as armoured vehicles should remain a priority. The ability of such vehicles to provide a supporting hub of communications, situational awareness and all-weather precision fires will enhance the capacity of the ground force to absorb surprise and achieve overmatch against an adversary.
"Active Protection Systems that use a sensor, computer processor and interceptor engineered to identify, track and destroy incoming enemy fire will mature and become more widespread in coming years."
The Army concludes its report into the future of warfare by acknowledging the singular, unchanging truth about war: the nature of war is enduring.