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Evolve or die: Australian Army envisions the future of warfare

Images of soldiers fused with bionic limbs and cybernetic upgrades seem absurd, but a new report says the future could hold a type of war made unrecognisable by technological change, writes Crikey intern Paul Millar.

“By 2025 we may face adversaries with scientifically enhanced cognitive capacity. The land force will need to develop a better understanding of enhancing human capabilities with, for example, improved human-machine interfaces or better fusing of technology with biology … Physical and cognitive enhancements such as ‘exosuits’ or long-lasting stimulants need to be considered in the context of amplifying performance.”

Although it may sound like the opening narration from Hollywood’s latest sci-fi blockbuster, these startling predictions come straight from the 2014 Future Land Warfare Report released by the Australian Army earlier this month. Designed to anticipate and respond to the changing face of war in the 21st century, the 26-page document tries to determine just what role Australian troops could play in a future, where fully autonomous drone strikes and genetically modified super soldiers dominate a constantly shifting battlefield. While the report maintains the army cannot know for sure what the future holds, the message is clear: war has changed, and we must change with it.

Predicting that an ascendant China will pull Australian troops from the wastelands of the Middle East to the increasingly overpopulated cities of the Asia-Pacific, the report urges Australian troops to be prepared to operate in high-density urban jungles ideal for sheltering terrorist cells and hidden enemies. To this end, the report prophesies the rise of the soldier as a sort of warrior-hacker, stating that “military cyber operations can be as effective as precision-guided munitions”. Additionally, as reported by Gizmodo, wars will be fought over food and water, not just land.

This expansion onto the digital front is not just a matter of intelligence and disruption. As the report says:

“Access to social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, is widespread and accessible to both friend and foe, potentially allowing any individual to influence political outcomes, transform perceptions of events, and create positive or negative responses. This may dramatically affect the future use of military force.”

Through social media, even the most ill-equipped insurgent can wage a war for the hearts and minds of the public. We see evidence of this even now in the Islamic State of Iraq and in Syria’s fresh offensive in the Middle East — increasingly, soldiers are discovering that an iPhone can be as devastating in the wrong hands as an AK-47. Nor will Western forces be able to rely upon maintaining a technological edge over their opponents; new technology such as the Switchblade unmanned aerial vehicle, which has perhaps been the most recognisable symbol of Western might in the Middle East, is predicted to soon “populate the inventories of many nations”.

This will not be the first time that Australian troops have been forced to adapt to a type of war made almost unrecognisable by technological change. This August will mark 100 years since World War I dragged tens of thousands of Australian soldiers into a battle of unprecedented devastation. While it was not the first time the world witnessed the brutal industrialisation of war, the sheer scale of the first truly global conflict left scars that reshaped the course of the 20th century. The carnage inflicted by heavy artillery fire and well-placed machine guns made traditional infantry tactics costly and unthinkable, leaving wave after wave of troops mowed down before they could reach enemy lines.

Dr Rhys Crawley of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre suggests speculative studies such as the Future Land Warfare Report are being researched to prevent Australian forces from repeating the horrors of the past. “[The Allies] had to change the ways that they thought about war,” he said. “The armies were trying to develop new tactics. They had to learn a new way of fighting, and that takes time — in war, time is a lot of casualties.”

With tensions rising between East and West, time may be running out. As the pounding artillery of World War I drove soldiers into the bleak drudgery of trench warfare, so too will the increasing importance of the digital front change the way armies command the battlefield — no longer a fight for territory but for power over an increasingly watchful public. While images of soldiers fused with bionic limbs and cybernetic upgrades seem absurd, even laughable, the conclusion of the report is far more chilling; in the brave new world of 21st-century warfare, Australia must evolve — or die.

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  • 1
    Chris Hartwell
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Japan already has workable exo-skeletons for increasing wearer mobility and strength, and capable of interfacing with someone who would otherwise be paraplegic. These exos are self-supporting, so the thought of adding armour, life-support and temperature regulation, and electronic warfare equipment isn’t far-fetched at all.

  • 2
    mike guffy
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    After I read the report when it was first published, it is another bloated piece of “Yada Yada”. Of course, the report is typical of what is churned out for the public every few years or so - so that the mum and dad taxpayers can think that their tax dollars are well spent. It is also worded ambiguously enough so that Defence contractors have no real concrete idea where to invest their resources to posture for the next big juicy contract….if any, now that Telstra took the lions share of IT spend a year or so ago. If you journos want to read the classified versions - well that’s another story….. eye opening stuff about how nothing dramatically has changed..nor will it.

    Any time Defence deploys overseas, they wind up using coalition systems anyway with the older “Australian Stuff” left on a shelf at home - primarily designed for exercises in the top end. Whether it is a purple role (uniformed staff) or just a small team “assisting” DFAT and “other” branches, the Defence Credit Card is “whipped out” and a few pallets of new gear is purchased, then depending on the role, quickly “PIMPED UP” by civilian security firms in Canberra and then put on the next C-17 to wherever they are going. Once the job is done, it is either left in situ and rarely sent home (AQIS provisions aside). Sometimes Special Forces will nick it for “other roles”, but the longer it stays there, then it’s ageing disgracefully and no one will want it.

    Most Defence IT systems that are deployed on service platforms are already clunkers (using Moore’s Law) by the time they are commissioned. Indulge me here, however, pundits all agree that IT change in Defence is slow, just bearable enough to justify the $$$ spend and incremental. People can paint broad brush strokes about the “informed swarm” and ….what was it…”where fully autonomous drone strikes and genetically modified super soldiers dominate a constantly shifting battlefield”…Give me a break - all that serves is for journalistic “click bait” . This isn’t “Edge of Tomorrow” (Tom Cruise film) we are talking here. There are physics constraints in bandwidth ..not to mention the costs… One and Two star Generals in CIOG (look it up if you have to) have been waxing lyrically for years about this “new age of information and technology” while the EL-1s, LTCOLs and Commanders across the IT space all roll their eyes, counting down the days to retirement, a contractor position or both.

    This paper is simply an exercise in gas lighting the public or attempting to show “value for money”. Technology will not save us. It has always come down to smart people doing smart things, using what’s available and NOT always relying on technology.

    You would(n’t) be surprised (though no one would ever admit it) to hear that sailors, soldiers and airmen/women would rather whip out their smartphones, open an App and use an analytics tool to get the job done. Many a time I would see infantry, north of TK, AFG (look it up if you have to), pull out their Iphone to use a mortar aiming app to rain down hell on the bad guys. Meanwhile the clunker software tool they were provided was still booting up…

    As for drone strikes - obviously people have been watching too many movies - do you know how long it takes for the Aussies to even get one approved through the US chain of command - that’s even counting on 1. One is available, 2. The weather conditions are OK (no they can’t fly 24/7), 3. The payload is available (not just bombs on them), 4. The target is approved to “prosecute”. 5. The radio frequencies can be used. We are talking days to get the ducks lined up and sometimes the mission is aborted because the political landscape has changed in that time.

    Look it comes down to this. Wars will happen in the future. Defence IT (because it has to be deployed across so many platforms at a cost), will never be cutting edge. Even DFAT, Special Forces and “other” organisations will deploy with IT that is never at the bleeding edge because they realise that it is “good enough” and that it is the people (intelligence operatives assisted by special forces and ground ADF (sailors, soldiers, airmen/women) all working to provide the big picture for commanders.

    Leave the armoured “EXO” suits out of it - do you think Defence has the budget for that? - hell we can’t even pay off a national deficit or for the JSF for that matter?

    Trucks (protected or otherwise), Rotary Wing Aircraft and small maritime platforms will be shuttling our troops around the battlespace for years to come. Supported by Combat Net Radios ( with small data feeds) (all competing for a slice of the EMS) - this is the bread and butter of the war for the ADF - not some gloried neuro cognitive machine - leave that for the movie buffs. The ILS (Integrated Logistic Support) for these things is a DMO nightmare.

    Take a look at your cover photo for this article and compare to this one -

    https://www.google.com.au/search?q=vietnam+signaller&safe=off&espv=2&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=-tXRU6SFOoPioASU6ICIBA&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAQ&biw=1280&bih=598#q=switchboard+operator+vitenam&safe=off&tbm=isch&facrc=_&imgdii=_&imgrc=rcF4gA3iP3Lm0M%253A%3Bl2ELpEGv1f8JlM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.history.army.mil%252Fbooks%252FVietnam%252FComm-El%252FPhotos%252Fpg88.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.history.army.mil%252Fbooks%252FVietnam%252FComm-El%252Fch8.htm%3B864%3B708

    tell me what has changed?

    Change is slow, predictable and incremental. In five years time there will be another paper waxing lyrically.

  • 3
    Steven Grant Haby
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Australian Army and IT = a laughable combination. All the av Australian army NCO or “officer” is interested in is how much free p*rn can they access.

    Amateur hour from a bunch of wannabee soldiers.

    These people are SO far removed from reality.

  • 4
    klewso
    Posted Friday, 25 July 2014 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Campbell political robots”

  • 5
    Peter Watson
    Posted Saturday, 26 July 2014 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    Through social media, even the most ill-equipped insurgent can wage a war for the hearts and minds of the public.

    This has been happening for the last week in all US aligned countries. Ukraine postings on social media being used by the US.

  • 6
    Tim N
    Posted Sunday, 27 July 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Although I am prone to imagining a more networked and mechanically enhanced future for conduct of warfare, I don’t think 2025 is even remotely realistic. At least not to the imagined degree. The cost of outfitting any but the most modest and specialized organizations with the tech being developed now is on a much longer horizon.

    But I must take serious issue with the closing paragraph of this article. The author writes:

    …the battlefield — no longer a fight for territory but for power over an increasingly watchful public.”

    This statement betrays a spectacular misunderstanding of what it means to control terrain. No nation has ever fought a war over empty land. Ever. In the entirety of human existence. Ever. Always, and forever, the “watchful public” was either present by incident or was itself the object of war. Humans fight wars against and because of other humans, not because of trees, birds, or rocks. That territorial acquisition has fallen out of fashion in the last 60 years says nothing about human nature or the future of warfare…only about the self-imposed limit of objectives of one civilization…us.

  • 7
    warwick fry
    Posted Monday, 28 July 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Evolve or die? Sounds a bit binarily drastic. Why can’ we just evolve?

  • 8
    En Quiry
    Posted Wednesday, 30 July 2014 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    The world needs to call an urgent global ceasefire and immediately divert the massive resources currently used in sectional wars to the problems which threaten humanity, the most urgent of which is ebola -
    http://www.smh.com.au/world/ebola-poses-very-serious-threat-to-britain-foreign-secretary-philip-hammond-says-20140730-zyq8d.html.
    When the problem of ebola has been solved, they can go back to warring until the next time.

  • 9
    John Allan
    Posted Wednesday, 13 August 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    A mortar app on an iphone???!!!

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