Future warfare is already here

John Robb over at Global Guerillas outlines the possible future of warfare.

What makes this so frightening, in your Irascible Correspondent’s view, is that can – and will – target what were once known as “civilians” and “non-combatants” with kinetic force.  Patriot Reader might recall having heard the oldsters, now passed into memory, remark that it bombing civilians was against the laws of war.

The future of warfare is in motion. You can feel it radiating off of this example.

In one night in late August 2023, Ukraine used drones to successfully strike (video):

  • Pskov airport: four Il-76 military transport aircraft damaged
  • Bryansk: Kremniy El microelectronics factory on fire
  • Kaluga: oil reservoir hit
  • Moscow (used to advance online warfare)
  • Oryol
  • Ryazan
  • Sevastopol (via naval drones)

With this example, it’s possible to envision the future trajectory of warfare and the role AI and drones will play in it. Let’s build a sensemaking framework to solidify our understanding.

We can learn a lot about warfare from the war in Ukraine. Most importantly, it gives us a glimpse into the future of proxy conflicts and civil wars (the most significant types of war possible without going nuclear). Future wars of this type will feature:

  • Trench warfare. Physical realm (attrition).
  • Drone warfare. Physical realm (attrition).
  • Online warfare. Physical, Psychological, and Moral realm (attrition, maneuver, and guerrilla warfare).

Trench warfare

Conventional land warfare has slowed to the bloody crawl of trench warfare.

  • Due to the ubiquity of modern information systems, from global satellite imagery to open source/decentralized communications (civilians with smartphones), military surprise has been lost.
  • The loss of surprise has diminished the effectiveness of maneuver warfare, particularly when combined with defensive precision-guided munitions and highly mobile interior lines (the ubiquity of roads/cars/etc. in modernized countries).
  • This combination has yielded defensive superiority (akin to what we saw in WW1) and a focus on attrition, from prepared defensive positions to artillery duels. Attrition is a form of warfare that focuses on the physical incapacitation of the enemy. It’s slow, bloody, and costly.

Drone warfare

Drones (air, land, and sea) have become a central aspect of the war in Ukraine.

  • Drones have increasingly replaced missiles and airstrikes due to favorable cost/benefit ratios.
  • Drones use maneuver (indirect approach and low-level/sub-surface) and increasing levels of onboard intelligence to avoid defenses and strike vulnerable targets (they are very effective at disrupting the systems that modern societies rely upon).
  • However, drones aren’t decisive weapons of warfare since they cannot (yet) seize territory or destroy high-value targets that are heavily defended. As a result, drone warfare is mainly focused on attrition (to a lesser extent, successful drone strikes can be used to advance online conflict).

Online warfare

Global communications systems have made it possible to wage dynamic online warfare. Online warfare is waged in all three realms (moral, psychological, and physical).

  • Online moral warfare is focused on the tribalization of the conflict. It uses empathy triggers (i.e., curated videos showing atrocities amplified by manipulating social networking) and tribal alliances (in Ukraine’s case, the #resistance network that arose to oppose Trump) to cast the conflict as a tribal war. In a tribal war, your tribe can do no wrong, and the enemy is entirely evil (subhuman). This effort is essential to getting global support for a long war of attrition.
  • Online maneuver warfare uses networks of trolls and partisans to disrupt the decision-making capacity of the opposition psychologically. It seeks to damage fact-gathering (observations) and orientation (understanding and intuition) through fakes/falsehoods, denial, false equivalence, distraction, conspiracy, and alternative narratives.
  • Online physical warfare disconnects the opponent both on and offline. It leverages the tribal frames from moral warfare (see above) to convince governments, companies, and individuals to disconnect the opponent from information, economic, and social networks. This disconnection is a form of attrition.

Replicator “small, smart, cheap, and many”

Where is this headed? We can already see the trend in motion. The demonstrated utility of drones in Ukraine (from tactical intelligence and strikes to operational interdiction to strategic strikes) has led the US military to launch a new crash drone program called Replicator.

  • Based on the experience of Ukraine — they expend thousands of drones per month (up to 10,000 a month) — Replicator is focused on rapidly developing and deploying new drone platforms (air, sea, land) that are inexpensive, plentiful, and expendable.
  • This program is justified by the claim these new drone platforms will ‘offset’ China’s numerical superiority in manpower and conventional weapon systems — high volumes of expendable drones in defensive swarms could be rapidly deployed to slow or halt a Chinese military offensive.
  • However, if these new platforms can be developed (a big if, given the US military’s love of expensive and over-engineered weapons platforms), it won’t be the US that employs them. Instead, they will immediately be sent to Ukraine for live testing and, if they prove effective, to Taiwan.

What this Means

Let’s figure out where this is headed:

  • With higher production volumes in the works (from the US, China, and the rest of the world), we can already see what a civil or proxy war of the near future would look like. Slow-moving trench warfare on the ground, while huge swarms (millions in motion are possible) of drones scour the countryside of targets (from individual personnel to soft targets in cities by air, land, and sea), collapsing years of attrition using conventional alternatives into months or weeks. *In the gruesome calculus of warfare, trading a handful of $1-5k drones for an individual soldier or civilian has a Return on Investment (ROI) that spans 10-1000x. Imagine a civil war fought like this.
  • However, the US will lose to China in a race to build low-cost drones in high volumes. It has far more manufacturing capability than the US does. This means the US will use its lead in AI development to stay ahead of China. The US will inevitably use AI to boost the intelligence of individual drones (via fast and energy-efficient AI neural chips that can be mass-produced) and to manage large drone swarms. As this intelligence increases, things will get interesting.
  • As the intelligence of individual drones and drone swarms increases, we’ll see new roles open up. For example:
    • Drones that navigate complex, unmapped spaces (forests, the interiors of buildings, or dynamically changing environments) and coordinate their action can become lethal pack hunters.
    • Drones that can self-provision (recharge) for long-duration infiltration (i.e., buried in the much of a harbor) deep behind enemy lines can incapacitate a society through persistent systems disruption.
    • Drone swarms that can seize territory (pop-up A2AD zones deep behind enemy lines or overrun/occupy cities) would shift the role of drones from attrition to maneuver warfare.
Mug of the day, get yours now.

As these new roles develop, it will become increasingly apparent that AI-fueled drones will thrust us beyond the stalemate of attrition we see in Ukraine and into novel forms of maneuver warfare (I have written about a few of these in the past). Unfortunately, as we saw with the last breakthrough in warfare (Blitzkrieg), it will likely arrive with a bang.


John Robb

PS: The arrival of intelligent drones reverses the trend we’ve seen towards participatory governance since the advent of gunpowder. I’ll write about this next week.

I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that last statement.  The 51 Constitutions (Reminder: in addition to the Federal Constitution each State has its own Constitution).  What will spell the end of participatory government it the trend towards willful ignorance of our system of government and despairing apathy.  This is something that only YOU can fix.

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