Future battlefields: how the wars of tomorrow will be fought

Main image: How far are we from a future where battlefields where Terminator-style autonomous robots do the fighting instead of human soldiers? 

It is often said that nothing ages quite so quickly as yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.

In the mid-20th century, consumed by the aftermath of two world wars, the public was sold a chrome-plated vision of the future, a world at peace, and a world of spaceships, jetpacks and laser beams. 

While spaceships are as far away now as they were when sci-fi movies first gripped audiences in the 1950, elsewhere we've seen unrelenting technological progress – but we've also come to accept that war will be with us for a long time to come.

And right now no field of technology promises quite so many outlandish and futuristic ideas as defense, from railguns and ray guns to hypersonic missiles to killer robots. So what will the weapons and wars of the future look like?

Let’s play a game

In 1983, the movie WarGames explored a dystopian vision of computer warfare, in which a teenaged Matthew Broderick was able to put the world on the brink of nuclear Armageddon from his bedroom. In 2018, the situation is only slightly less worrying.

Much has been written about the potential of cyber-warfare to change how conflict will take place around the globe – and certain nations are already flexing their muscles in this arena. In 2007, Russian-backed hackers threatened to destabilize the entire nation of Estonia with a large coordination attack on public infrastructure, and then did the same in Ukraine in 2017.

More recently anonymous hackers have coordinated devastating attacks on the UK's National Health Service and other organizations – the threat of state-sponsored, large-scale aggressive online action is now very real, affecting governments, militaries and civilians alike.

This threat is only becoming more severe. The rapid growth of the internet of things means household gadgets from fridges to lightbulbs now come with a Wi-Fi chip installed. It's a similar story in the military field, with weapons and other hardware increasingly being made ‘smart’, and as more tech goes online, so it becomes vulnerable to hackers across the globe.

Still from the movie War Games

Dabney Coleman, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in WarGames, in which a teenage hacker brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Credit: MGM (Image credit: MGM)

Hackers can shut down power plants, water supplies and more, and it was only a matter of time before they turned their attention to military targets. An example of what can be accomplished by a significantly motivated and funded operation is the ‘Stuxnet’ computer virus attack, allegedly developed as a joint project between the US and Israeli militaries.

Released at an Iranian nuclear plant in 2010, this used specific vulnerabilities in the Windows operating system to proliferate (likely from a USB stick) at an alarming rate once in the internal systems of the plant. This caused turbines to rotate at dangerous levels, putting many out of commission and setting the Iran's uranium-enrichment project back many years.

The attack was modeled on the specific characteristics of that particular plant, and likely tested many dozens of times in virtual situations, and it's just a taste of what might be to come – future wars may begin and end without a single shot being fired, moving from the realms of the physical to the digital and changing the character of conflict forever.

Autonomous weapons

Of course, we won't need hackers to bring us to the brink of nuclear annihilation if computers figure out how to do it on their own, and the revolution in artificial intelligence has brought with it fears that computerized defense networks could become too smart for their own good, and decide to get rid of mankind once and for all, as SkyNet does in the Terminator series of movies. 

Our defense systems may be some way from becoming self-aware, but governments and militaries are working to bring intelligent and autonomous weapons to the battlefield. This raises a whole host of ethical issues, with moves afoot to stop the deployment of 'killer robots'.

Photo of Predator drone

At the moment drones such as the Hellfire missile-equipped Predator are still controlled by humans – but for how long?

Of course, ethical considerations haven't stood in the way of advances in weaponry in the past, and several countries are ploughing on with developing self-aware killing machines. Drones – although, for now still controlled by humans – have become a feature of the modern battlefield. The US, meanwhile, is working on an AI system to anticipate and defeat nuclear missile launches, which would be capable of operating independently.

The Internet of Battle Things, a research paper published by the US Army Research Laboratory in 2016, offers insights into the future of land warfare that are in equal parts fascinating and alarming. The authors imagine a future where swarms of robots of various shapes and sizes control the battlefield. Reconnaissance drones the size of dragonflies would flit in and out of buildings, scouting for the enemy, before calling in larger armed drones and other automated weapons systems to do the fighting.

Concept image of a future battlefield featuring drones and autonomous vehicles

Soldiers in future wars could be relegated to virtual bystanders as drones and other automated systems do the fighting

Masses of information would be generated and transmitted between the machines, making the battlefield only more dangerous for those soldiers left to monitor the situation, and requiring increasingly specialized training on their part. As more automation comes in to play, the size of standing armies will shrink and budgets will shift accordingly. 

Autonomous fighting machines aren't quite all-conquering yet – issues with dust and moisture ingress and temperature means that currently they wouldn't be effective in anything short of optimal conditions. There’s also the issue of maintenance, malfunctions, and dedicated counter-weapons such as EMP (electromagnetic pulse) strikes that can fry the electronics of every system for miles around.

Set phasers to kill

Ray guns and laser beams are a staple of science fiction for decades, and the ideas have been around for getting on for a century. In the 1920s Nikola Tesla, the visionary scientist and competitor to Thomas Edison, envisioned ending wars by arming countries with a 'death ray' that could be used for defensive, but not offensive, means. It was never developed due to a lack of funding, and to this day laser weapons remain an obsession for the militaries of the world.

The ZEUS-HLONS project is one of the first laser armaments deployed to the field in a modern conflict. Consisting of a ‘gun’ mounted to a modified jeep, it directs a beam of radiation focused on a specific point – usually unexploded field ordinance. This is then heated to such a point that the trigger mechanism in the ordinance is activated, detonating it at a safe distance; it's proven to be effective in theaters of conflict where improvised explosive devices have been used by insurgents.

concept image of laser-equipped vehicle shooting down a missile

Several militaries are working on laser weapons that can shoot down incoming missiles

Several variations on this concept have been mooted, including by Israel, which is working on deploying laser weapons in an upgrade to its existing missile-based Iron Dome defense system.

Obstacles to implementing laser weapons remain, including the fact that they produce enormous amounts of heat and require a lot of energy to power them, and as such are exceptionally difficult to miniaturize while maintaining efficacy, which in turn raises issues of mobility. Perhaps in the future soldiers will be running around zapping one another with Star Wars-style blasters, but for the foreseeable future traditional firearms will continue to dominate the battlefield.

While some of the above tech is on the verge of being implemented, there's also a whole sub-genre of weird and wonderful weapons being worked on. Exo-skeletons promise to turn soldiers into terminator-like killing machines, bioweapons could wipe out entire populations with one sneeze from 'patient zero', while unstoppable hypersonic nuclear missiles could vaporize entire cities – it seems nothing is too far fetched when it comes to dreaming up new and more efficient ways to kill our fellow human beings.

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Sean is a Scottish technology journalist who's written for the likes of T3, Trusted Reviews, TechAdvisor and Expert Reviews.