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Jul 25, 2014

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.

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“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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