Warfare has evolved quite a bit from the first time we looked at another group of people and decided to fight them. We’ve come a long way from charging headfirst into each other and hoping our weapons hit their intended targets. There may have been a time when just having superior battle tactics and higher numbers would have ensured victory, though now, a numerically inferior force could easily take on a much bigger one by just having a technological upper hand on the battlefield.
Nearly all of the biggest countries in the world are now working hard at gaining that upper hand, and some of the breakthroughs in military tech in recent times have started to resemble things straight out of science fiction. While we knew that these technologies would definitely be a regular part of warfare at some point in the future, we didn’t know that future would be here so soon.
The idea of a superpowered weapon that could theoretically release a burst of electromagnetic radiation (e.g. an electromagnetic pulse [EMP]) and incapacitate all electronics in a given area has existed in science fiction for a long time. Any army that has access to such a weapon would gain an automatic advantage in a battle, as even one working weapons system is better than thousands that are disabled.
Many countries have ongoing projects attempting to make such a thing, but it looks like the US Air Force already has it. Called the Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, the weapon was able to successfully target and disable the electronics of seven separate buildings during a test in Utah. Thankfully, it’s able to pinpoint specific targets instead of just bombarding a whole area with the pulse, ensuring that civilians won’t be affected during a live operation.
The speed of sound isn’t anywhere close to the speed of light, and saying that overtaking it is any sort of a breakthrough in 2019 would be dishonest. We have many things that can breach the sound barrier like it’s nothing, though most of it is military tech, like jets and missiles, and also super-expensive to build. It’s not the same for hypersonic speed, though, which is at least five times the speed of sound and much more difficult to achieve.
It’s one of those things we thought we’d see farther in the future, but that was until China put its hypersonic missles to the test. Unfortunately for all of China’s potential enemies, the tests were successful, and hypersonic tech is now verifiably a reality. Developing hypersonic flight has been a top priority for the United States for some time now, so it would be interesting to see what they come up with now that China has seemingly taken the lead in that arms race.
Thirty years ago, few would have imagined that we’d have unmanned flying objects capable of carrying out military operations from a safe distance. Drones (aka UAVs) have already transformed the way we conduct warfare as well as other parts of life, like news reporting and drunken bets at tech school parties.
Despite their utility in warfare, there are some things that UAVs still can’t easily do, like carrying out an operation undetected. For that, they’d have to be minimized to an almost undetectable scale, something science fiction authors have played around with quite a few times. It sounds overpowered and kind of scary, as tiny armed drones no one can see could wreak havoc in the wrong hands. It’s a relief, then, that they’re still quite a bit away in the distant future, right? Well, no.
In January 2017, the Pentagon announced that it had successfully tested a group of 103 micro-drones, each about 16 centimeters (6 in) in length. They’re largely autonomous in nature and are capable of things like collective decision-making, changing formations according to situation, and “healing” themselves. And no, that’s not all; they also have plans to some day be able to fit advanced and deadly technologies on their minuscule drones, including tiny nukes.
Many scientific and military experts have grave, and justified, concerns about artificial intelligence being allowed into the realm of warfare. Even if a full-fledged killer robot uprising isn’t really that big of a concern at this point, it poses many other ethical questions we need to answer first. How do we make sure that autonomous, self-learning weapons know the difference between combatants and civilians, when even we mistake the two every now and then? More importantly, how do we hold a machine accountable for its actions? Going to jail isn’t really a deterrent for it.
Despite those concerns, artificial intelligence is already a part of warfare to a larger extent than those concerned about it would be comfortable with. Take Israel’s “Harop” loitering munition system, which is essentially a suicide drone that can self-destruct if it’s able to lock on to what it perceives as a target, like enemy combatants or antiaircraft missile systems. It has already been successfully used on the battlefield, and the scariest part is that it’s capable of deciding what to dive-bomb entirely on its own. Reportedly, Germany also has completely automated missile systems capable of shooting down enemy missiles without any human intervention.
There’s a silver lining, though; AI developers aren’t as easily available for hire as general weapons experts, and many in Silicon Valley have explicitly refused to work with the military to try to ensure that AI’s use in warfare remains limited.
Imagine simply linking your brain to a weapon, vehicle, robot, or what have you and being able to pilot it with a deftness and fluidity you’d never attain with a joystick, to be the fighter jet or Pacific Rim-style giant death robot. If you think that it’s safe to say that it’ll be some time before we can actually do that, you’d be wrong; the tech already exists.
In one study, neuroscientists developed something known as the “brainet,” where two monkeys were taught how to control a digital limb with the help of just their thoughts. While it has noncombat applications, especially in aiding people with brain damage or disabilities in their day-to-day tasks, it could also be used for military purposes. The US Department of Defense already has ongoing programs looking into creating mind-controlled weapons, and we could see them put to use quite soon.
Anyone who has played first-person shooters is probably familiar with the concept of an exoskeleton suit, an exterior suit of powered armor that provides enhanced protection and capabilities. The idea, in various forms, has been explored quite a bit in fiction as well; just look at Iron Man.
While something as high-tech and awesome as Tony Stark’s duds will take some time to develop, an exoskeleton suit already exists. In 2018, Russia tested its RATNIK-3 prototype. The tests were largely successful; the tester was able to carry heavy loads and shoot a machine gun one-handed. The suit is made with a titanium framework to increase the soldier’s strength and stamina.
It has a limitation, though: It doesn’t have much in the way of energy storage, so it can only work for a limited time. They’re working on fixing that, though. Either way, the RATNIK-3 sounds like a working exoskeleton suit to us.
Gone are the days of face-to-face battles on large fields. The wars of today are largely urban in nature, which is partly due to the combatants being non-state actors and guerilla fighters. That also makes it all the more difficult, as booby traps and ambushes in densely populated urban battlefields can bring the best armies to a halt (as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan).
Many countries have been trying to perfect their own technologies for being able to scan an area before they move in, but that would require the ability to see through walls, and no one really has that. Or don’t they? Some recent breakthroughs have proven that not only is it closer than we thought, but the tech to see through walls already exists.
In 2015, a Czech radar manufacturer successfully built a device that can see what’s on the other side of the wall, as long as whoever is behind the wall is moving their limbs or breathing. If that’s not good enough, in 2018, a group of researchers from MIT developed an AI-type technology that can see anyone through walls with an accuracy of 83 percent, complete with a moving image of their stick-like form in real time.
In another breakthrough at the Technical University of Munich in 2017, researchers were able to do the same thing with Wi-Fi routers. We’re pretty sure we saw something like that in a movie once.
You may not at all be surprised to hear that in a battle, enemy combatants, at least competent ones, are trained to make shooting them difficult. That’s exactly why a type of ammunition developed by DARPA, the research wing of the US Department of Defense, is so impressive and deadly. Known as EXACTO, it’s not just able to home in on a hard-to-hit, dug-in target; it also has the ability to change course midway depending on enemy movement and is accurate to a scary degree.
Not just that, they’re also actively trying to develop an auto-aiming rifle, which uses computation and advanced algorithms to only fire when the shot should hit, without the shooter having to rely on his judgement of wind conditions and visibility.
Unlike most other items on this list, which could aid good guys as well as rogue armies, the “freeze ray,” a weapon that can literally freeze someone in his tracks, has generally been portrayed in fiction as something villains use. Of course, we don’t really have anything that can do that from a distance and in a short burst of time, right? Well, a team from the University of Washington developed something along those lines in 2015.
It works by shooting a laser at a liquid and freezing it. We already had the tech to do this to solids in a vacuum, this was the first time it had been done to a liquid. Also, lasers generally heat objects up rather than cooling them down.
Future applications for technology of this sort extend far beyond freezing people in a battle, of course. The researchers think that it could theoretically be used to freeze and slow down the division process in living cells, possibly giving us a better understanding of the mechanisms behind aging and cancer.
The ability to become invisible whenever we want wouldn’t just be valuable for the military; a lot of us could make use of such an ability in many of our daily interactions. It has been imagined and discussed in science fiction since we started writing science fiction, and even in 2019, it still sounds like something from the future. Fortunately for military contractors as well as people who keep getting stuck in awkward conversations, invisibility cloaks are no longer the stuff of the distant future or science fiction. In fact, we’ve had at least one invisibility cloak since 2012.
A Canadian company called Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corporation has successfully built a material that can make you invisible. It’s also passive in nature, which means that it doesn’t reproduce your background on any kind of screen; it just “bends light around an object.” In other words, it’s an invisibility cloak exactly like you’d envision an invisibility cloak to be. The US military showed interest in purchasing it, because of course it did, and you might just see it deployed on a battlefield near you sooner than you’d have expected.
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