Technology has taken center stage in the current theatre of global geopolitics. Whoever is superior in algorithms and AI will prevail in war. 5G, satellites, smart oceans, and other emerging technologies are changing the character of 21st century warfare. Advantage in war is now dependent on maintaining superiority in the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and outpacing adversaries in tech innovations. Advances in unmanned aerial, ground, and undersea vessels, data processing, robotics, algorithms, and networking enable greater precision, speed, and more lethal warfare. 

All military operations depend on being fully conversant in the electromagnetic spectrum operational environment (EMOE). Sensing, sense-making, and action rely on a vast and growing digital network for optimal maneuverability. As Steve Blank put it in a recent podcast, “In the 20th century most of our technology was sheet metal that, maybe you bent and added some software to, if it needed any. In the 21st century, these systems are software that maybe you wrap some sheet metal around.” Essentially, the electromagnetic spectrum, data, and AI are needed to “get you to the field [be it a literal or cyber field] in time for the fight.”

Our digitally connected world has introduced three new domains of warfare: cyber, electromagnetic, and information/cognitive warfare.

  • Cyber warfare is where an attacker takes control of, alters, or damages computer-controlled systems or infrastructure such as a water or electric grid.
  • Electromagnetic Warfare (EW) involves battling one’s adversary in the electromagnetic spectrum by denying access, tracking enemy EMS “signature”, camouflaging one’s own EMS “footprint”, jamming, and many other virtuoso EMS feats. EW can also involve using Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons to down one or more electric grids along with all connected electronics,. Directed Energy Weapon (DEW) aim powerful laser or microwave beams at infrastructure, vehicles, or other human beings. DEWs are also used to counter hypersonic missiles (which travel at five times the speed of sound), rockets, drones or artillery through dazzling (temporarily disabling) or damaging satellites or sensors.
  • Information warfare (IW), aka cognitive warfare (CW) involves using digital tools to target and manipulate human cognition to gain strategic or tactical advantage. Essentially, the battlefield is the mind and will of individuals or groups. IW/CW can be “fought” with disinformation or propaganda on social or legacy media platforms by means of bots, fake video footage, voice over technology, or with altered images or code. IW/CW can jam, disrupt, or deny an enemy access to information to tactically confuse their armed forces, or when directed at the citizenry, to lessen morale and cohesiveness. Advanced CW technologies are also used to alter human volition.

The amount of data needed to maintain advantage in terms of speed and coordinated action through all branches of the military is far more than can be managed by humans, thus militaries now rely on Artificial Intelligence. AI-assisted military operations, surveillance, and reconnaissance depend on collecting and sifting through mega amounts of data. Algorithms and machine learning integrate data streams from multiple sources such as satellites, drones, under-water vehicles, weapons, sensors, facial recognition technology, open-source intelligence; and yes, unbeknownst to many, our personal data is also used to assist the armed forces. The aggregated data helps weave together multiple domains simultaneously – from land to sea, from sky to space, and now also cyber space – allowing for fast and vast coordinated situational awareness and decision-making. Semiconductors and geopolitics

Resiliency, deterrence, and hybrid architecture all increase the so-called “need” for yet more technology. Resiliency means building redundant systems for back-up in the event an enemy attack disables critical infrastructure. Deterrence refers to fortifying one’s own weapons systems, both electronic and kinetic, to prevent another nation from entering into war as a retaliatory attack would be too costly for them. Hybrid Space Architecture (HSA) enables intelligence gathering with multiple disparate technologies each adding its unique capability to information gathering. Hybrid architecture also seeks to enable global and ubiquitous connectivity anywhere on Earth or in space for network interoperability between all branches of the military and between allies.

This joint warfighting “systems of systems coordinates all branches of the military and is referred to in the US as the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2). NATO countries call it Multi-Domain Operations. Mosaic Warfare which is being explored and developed by DARPA uses a similar concept. The Chinese concept of 21st century warfare, “Intelligentization“, integrates AI with human cognition and with a hybrid of human/machine cognition such as brain-computer interface or tech-“enhanced” humans.

In the US (and likely in many other countries as well) policy makers find themselves in the crossfire between two opposing forces regarding 5G infrastructure and satellites. The military industrial complex (which also includes the tech industry) seeks to expedite the approval process for towers and satellites, while a growing segment of the public is trying to rein these in due to adverse impacts on health and the environment. In light of rising geopolitical tensions, policy makers often side with the military industrial complex rather than prioritizing health and well-being of people and wildlife.

It takes years to procure funding for and build large military vessels such as battleships, aircraft carriers, submarines, and combat aircrafts, and is no longer practical given the speed with which technology is advancing. Thus many armed forces are shifting to smaller, more “disposable”, attritable autonomous vehicles and weapons such as drones, swarm drones, or unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) which can be produced expeditiously, and if destroyed, easily replaced.

The US and its allies rely on 5G networks and satellites to assist with military modernization. India and China do as well. Many other countries with 5G capabilities would undoubtedly rely on their 5G network were they to be drawn into war.

While many people are growing weary of ever more technology infiltrating our world and dictating how we are to live our lives, armed forces around the world are anxiously awaiting 6G or FutureG to advance the global race to AI, EMS superiority, and in some cases, for a nuclear arms race aka nuclear deterrence.

Advanced chips, aka semiconductors are needed for all digital technology. Semiconductors are a significant source of geopolitical tension between China and the US due to the blurred lines between commercial and military sectors. The US has levied heavy sanctions on China (and urged allied nations to follow suit) to prevent advanced semiconductors or tools used to make these, from reaching the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Sanctions are also intended to keep Chinese firmware from being hidden in 5G infrastructure and other technology, and to prevent leakage of data to the Chinese Communist Party via Chinese manufactured 5G infrastructure. 

Hundreds of billions of transistors, each no bigger than a virus, fit onto a single semiconductor, a number expected to double every 18 months. 60 percent of all chips and 90 percent of advanced chips are manufactured in Taiwan, the epicenter of the semiconductor industry. There are currently only two foundries equipped to make the advanced chips needed for AI, and building new foundries is not only prohibitively costly, but finding skilled workers in this highly specialized field is also a challenge.

The enormous expenditure of time, energy, resources, money, and potentially even lives in a fight over tiny chips needed to fight, might be better directed toward addressing environmental devastation, hunger, poverty, health, and for funding research on the health and environmental impacts of wireless radiation.

Lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), aka killer robots are weapons that rely on artificial intelligence to identify, target, and kill without human control or intervention. Algorithms replace humans in deciding who’s to live and who’s to die.

Autonomous weapons systems on land, in the air, and in the sea are currently under development and being deployed in many countries, and may increasingly be used by both state and non-state actors.

These weapons are small, cheap to produce, easy to assemble, and disposable (aka attritable or expendable); they can even be produced in a garage by rogue actors. When scaled (e.g. thousands of integrated drones), they can arguably be considered weapons of mass destruction as they could wipe out an entire city in a single coordinated attack.

There are three categories of autonomous weapons: humans in the loop, where there is some human involvement throughout an “operation”; humans out of the loop, where there is no human involvement; and humans on the loop where an autonomous attack can be intercepted or redirected by a human. The speed of AI will likely preclude humans from staying in or on the loop much longer.

Drone swarms are not a collective of identical drones but rather a single integrated system or “mind” comprised of drones tasked with different “jobs”. E.g., some may survey and search for targets, others may have a mission to destroy a building, and yet others are tasked with killing individuals identified and targeted through Facial Recognition Technology. Working together, the whole is more treacherous than the sum of its parts.

Autonomous weapon systems can be used in combination with chemical or biological weapons increasing the lethality of both.

Even with a semi-autonomous weapon such as a human-in-the-loop drone, the distance and sterility of the assassination brings untold suffering to its victims, and also eats away at the conscience and humanity of the perpetrator of violence. The number of people injured or killed in drone attacks and the extent of suffering is not fully known as wreckage from these attacks is so great that bodies cannot be counted. Hear from former drone pilots. What would be the suffering and loss of humanity if/when droves of fully autonomous weapon systems slaughter en masse?

There are currently no internationally agreed upon laws or conventions around lethal autonomous weapons, but thankfully, many people and organizations from around the world are calling for a stop to killer robots. On December 22, 2023, the United Nations approved its first ever resolution on killer robots.

The UN Resolution is long over-due, but a positive development. However, given that these systems are so easy to develop and launch, thereby “democratizing war”, a ban might be a moot point in an all-things-connected, data-on-steroids, AI-centric world. We can expect a dystopian future if these weapons remain unregulated and gain a foothold in the world.

Our taxes fund the development of lethal autonomous weapon systems. Our cellphones and all connected things and devices generate data that “feed” AI. We ourselves may be victims of an autonomous weapon attack. Should we not have a say?

Dual Use Technology is the use of systems or components of digital technology for both civilian and military applications. Dual use technology can go either way – from the military to the commercial sector, or the other way around. For example, GPS was developed originally for the military but then adapted to commercial and consumer uses such as navigation and mapping. The military borrowed from the commercial sector when SpaceX teamed up with the military to provide satellite connection via its Starlink broadband internet program. SpaceX satellites played a significant role in the war in Ukraine, providing a communications network for both Ukraine and Russia.

Militaries are increasingly outsourcing development of new weapon systems to the tech sector as the latter are far better equipped to keep pace with the speed of technological advancements; and the tech industry more than welcomes the business.

But dual use technology is also fraught with complications such as built in ambiguity. A rocket developed for one purpose, say, space travel or exploration, could double as a vehicle for intelligence gathering, or be used as a weapon. This confusion could lead to false assumptions about the intentions of another nation, potentially igniting a cascade of retaliatory actions escalating at AI speed.

Spectrum sharing between military and civilian users can also be highly problematic due to congestion (too much traffic on the electromagnetic “pipelines”) causing interference in military operations.

China has a similar policy to dual use technology called Military Civil Fusion (MCF). Some consider MCF particularly problematic as they feel it creates an open channel for the coercive flow of technology from the commercial sector to the People’s Liberation Army. (For an in depth overview of MCF, see Myths and Realities of China’s Military-Civil Fusion Strategy.)

Regardless of the pros and cons of dual use technology for military or industry, yet more radiofrequency/microwave radiation transmissions coupled with the already excessive levels of radiation by our homes would be disadvantageous to the rest of us and to wildlife. Might a better use of technology be to enhance well-being and peace on Earth rather than increase the lethality of war?