The free world has twice overcome strategic threats to its military dominance. After the Soviet Union and China first detonated nukes, in 1949 and 1964 respectively, the US and allies in western Europe fostered market economies vibrant enough for an edge in the engineering and industrial base needed for superior conventional forces. By the time the Russians began catching up in the late Sixties, the West’s second successful “offset” was under way in the form of computing. This led to better spy satellites and guided bombs and missiles, demonstrated to devastating effect in the first Gulf war in 1991. But as computing and satellite technology spreads, the US’s lead looks vulnerable once again. Hence the quest for a “third offset”, again based on Western technological prowess. Success is by no means assured.
By mid-century sniping will have made further strides: elite forces will probably shoot guided bullets. The US Defence Department has already begun work on a bullet called EXACTO with fins that adjust its trajectory in mid-air. Freed of the need to be in the target’s line of sight, snipers will be able to devise devastatingly imaginative shots that skirt obstacles. To show the bullet’s optical system what it needs to hit, a laser aiming an invisible infrared beam will need to be able to pinpoint the target, but this kit will be mounted on imperceptible drones high above.
Guided bullets promise plenty of misery for combatants who don’t wield them. The technology will dramatically lengthen elite snipers’ range as the extra distance provides a bullet with more time to correct for faulty aim or unanticipated wind.
The role of sniper fire, and therefore guided bullets, will expand in coming decades. The growing capabilities of drones, aerostats and satellites to spy and guide missiles will make it harder for irregular forces to find sanctuary in mountainous terrain. This will shunt more guerrillas into cities. Guerrillas in urban areas can hope to enjoy some protection from Western forces, whose aversion to civilian casualties will continue to grow in a digital age that facilitates the use of violent imagery for powerful propaganda. Sniping causes less collateral damage than artillery, bombing and strafing, so Western forces will use it more.
As 2050 approaches, infantry from advanced forces will also become harder to kill. The ballistic vests and helmets worn today cover just 19 per cent of the body, for more armour would be impractically heavy. But as gear lightens in the years ahead, elite soldiers will don more armour. Efforts under way to make bullet cases with polymers rather than brass should cut the weight of a soldier’s ammo by a third. Moreover, armour itself will become lighter. Engineers at Moratex, a research institute in Lodz, Poland, are developing a “non-Newtonian fluid” that becomes viscous enough when struck to stop a bullet. These “shear-thickening” fluids are lighter and more exible than the Kevlar and ceramic plates used today.
Military robotics are already so good that Boeing and Northrop Grumman, two US defence firms, are building unmanned fighter jets, respectively the X-45 and X-47. With no need for crew facilities, these drones will provide more payload, range and stealth for the buck. In 2015 the US Navy secretary, Ray Mabus, said that Lockheed Martin’s F-35 will almost certainly be the last manned strike aircraft it will ever buy. By 2050 drones will range from stealthy spies resembling flying insects to doglike resupply and attack models that can live off the land for months at a stretch, combusting leaves and wood for power.
The US Pentagon funds the development of “ethics” software. These programs will query databases to determine if, say, a missile fired from a certain position might violate norms of just war, perhaps by spraying shrapnel into a schoolyard on a school day. The goal is to aid, not replace, human decision-making. But, troublingly, China and Russia are believed to be designing such software with an eye to removing the human from some ring decisions.
Warfare’s robotised future will bring other headaches. As robots replace soldiers, some armed groups, frustrated by the difficulty of getting an enemy human soldier in their sights, may increasingly target civilians instead. And the growing capability of robots may encourage countries to begin unwise wars, if politicians reckon that an attack that can be launched without putting soldiers on hostile soil carries seductively little political risk.
Another matter is how long the West will hold its lead in military robotics. Rivals are advancing. In 2015 Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, announced that UralVagonZavod, a military manufacturer, would turn its T-90 tanks into robots remotely operated by soldiers with the skills of video-gamers.
The success or failure of a third offset will depend a lot on how much the West squeezes from its broad cultural advantage. To make the most of it, the US will craft algorithms that determine which soldiers should receive which bits of intelligence, says David Shedd, until recently acting director of the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency. Automating the “pushing” of intelligence to soldiers in this way will free them from the need to surmise what might be helpful and then dig it out of vast databases. Exquisite visualisation technologies, he adds, will be developed for this. Before 2050 Western soldiers will assimilate tactical intelligence without taking their eyes off their surroundings. The screenless displays necessary for this are already in the works.