Technology is enabling the movement of warfare from a blood-drenched killing affair to something more precisely-targeted and yet more powerful
Whatever the case, the fact is that technology has decisively entered the battlefield, just as it has entered the sports arena. It makes it less fun and more serious business, but war is fun only when you're watching a movie!
Here, then, are some things that have happened in recent years, which point to the inexorable rush of technology into combat of all sorts. We focus on the communications and networking aspect, because that's where it's happening most. We have good reason to believe that what's happening today is indicative of what will be tomorrow.
The Networked Soldier
In the US Army's vision called the Future Combat System, networks will acquire the capability of being set up on the fly to adapt to the progress of a battle.
Peter Marcotullio, director of development at SRI International, the research centre working with the DoD (the US Department of Defense) on ad hoc network development, says, "Each person is a network with routing capability to everyone else. Think of cascading networks, all IP-based, that are dynamic and self-configured as the troops advance."
Sensors, commanders and soldiers will all be linked to a dynamic network that will adapt to the situation and satisfy the information demands of the battlefield. This vision is not far from being realised. By the end of this decade, major armed forces across the globe will have sensors and communication gear that will make such connectivity possible.
In addition to conventional weapons, the soldier of the future will have the necessary equipment to make him a network-enabled "smart warrior." Using his helmet-mounted drop-down eyepiece, he will see a virtual, GPS-linked display showing his current location and that of friendly and hostile units in the area. He will be able to switch the display to watch live video feeds from UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) coming via a secure data link. His rifle-mounted TWS (Thermal Weapon Sight) will not only help him identify enemy positions in the dark, but also pass on the same information to allied units on the network.
A soldier is just a part of a platoon or company of similarly-equipped soldiers. The soldier utilises data fed in by sensors like UAVs, aircraft, satellites, and other sensors to identify important targets and detect potential traps or hostile units. He won't fire unless absolutely necessary, rather relying on combat robots or UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) to do the job. Once the target has been identified, the soldier will deploy robots or UCAVs to destroy it.
The individual soldier thus becomes a powerful component of a huge grid, much more powerful than the soldier of today, but also with his safety ensured.
August 17, 2016: A pilot flying a fighter jet on a routine patrol spots a group of intruders trying to sneak in through the border. He immediately updates their coordinates on a digital map on his aircraft computer. That done, the information is updated in real-time to army units in the vicinity.
Moving in to intercept the intruders, they get a constant video feed from the aircraft, so they have all they need to know-how many of them there are, what are they currently doing, which way they're going. Using this information, the unit chooses the best spot to ambush the trouble-makers. Ambush and capture them they do, without a single casualty.
The scenario above is a classic one, where the ability to conduct Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) not only increases the efficiency of a unit, it also minimises the loss of men and materiel (equipment).
The term "Network-Centric Warfare" is the latest buzzword in military circles; it is the transition of military forces from the industrial age-where better equipment was the key to success-to the information age, where having the latest information is the key. The idea is to provide real-time, accurate information available to all friendly forces so as to make fast, effective, better-informed decisions.
We live in a networked world, be it the cell phone network or the Internet. It was onlya matter of time before the network entered the battlefield.Visualise a huge network of computers with three key components:
Sensors: These include objects that generate useful information (such as pictures or radar images). The objects can include satellites that provide images of a particular area, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that generate real-time images of an area, and so forth.
Commanders: Military commanders get a broad view of what's going on by collating the information sent by the sensors. They make decisions depending on the situation.
Shooters: Troops on the battlefront that do the actual shooting. It could be a squad of soldiers, robots, tanks, aircraft, or even a single ship. These are guided by the commanders to perform set actions.
These components are analogous to hubs on the network, and the computers are like the nodes. All the computers can access the information flowing around the network. This network relies on a high-bandwidth link using optical fibre or satellite links.
Such networks have to be much more secure than your regular SSL-encrypted connections, due to the highly sensitive nature of the information being transmitted. As a standard procedure, the networks have multiple redundant links, so in the eventuality of war, even if one link is damaged, the network can rely on the others without affecting operations.
Network-Centric Warfare not only increases the efficiency of a unit,
it also minimises the loss of men and equipment
In Conventional Warfare
In a more conventional setup, communication happens via radio. Radio communication can not only be intercepted by the enemy, it is also dependant on ambient geography. Moreover, a commander receiving information from various sources has to collate that information and make a mental picture of the situation. There may sometimes be conflicting information. Many a time, it so happens that a commander doesn't have the precise location of friendly or enemy troops. Ambiguous states such as these can hamper decision-making. In such situations, a commander has to rely on experience and gut-feeling. It's sometimes a bit like gambling. With lives.
Taking an example of air combat, radars are a must for any fighter aircraft. But there are drawbacks associated with the use of radar. First, fighter aircrafts have a very small radar range compared to ground-based radars. Second, switching on your radar gives away your position to the enemy. So during most air combat scenarios, fighters keep their radars off, being guided by ground-based radars or AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems): these are aircraft with huge radars of extremely long ranges mounted on them. In addition to pilots, AWACS have controllers who have the details about all aircraft within their radar cover. These controllers can inform friendly pilots about enemy movement and help them plan their tactics.
Now, in this conventional scenario, a radar operator or an AWACS controller uses radio to communicate with the pilots. The pilots have to create a mental picture of their position relative to the enemy aircraft and plan their approach. Air combat is highly dynamic due to the high speeds involved, and it takes time for a pilot to create a mental picture. If, during this time, the enemy aircraft make a sudden change in their path, the radar operator will need to update the pilots about it. The pilot will need to scrap his earlier idea and start from scratch.
In NCW, secure data links on the aircraft and ground station would be installed, and they would be linked via satellite. In this case, the radar operator can share visuals in real-time. Instead of creating a mental picture, pilots will have an exact idea of enemy locations, and can plan their approach quicker to gain the upper hand.
Peter Marcotullio, Director of Development, SRI International
These are just two instances of commercial setups being used in warfare-and we're likely to see more of this. Like the use of RFID tags to track men and materials. Like the use of smart cards, using which a soldier would have access to his assigned weapons, and by which an injured soldier's medical records would be instantly accessible.
Talking To Each Other
Each component involved in this integrated system was not exemplary on its own, and had existed for quite some time. US forces have been using UAVs and satellites to gather information for quite some time now. But this time, all the data was communicated in real time. It was sent to the US, front line units, and to the commanders who made the decisions.
Says John Hillen, senior Vice President and Director of the defense and intelligence group at American Management Systems (AMS), an IT consultancy in Virginia, "There were a lot of new technologies out there, but none of them was particularly dramatic. It was the stitching together of all of these things in real-time and their integration into the operation."
As recently as in the first Gulf War, air commanders had to print hundreds of pages of "air tasking orders" to be sent out to various air units. These printouts would then be sent to airbases or aircraft carriers, where they were further sorted out to be given to pilots to inform them about their tasks. In the second Gulf war, IT had already "invaded" the battlefield. A single Humvee became a mobile data centre. Intelligence updates provided by various sensors were fed into a Unix-based workstation at the back of the Humvee. As many as 20 different interfaces were made available to enter data generated by various sensors and systems, like radar from JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System) reconnaissance aircraft and video from UAVs.
The system automatically collated all the data on a single electronic map to give commanders a bigger, more accurate and near-real-time picture of the entire battlefield. In its latest avatar, this system uses a Web service architecture to provide near-real information on demand to decision makers in the US, Europe, and the Middle East. This service uses the US military's restricted network called SIPRNET (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network).
A communications system that speaks for the power of "simple" commercial technology is a wearable computer/radio called the TM-7.
It uses an 800 MHz Transmeta Crusoe processor and 256 MB of RAM. Weighing just 5 kg, the device provides mapping, GPS, and communications. With the help of a USB joystick and a helmet-mounted VGA display, soldiers can use TM-7s to control robots-sending them into buildings and caves, avoiding risk to human lives.
Bots And Nanobots
Talking about robots in combat, such a bot-the PackBot-was actually deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It entered caves, scouting around and reporting to human operators using wearable computers. In the future, its role could accommodate combat duties: such robots could be loaded with explosives to blow up locations not accessible to soldiers.
Thanks to its 802.11b connection, the PackBot can also be operated over the Internet, allowing for remote operations.
Another DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) funded project, dubbed the High Mobility Tactical Microrobot (HMTM), is in the works. Weighing just 5 pounds, it is being designed for surveillance and reconnaissance. The HMTM has a camera on top of a periscope to look around corners, in addition to an inbuilt homing device that will work even if its 802.11b connection breaks.
We've spoken of Smart Dust earlier in this space; how can it help reduce casualties, which was a primary goal during the Iraq war? The central idea, of course, was to replace people with machines that could gather intelligence. In Iraq, the US military used smart robots and small UAVs to reduce danger to personnel. Another DARPA-supported technology, called Smart Dust, could possibly reduce casualties and gather information even more effectively.
Smart Dust is an "autonomous sensing and communications device in a cubic millimetre" package. A millimetre has not yet been achieved, but the goal is to package a light sensor, power supply and circuitry, a communication device, and a programmable processor into a small space.
Assuming we have it, imagine a plane "spraying" Smart Dust over a conflict area. The specks would be light enough to stay afloat and monitor the movement of enemy troops, or perhaps the presence of biological or chemical weapons. It's not all that futuristic: in a recent test, a Smart Dust researcher controlled a drone about 8 inches long. It flew at 100 kmph for 18 minutes, carrying a camera that sent live feeds back to headquarters!
Advanced though the above scenarios and technologies may sound, we think they're baby steps into the future of something that will not be called warfare any more. "Warfare" assumes that one is not omniscient; that, like in a game of chess, one needs to outwit the opponent. What happens when sensors and tracking capabilities and number crunching becomes so advanced that everything is known? Surrender and victory would both be immediate-removed only a short span of time from the declaration of the conflict. All the activity happens in preparation.
It's analogous to a grandmaster resigning twenty moves into the game once he knows he's made a wrong move-while amateur chess players, like the forces of today, knowing little about the broad picture, take the game into the hundredth move and more. It's about getting smarter-and technology is enabling that. As it is everything else.