The emergence of weapons that will likely shape tomorrow’s wars range from cyberwarfare to drones and from AI to virtual reality to virtual terrorism.
In 1914, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, published a short story entitled “Danger!” just 18 months before the outbreak of World War I. In it, he presented a fictional war in which an imaginary country fights and defeats Britain. What made that possible was the submarine, which at the time had only recently become a practical weapon. Global leaders paid little attention to the book. The German U-boat subsequently became one of the most dangerous weapons used in World War II.
In the future, technology and warfare will combine to include a global cast of characters fighting at sea, on land, in the air, and in two new places of conflict: cyberspace and outer space. Warship captains will battle through a modern-day Pearl Harbor, fighter pilots duel with stealthy drones, teenage hackers battle in digital playgrounds, previous war veterans will be forced to fight as low-tech insurgents, Silicon Valley billionaires will mobilize for cyberwar, and serial killers will carry out their own vendettas online. Victory will depend on who can best blend the lessons of the past with the weapons of the future.
As the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil processing facility has vividly illustrated, we are already witnessing the emergence of an array of technology that was only recently in the realm of science fiction. The emergence of weapons that will likely shape tomorrow’s wars range from cyberwarfare to drones and from AI to virtual reality to virtual terrorism. And, as was the case in Doyle’s ignored warning to Britain, the US (and by definition, the rest of the world’s countries) will not be prepared.
Most, clearly, are not, but China, Russia, and the US are better prepared than most. In 2015, China published its first official military guidelines under Xi Jinping, officially shifting its focus toward “winning informationized local wars”. Under the new strategy, the space and cyber domains are thought of as the “commanding heights of strategic competition”. Information technology will play a larger role in all aspects of military operations for all elements of the People’s Liberation Army’s combat-related activities. The new guidelines focus on the central objective of “winning” informationized local wars, indicating that high technology will become the basic form of warfare in the 21st century. In some ways, it already has. In 2017, Russia’s military admitted for the first time the scale of its information warfare effort, saying it was significantly expanded after the end of the original Cold War.
All of the “big three” nations in the cyberwarfare arena have formidable capabilities and tools at their disposal. Each has a unique platform from which to launch cyberattacks, alternative approaches to achieving their objectives, and different means of countering cyberthreats, which they may not wish to make publicly known so as to maintain an edge on their adversaries. As advanced as each nation is in their own cyber tradecraft, it is important to remember that the virtual terrorism they collectively practice remains in an embryonic state. The Internet era is not yet even three decades old. Given how far cyberwarfare has already advanced—particularly in the past ten years—it is hard to imagine what the landscape will look like ten or twenty years from now. That is a truly chilling prospect and the stakes could not be higher.
Global politics have been in a state of metamorphosis since the beginning of the 21st century, the result of the rise of extreme political parties, the War on Terror, the birth of instant communication, globalization, and a general propensity in favour of the upending of the status quo. The birth of the cyber era meshes quite well with this age of political disruption and transformation, for it is propelling the speed and depth of that change and the world would appear to be ripe for it.
While the cyber arena and geopolitics have many characteristics that separate them—such as borders, anonymity, and the rule of law—it is these very things that are also making them more similar. For example, states have borders in the physical world but, in the cyber world, nations are able to project their power without borders. The same anonymity that is afforded hackers in the Dark Web makes government actions indistinguishable from individuals or non-state groups, since attribution may never be known for certain. And since there is no rule of law in cyberspace, any actor can benefit from its absence.
The cyber era also puts all cyber-enabled countries on a more equal footing. Those countries which are more advanced technologically and have more financial, intelligence, and military resources will naturally be more adept at projecting their power in cyberspace. That said, smaller and less advanced countries with fewer resources are also able to get on a more level playing field and punch well above their weight in the cyber arena. Iran and North Korea are two good examples. That is having a profound impact on the virtual geopolitical landscape and will continue to affect if, how, and when nations battle each other in cyberspace, with unpredictable outcomes.
The linkage between change in the cyber and political spheres can only become stronger as each continues to impact the other. Because the cyber era is in an embryonic stage of development, and since it has already clearly influenced, and been influenced by, global politics, it is difficult to envision a future in which their fortunes are not intertwined and do not collide. No one can predict just how this intrinsic marriage will evolve but it is safe to assume that they will continue to impact each other’s evolution for a long time to come.
The wars of the future will be fought by drones and robots and generals sitting behind keyboards. They will also combine cyber technology, Artificial Intelligence, and information warfare on a grand scale. The attack on the Saudi oil processing facility is not the first, but is now the best example of how all three elements can be combined to become part of a larger narrative—in this case, the proxy conflict occurring between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and Iran and Saudi Arabia’s broader hatred of each other. If, not when, the conflicts of the future erupt into fully fledged war, attacks similar to the Saudi example will become a barrage of attacks on critical infrastructure for the nations involved, and will change the nature of warfare forever.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and is the author of Virtual Terror.