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Future War by Starbrat (printer friendly) discuss (9 posts)

The twentieth century has seen more changes in the technology, prosecution and politics of warfare than any other. Not since the 18th C. advent of total war has so much changed so quickly.

Many science fiction campaigns have included (or even focused on) the future of warfare. In this article, we'll look at the possibilities for future developments in warfare.

The Future of Mass Destruction

The weapons of mass destruction available to Humanity today are chilling. As well as approximately ten gigatons total yield of fusion weapons, there are vast amounts of advanced neurotoxins and other poisons. In fact, the manufacture of such awful weapons is almost a cottage industry. Perhaps the most dreadful weapons of all are the biological weapons. Adapted from the very worst bacteriological and viral agents, there are biological weapons now available that could kill every vertebrate lifeform on Earth in a matter of days.

As we expand into space and mine the near-Earth asteroids for raw materials, we will by default obtain even greater weapons of mass destruction. The technology to deflect incoming asteroids and similar bodies doesn't yet exist, but if we are to safeguard our world we will need such means. The trouble is, if we can send rocks away from Earth, we can send them TOWARDS it with equal ease. Needless to say, the potential of a redirected asteroid as a weapon is almost too worrying to think about. The impact of even a "small" 1km object would dwarf our present nuclear capability in sheer destructive power.

Another weapon, explored in such novels as Stephen Baxter's "Timelike Infinity" involves the use of artificial singularities; miniature black holes. While they wouldn't be all that harmful by themselves, launching two on a convergent course would make a formidable weapon. As the black holes converged, they would briefly emit a pulse of hard gamma-rays, capable of penetrating any defence and utterly lethal. Even worse, the gravity waves caused by the merging could create incredible tidal forces. If the singularities were the size of a smallish hill each, their merger forces could literally tear a planet apart.

Nanotechnology could also be used as a weapon of mass destruction. Imagine a swarm of nanites programmed to disassemble organic polymers. Plastics, proteins, nucleic acids, any kind of complex organic molecule could be attacked. A whole world could be rendered lifeless by the delivery of such a weapon.

If the mindset of total war is still prevalent, we could see interplanetary warfare in a whole new light, with silent, near-undetectable salvoes of destruction raining down upon worlds from tens of millions of kilometres away. The fire and thunder of SF death-rays would seem insignificant in comparison.

Electronic Warfare

Increasingly, the defence ministries of the world's nations have come to realise how vulnerable they could be to direct or indirect electronic assault. Taken in its simplest form, an electromagnetic pulse (which doesn't need anything so over the top as a nuclear detonation to achieve) could render useless all but the hardiest electronic equipment. Anti-EMP protection is available, but seriously downgrades the performance of computers and the like, as well as increasing the mass. Of course, such problems may well be solved in the future.

Indirectly, there have been much-publicised accounts of hackers infiltrating the less well-protected systems of such organisations as the Pentagon. One can imagine how highly trained electronic warfare agents could wreak havoc in an invisible war, and although it's currently recognised as a war crime, the situation may change.

The Competency of Soldiers

Two centuries ago, all an infantryman needed to know was how to march, stand up to an advance and to fire quickly and fearlessly. Nowadays, that simply isn't enough. Even the smartest weapons are only as intelligent as the soldier who delivers them, and (to quote Terry Pratchett) "real stupidity beats artificial intelligence any day". The quality of training and equipment given to today's soldiers is greater than it has ever been, reflecting the increasingly complex role of the modern infantryman. At the same time, many armies are being reduced in size, as the increasing demand for quality over quantity steadily changes the nature of the world's armed forces.

Effective War

Even in the heyday of massive bombing raids, however, total war has never been all that efficient. During World War II, highly-trained teams of operatives, or even agents acting alone, often accomplished much more in real terms than all the bombing raids, however impressive they may have appeared. Just as the mass infantry formations of the nineteenth and previous centuries couldn't survive the development of the machinegun, massed war machines are increasingly becoming easier targets.

Nowadays, surgical raids into the heart of enemy territory can do more damage than all the laser-guided bombs put together. A single squad of infantry can destroy an artillery emplacement, and bombers can be fooled with elementary equipment, as often happened during the Gulf War. Also, the wholesale slaughter of civilians has become increasingly intolerable, and viewed as an act of terrorism. Barring a major change in attitude worldwide, these trends seem set to continue for a very long time to come.

What This Means for Future War

It's always a risky proposition to extend present trends into the future, but it seems that the forces of technology, politics and tactics are combining to gradually render the kind of total war we've seen in the last century obsolete, or at least impractical. Given the risky nature of life in space and on other worlds, I think this trend will be reinforced rather than mitigated. All things considered, it's pretty good news for combat-oriented campaigns.

So, What COULD War be Like?

It seems to me that, given weapons such as orbital particle beam platforms, heavy mass drivers and the like, large ground and/or air formations would simply be huge and vulnerable targets. Ground warfare would largely consist of commando-style raids into specific target areas, where bombardment would prove futile.

Still, the kind of planetary bombardment depicted so chillingly in Babylon 5 would be the kind of act that could trigger responses from all over known space (people who live in glass houses, as it were). Perhaps an even scarier version of the Mutual Assured Destruction policy would hold sway, especially since so many world-burning weapons would be made from essential technologies. In a large-scale space opera campaign, weapons of mass destruction would perhaps be maintained and deployed to keep order and protect the status quo. Rebels would have to walk a fine line between achieving their objectives and invoking the world-shattering wrath of the government.

It appears that the future of warfare will be a thing of extremes, with highly-trained operatives making pinpoint strikes at one end of the scale, and the annihilation of entire worlds at the other.

© Mark Peoples 2000.

Discussion forum


(3) in Problem.... by Novamaster on 06-09-2004

(1) in Conquest by Simon_Jester on 01-09-2004

(4) in Future Weaponry by d_leonard on 18-12-2000

(1) in Another fine piece of work. by TerroX on 01-12-2000


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