Addressing the challenges of modern-day conflicts
Warfare has always been challenging. But rapid advances in technology in recent decades mean that the battlefield has never been more complex and unpredictable. To succeed, armed forces need to understand the challenges and find solutions that simplify the task of the soldier.
The world we live in is changing at an astonishing pace. New technologies and ways of thinking are rapidly altering the way that human beings live, do business, communicate and interact with other. In just 40 years we have gone from rotary dial phones to 5G smart devices capable of accessing the collective knowledge of humanity.
And the field of warfare is no exception. A stream of new technologies and battle strategies are rapidly altering the way that enemies engage each other and how combat is conducted. Approaches to warfare that 30, 20 or even five years ago would have guaranteed success on the battlefield have now been made redundant. It can no longer be assumed that because a tactic worked in a previous conflict that it will work today.
To remain competitive under such conditions, armed forces need to ensure they are fully up to date with trends in weapons and military strategies and advances in civilian technologies. By doing so, they can put themselves in the best possible position to anticipate the technologies and tactics necessary to achieve both short- and long-term victory.
So, what are some of the specific challenges of modern warfare? How are today’s battlefields different from those of the past? And what are some of the solutions being proposed to address these challenges?
Modern warfare is extremely complex
Warfare has always been one of the most challenging endeavours a human being can engage in. Soldiers must face a range of confronting sights, sounds and smells and overcome their own fear of being harmed in order to defeat the enemy. But modern combat scenarios also bring a level of complexity never seen in the past.
Part of this is due to the extraordinary amount of data being generated and captured as troops, machines and computers interact in the theatre of war. The information age means that soldiers from commanding officers right through to ground troops may have access to information about troop movements, combat losses and the status of the enemy. Battle strategies can change both rapidly and multiple times across the course of a day as new information comes to hand and new tactics are devised. Keeping abreast of what’s going on can take up a large part of a soldier’s mental capacity.
Compare that to a century or two ago when military leaders would typically gather together their soldiers in the morning and explain the battle plan and everyone’s role. That would generally be the last time everyone spoke to each other during the course of that day. Now, there is a continuous flow of communication throughout the day and night. Everyone from top leaders to individual soldiers within units is receiving new information all the time and they need to constantly re-evaluate their position.
Multiple conflict domains
Adding to the information complexity is the fact that conflicts can now take place over more domains than ever before. Prior to twentieth century, soldiers primarily had to deal with land and sea domains. That changed in World War I and again in World War II as aircraft turned the skies into battlefields. Today’s conflicts can also extend to the domains of cyber and space.
In the cyber domain, orchestrated hacking campaigns conducted on the behalf of nations can disable and shut down key pieces of civilian infrastructure and institutions, leaving nations in a state of panic and vulnerable to attack. On the battlefield, command, control and communication systems may be vulnerable to the same kind of hacking. Meanwhile, clever social-media engineering can help destabilise governments, influence elections and turn elements of otherwise cohesive societies against each other. You don’t have to look far to see this kind of cyber strategy being used today. By influencing who is chosen as the leader of another country, an opposing country can affect local politics, providing an advantage should they wish to start a conflict.
While no major conflict is yet to have been fought in the space domain, the major powers are jockeying for position, developing weapons and strategies for when that time comes. In the meantime, images of battlefield troop and asset movements taken from satellites have a major impact on situational awareness and strategy.
New combat technologies
Further complexity is added by the development of new technologies. Today’s ground combat forces are expected to not only coordinate their movements and strategies with conventional forces on the ground and in the air, such as tanks and fighter jets, but with a variety of drones. Reconnaissance drones can capture and convey detailed images of enemy movements in a way no human could, while a wide range of weaponised drones – costing as much as many millions of US dollars and as little as a few thousand dollars – can be used to inflict damage upon the enemy. In the not too distant future, we can also expect soldiers to be accompanied into battle by quadruped robotic ‘mules’ who relieve troops of the need to carry equipment. At the same time, sophisticated artificial intelligence systems are being used to analyse enemy behaviour and formulate successful counterstrategies.
No two conflicts are the same
Driven by the fast pace of technological development and the fluid nature of geopolitics, the form that conflicts take is also constantly evolving. This makes it extremely difficult to anticipate which weapons and strategies armed forces will need to take into future wars.
In the wake of 9/11, for example, many Western armies got used to fighting in asymmetrical conflicts in the Middle East where success could be achieved through the use of air dominance. Because they expected this style of fighting to continue to be their main focus, they developed and equipped themselves with weapons that suited it. However, many Western forces have found themselves on the backfoot following Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. Having failed to anticipate that combat styles would change so dramatically, they are playing catch-up and re-arming themselves to deal with the prospect of a peer-to-peer conflict in Europe.
New technologies are also constantly rewriting the rule book for warfare. Take the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both sides in the conflict had disciplined and well-trained soldiers, but Azerbaijan gained the upper hand through its game-changing and disruptive use of weapon-carrying killer drones that were capable of engaging and harming their opponents. Most analysts that have examined the conflict and evaluated it agree that that the drones were a key reason that Azerbaijan won that conflict. Armenia simply didn’t have any dependable defence against the drones.
Grey zone around war
Also adding to the complexity of modern conflicts is antagonists intentionally blurring the lines around whether a conflict is underway or not.
Consider the start of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine in 2014 when armed soldiers with no identifying marks on their uniforms seized key pieces of infrastructure. Were they Ukrainian insurrectionists or Russian troops? When Vladimir Putin subsequently ordered Russian soldiers in Crimea and Ukrainian border regions, were they invading? Or as Putin put it, were they there to “ensure proper conditions for the people of Crimea to be able to freely express their will.” Doubts around Russia’s intentions and who the players were in the conflict made it hard to discern whether a war had started. It could be argued that Russia subsequently engaged in subtle ongoing warfare by running destabilisation and propaganda campaigns against the United States and other NATO partners in the lead-up to its fresh invasion of Ukraine in 2022. But defining where the line of war begins and ends has been difficult.
Soldier technology solutions
So, what are some of the solutions being proposed to help modern soldiers manage the complex factors that define modern conflicts?
Good weapon designers know that too much technology in the field can overburden a soldier, adding to the static and noise created by an already complex environment. But technology systems that lessen the burden on soldiers by simplifying their choices and clearly identifying enemies have the potential to bring major benefits.
Saab has recently been a participant in the Generic Open Soldier System Reference Architecture (GOSSRA) program, a European Union initiative aimed at standardising the approach of European countries to updating equipment for soldiers. The work has had a particular focus on software, electronics, voice and data communication, sensors, effectors, human interface devices, and C4i.
Based on our experience there, it seems likely that the coming years will see a major focus on soldier systems that ‘declutter’ the battlefield for soldiers by providing information on threats and targets as they are needed.
One of the options that holds great promise is enhanced reality technology. Today, when a soldier uses a weapon like a grenade launcher, they aim at the enemy through the sight. The decision on whether what that soldier sees is a friend or a foe comes entirely down to their own judgement and discretion. Making the decision can be extremely difficult in a confusing battlefield environment. To make life easier for soldiers, future weapons may have electronically flags popping up in the sight, telling them whether they’re aiming at a friend. It’s hoped such technology will help reduce incidents of ‘fratricide’ where soldiers kill or harm troops from their own army or coalition.
One way of enabling this kind of capability is for soldiers to carry small transceivers, like those used to identify aircraft. Prior to firing, the weapon would send a small electromagnetic pulse at the target. If no response is received back from a friendly transceiver, the soldier will know they are not aiming at their own troops and will be able to confidently proceed. As well as being incorporated into sights, such capabilities could also be incorporated into goggles.
Further combat support for soldiers is likely to come in the form of dismounted battle management systems (BMS). Already being trialled in countries including Canada, this wearable technology brings together a range of communications devices with the goal of enhancing a soldier’s situational awareness in the field. While components can vary, dismounted BMS systems under development often include features such as a radio, a smartphone-like computer to run battle management software, a GPS, and a communications headset.
Both BMS and enhanced reality sights stand to benefit from the ongoing development of the combat cloud. Using similar technology to civilian clouds, combat clouds are being developed to remotely host computer processing power that can support armed forces in battles. Bringing together the vast amounts of data generated conflicts is expected to make it easier for different divisions to share information and coordinate attacks and for strategic leaders to make more effective decisions in the heat of battle.
One possible use of the combat cloud for ground troops could be providing targeting and guidance support during the firing of certain types of weapons. By harnessing the power of remote artificial intelligence, troops may be able to achieve both greater accuracy and lethality.
Another future innovation may be smart weapons that use AI to learn the characteristics of the user and adjust themselves to optimise performance. For example, a weapon might analyse the user’s pulse rate, recognise that they are under stress and have a reduced ability to make decisions, and thus reduce the number of firing options presented.
So, while modern conflicts are being waged in the most complex environments in history, there are solutions to bring clarity to the minds of both soldiers in the field and leaders.
By harnessing advanced technologies and looking for ways to reduce the burden on combatants, armed forces can prepare themselves for tomorrow’s wars.
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