The Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the character of war

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

The U.S. military has extensive combat experience — in small wars — but it may not know what to expect from war in the Fourth Industrial Revolution:

Schwab’s book has generated some fascinating discussions about how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will affect governance, business, and society. But surprisingly little of this discussion seems to have penetrated the U.S. military and influenced its thinking about future wars. What will it mean to fight wars in a world characterized by the Fourth Industrial Revolution — and what will it take to win?

Just as it will disrupt and reshape society, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the character of war. The fundamental nature of war may remain constant, as Clausewitz argued so many years ago, but the ways in which wars are fought constantly shift as societies evolve. The synergies among the elements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are already transfiguring the battlefields of the 21st century, in several different ways:

Space and cyber. These two relatively new domains emerged from the third industrial revolution, but have never been fully contested during wartime. There are no lessons learned documents, no historic battles to study, no precedent for how warfare in these domains might play out — and no way to know how cripplingly destructive it could be to modern society. And any battles in those domains will also hinder — and could even debilitate — the U.S. military’s ability to fight in the more traditional domains of land, sea, and air, since vital communications and other support systems today depend almost entirely on space satellites and computer networks.

Artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, autonomy, and robotics. Some of the most prominent leaders in these fields are publicly warning about the dangers in an unconstrained environment. Military operations enabled by these technologies, and especially by artificial intelligence, may unfold so quickly that effective responses require taking humans out of the decision cycle. Letting intelligent machines make traditionally human decisions about killing other humans is fraught with moral peril, but may become necessary to survive on the future battlefield, let alone to win. Adversaries will race to employ these capabilities and the powerful operational advantages they may confer.

The return of mass and the defensive advantage. T.X. Hammes convincingly argues that the U.S. military has traded mass for precision in recent decades, enabling smaller forces using guided weapons to fight successfully. But the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will enable a wide range of actors to acquire masses of inexpensive capabilities that they never could before, especially through advances in additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing). That means the U.S. military must move away from today’s small numbers of exorbitantly expensive “exquisite” weapons systems toward smaller, smarter, and cheaper weapons — especially masses of autonomous drones with swarming destructive power. Hammes also argues that such swarms “may make defense the dominant form of warfare,” because they will make “domain denial much easier than domain usage.”

A new generation of high tech weapons. The United States and some of its potential adversaries are incorporating the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution into a range of innovative new weapons systems, including railguns, directed energy weapons, hyper-velocity projectiles, and hypersonic missiles. These new weapons will dramatically increase the speed, range, and destructive power of conventional weapons beyond anything previously imaginable. However, the U.S. military remains heavily over-invested in legacy systems built upon late 20th century technologies which compete against these newest technologies for scarce defense dollars. Here, rising powers such as China have a distinct new mover advantage. They can incorporate the very newest technologies without the huge financial burdens of supporting of older systems and the military-industrial constituencies that promote them (and, for authoritarian states, without adhering to democratic norms of transparency and civilian oversight). This challenge is severely exacerbated by the broken U.S. acquisition system, in which the development timelines for new weapons systems extends across decades.

The unknown x-factor. Secret technologies developed by friend and foe alike will likely appear for the first time during the next major war, and it is impossible to predict how they will change battlefield dynamics. They could render current weapons inoperable or obsolete, or offer a surprise war-winning capability to one side. And it is entirely possible that technologies secretly guarded by one side or the other for surprise use on the first day of the next war may have already been compromised. The usual fog of war will become even denser, presenting all sorts of unanticipated, unfamiliar challenges to U.S. forces.

The emerging characteristics of the Fourth Industrial Revolution suggest we are on the precipice of profound changes to the character of war. While the next major conflict will unquestionably exhibit all of war’s enduring human qualities, its battles, weapons, and tactics may well be entirely unprecedented. Military officers today may be marching, largely unaware, to the end of a long and comfortably familiar era of how to fight a major war.

The study of warfare has always heavily relied upon scrutinizing past battles to discern the lessons of those as yet unfought. But in today’s world, that important historical lens should be augmented by one that focuses on the future. Fictional writings about future war can help military thinkers break free of the mental constraints imposed by linear thinking and identify unexpected dynamics, threats, and challenges of the future battlefield. Stories such as Ghost Fleet, Automated Valor, Kill Decision, and many others all can help creative military leaders imagine the unimaginable, and visualize how the battles of the next war may play out in ways the lens of the past fails to illuminate. This will help ensure the first war of the Fourth Industrial Revolution does not result from a failure of imagination, as the 9/11 attacks have been so memorably described.


  1. Jay William Dugger says:

    The article gives the impression of arguing from fictional evidence, and second-rate fictional evidence at that. I’m disappointed to see no mention of Lem’s military analysis in One Human Minute, for example.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    The real problem in the next war is that weapons, platforms and people cannot be replaced. It takes almost ten years to build an aircraft carrier and five years for other ships. Aircraft production lines produce on a few planes per month at full capacity. And modern armies need years to produce the soldiers they have.

    The next big war will rapidly consume everything and everyone, and if the war goes on for a year or more, the militaries will be equipped and operate like WW I or, in some cases, early WW II forces.

    And that assumes no one goes nuclear.

  3. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Agree with Bob. Regardless of the technologie, one big well placed bomb will neutralize most technological advantages.

  4. Kirk says:

    If you were to force a prognostication out of me, I would hazard the opinion that there likely won’t be a major war, not for a few years, maybe even a generation or two.

    And, why do I think that? Frankly, what it comes down to is uncertainty. Yeah, we’ve got a lot of really dumb politicians and higher-ranked military folk out there, but the ones who would be fighting this next war we’re talking about? The ones with any sense? They’ve got zero certainty about much of anything, and very little confidence.

    Putin’s “Little Green Men” got him Georgia and Crimea; they’ve stalled out in the Donbas and Syria. Likewise, the US military is now just a bit more than slightly burned in the hand, and they’re not likely to go sticking their hand into the fire again, without considerable caution and very limited objectives. China? China has never really been much of an overseas adventuring type–I think they’ve looked at the way things are going, and are not at all certain that they’d win without huge costs, and when your entire population is counting on a retirement subsidized by one kid they’ve put all their bets on…? Yeah; don’t go looking for Xi to calculate he can afford to lose even a few thousand “Little Emperors” and still keep his Mandate of Heaven.

    The technological sphere is also too damn unpredictable–Have the Chinese got a quantum communicator? Do the Americans have something up their sleeves…? Can they really, really be that stupid, and have left all that unsecured data out there for the taking?

    Nobody can be sure of anything, and because of that…? Nobody is going to do more than nibble at the margins: The cost-benefit ratio is too high to gamble over, and the best bet is to stay quiet, and hope the status quo keeps right on quo-ing…

  5. Albion says:

    The old adage that generals try to fight any new war with the last war’s tactics will always hold true. New tactics will evolve thought the emphasis will be on speed of thought and reaction to changing situations. The best military minds are already aware of that.

    But while war moves from uniformed mass and large scale operations to handfuls of guerrilla-masquerading-as-semi-loyal-citizens (for example, Islamic growth in Europe) the need for human troops in local positions is still there, perhaps more than ever. Boots on ground and reliable rifles, aided by secure supply lines will in the end count for a great deal. Maybe a militia too, intending not to seize foreign objectives but to ensure the local position is held, will matter if war comes to one’s own country.

    My view is also that while say an aircraft carrier takes years to build and planes capable of high-altitude engagement sound sexy, most ground troops will need rapidly manufactured basic air attack craft to deal with what is close at hand. The old biplane approach might look ancient but anything that can stay up for hours and deliver observation, fire and tactical control will matter more.

  6. Sam J. says:

    I think this is the best quick review of the trends anywhere in a few pages. “Dennis M. Bushnell, Future Strategic Issues/Future Warfare [Circa 2025] ” he goes over the trends of technology coming up and how they may play out. Bushnell was chief scientist at NASA Langley Research Center, he is responsible for technical oversight and advanced program formulation. His report is not some wild eyed fanaticism it’s based on reasonable trends. Link.

    A lot of our spending is counterproductive. Like Bob says it will all be blown to pieces at the beginning. So we need lots of little pieces or it needs to be able to hide.

    Tanks are a waste because they cost too much and handheld weapons can kill them. I think we should build Ronies. Robot ponies. Guys could ride on these. Make them run by a neural net and make them fast. Foot pedals steer it. They should be shaped like a sharp diamond on the bottom to defeat mines. What if you had a thousand Ronies with anti-tank weapons vs 100 tanks? Ponies would win.

    We should have a lot of the WWII type Landing craft tank. 80% of the world’s population live within 65 miles of the coast or something like that. We need to disperse. The idiot Rumsfeld did exactly the opposite concentrating our forces in less bases. It could very well be he meant to do so. 9-11 the false flag attack happened under him. If that could happen then maybe he could also want to see us defeated??? I can only go by his actions.

    They should have ballast water walls (water armour)with virtual hulls. Maybe two sharpie hulls together like a CAT with the landing craft in between

    Virtual hulls is something I invented, I think, I never heard anyone else talk about it. You separate the function of the hull from the ballast. The walls provide a rigid shape for the hull but are not water proof. Inside the hull you rope in floating bladders. A lot of them. That way any shot or hit or a reef will not sink the boat. It also provides a shock absorber system like the Chinese junks had. They had a compartment in the front with a hole in the bottom. When you hit a wave it would fill and keep the front down somewhat when it went over the wave it would slowly drain. Very much like a hydraulic shock over bumps. A virtual hull would not be close to water tight so it would act the same. You save cost by not having to have the hull be some special water proof materiel. It only shapes the hull. Best of all it would be damn hard to sink.

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