2021 was a year of mounting apprehension about the next great power conflict – perhaps triggered by a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or a Russian invasion of Ukraine – coupled with uncertainty about what the “next war” will look like.
Has the next generation of missiles made existing defense systems obsolete? Is conventional force projection via aircraft carriers and long-distance warplanes still possible? Will autonomous weapons cause the next war to spiral out of control? Will cyber combat swiftly bring the war into the homes of every civilian?
Both Russia and China aggressively tested hypersonic missiles in 2021. Russian leader Vladimir Putin claimed his forces conducted three successful hypersonic launches in the final weekend of the year.
China’s test of a low-orbit missile with global range and a hypersonic delivery system became an embarrassing intelligence failure for the Biden administration in October, with stunned intelligence officials calling China’s progress “astounding” and admitting they had “no idea” how such an advanced system could be created in total secrecy.
Hypersonic missiles are a game-changer because they can, in theory, evade existing missile defenses and strike with very little warning. Putin, in particular, brags about his hypersonic weapons as a decisive and unbeatable advantage over American and European defensive technology.
If Russia’s claims about the performance of its new missiles are true – always a big “if” when considering Russian boasts of technological superiority – they travel so quickly, at such low altitudes, that they can outrace every interceptor missile in the U.S. inventory, and they are nearly undetectable because the superheated, pressurized wave of air in front of the missile becomes a shield against radar waves.
The proliferation of hypersonic weapons would do more than return the world to a state of Cold War detente, before the advent of missile defense systems.
China’s test in October involved using a space launch to put a warhead into position, then activating a hypersonic delivery system to bring it down through the atmosphere and strike targets on the far side of the world. Russia is threatening to move intermediate-range nuclear missiles into Europe, and that could potentially include hypersonic delivery systems. These moves would put the entire Western world under threat from unstoppable, nearly undetectable first-strike nuclear weapons. The old concept of detente – “if you launch, we launch” – may no longer be applicable.
The advent of hypersonics is accelerating the militarization of outer space. In the last days of 2021, the U.S. Space Force awarded a $32 million contract to an Arizona-based company called GEOST for developing satellite sensors that could help detect hypersonic missile launches. The project was reportedly fast-tracked after China’s hypersonic test in October.
Sensors in orbit will naturally beget further research into weapons that can blind those sensors. U.S. Space Command officials say their agency was created in response to the increasing militarization of space by China, Russia, and other hostile powers interested in exploiting the reliance of American forces on satellites. America and her allies will be obliged to deploy weapons in space to counter those enemy weapons and protect invaluable satellites.
Hypersonic missiles are also prompting military analysts to wonder if the age of force projection through aircraft carriers and forward air bases is coming to a close. Putin made a point of boasting the missiles tested over Christmas weekend can hit naval targets. China made a very big show over the summer of testing “carrier killer” missiles and recently refurbished a desert base to refine its missiles by launching them against full-scale mockups of U.S. aircraft carriers.
America’s adversaries are pulling out all the stops to neutralize the enormous aircraft carrier advantage enjoyed by the United States and its allies, which could make force projection a very different game moving forward. With carriers out of the equation, huge Chinese and Russian ground forces would have the edge in most next-war scenarios, such as Chinese aggression in the Pacific or Russian action in eastern Europe.
Drones and other autonomous weapons will clearly play a major role in the next great conflict. 2020 and 2021 were big years for drone warfare, especially after affordable Turkish-made drones proved decisive in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh was a relatively brief conflict, but it may loom large in future histories as a turning point for military strategy. Azerbaijan’s drones were able to obliterate Armenian armor and artillery with such ease that the post-World War II age of armored warfare could be drawing to a close.
The manufacturers of Turkey’s Bayraktar UAV suddenly found themselves swamped with deeply impressed customers. The cost-effectiveness of those drones proved staggering. Armenia lost about a third of its entire inventory of tanks in less than two months of fighting.
Drone weapons are appearing in the inventories of relatively unsophisticated military forces around the world, from autonomous missile launch platforms to simple remote-controlled flying bombs. However, the world has not yet seen a full-blown drone war between near-peer competitors, as would be the case in scenarios where the U.S., NATO, or their major Asian allies engaged Chinese or Russian forces. We don’t know what happens when two large and technologically advanced armies unleash swarms of next-generation autonomous weapons against each other.
Military analysts over the past decade have considered the possibility of hyperwar – a conflict including both conventional forces and drones, coordinated by A.I. computer systems and accompanied by large-scale cyberwarfare, which would inevitably envelop civilian targets and cause massive disruptions in everything connected to the Internet.
Artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology is the key to hyperwar, the ingredient that makes the prospect of fighting such a conflict so frightening. A.I. is shrouded in a veil of science-fiction mystique about self-aware robots waging genocidal war against humanity, but in truth A.I. is dangerous because it operates very rapidly, with minimal human input.
Imagine your favorite real-time computer wargame with the game-speed slider stuck at maximum, and you can understand how a hyperwar featuring drone weapons managed by A.I. systems would be difficult for human officers to control – and prone to escalation.
Adding to the unpredictability is the amount of research every top-tier military power is pouring into confusing or hacking enemy A.I. systems, from camouflage tactics that can help human soldiers elude drones, to scorched-earth viral weapons that would be unleashed upon the Internet in a frantic bid to crash military computer systems.
As with hypersonic missiles, A.I. weapons can change the calculus of deterrence that has restrained great-power conflicts since World War II. Autonomous weapons make perfectly deniable, instantly disposable assassins. Drones allow effective military action with minimal risk of friendly casualties, and the moral hazard is reduced when computers are pulling the triggers – a very attractive combination for politicians worried about backlash from their constituents. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict generated the tremendous cost-effectiveness of drones in financial terms; they are also reducing the political cost of warfare, and when something gets cheaper, demand tends to increase.
Western nations have considered legislative restrictions and outright bans on militarized A.I., but of course adversaries like Russia and China will never agree to abandon such powerful technology, so bans imposed by the U.S. or Europe would amount to dangerous unilateral disarmament against the most powerful non-nuclear weapons mankind has yet devised.
Russia showed off its latest drones and combat robots during its Zapad-2021 wargames in September, including Platform-M, a miniature robot tank armed with machine guns and grenade launchers. Platform-M is capable of engaging targets at night without human intervention. Its designers envision releasing swarms of these robots to “eliminate provisional illegal armed formations in urban conditions” – i.e. hunt down and kill humans hiding in cities.
China is all-in on military artificial intelligence, as explicitly ordered by dictator Xi Jinping in 2017. Chinese planners believe they can use A.I. weapons to paralyze enemy command and logistics, essentially crashing American or European armies instead of defeating them on the battlefield. They also view the incredible speed of A.I.-directed weapons as the key to staging the kind of lighting-fast attack that would be needed to capture Taiwan and contested South China Sea territory.
China has a term for the concept of using A.I. to nullify or overwhelm every advantage retained by Western armies: Shashoujian, or the “Assassin’s Mace.”
The Assassin’s Mace is a perfect weapon deployed by surprise, a “trump card” (another term frequently employed by Chinese strategists) that renders the advantages of the enemy irrelevant.
Analysts working for the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) were tremendously impressed by how the United States swiftly dismantled the formidable Iraqi army in Operation Desert Storm by using weapons like stealth bombers and cruise missiles, which confused and demoralized even the most elite Iraqi fighting units. The PLA thinks A.I. can become that sort of Assassin’s Mace against the high-tech U.S. military.
Weaponized A.I. has one other tremendous advantage: it can’t catch a coronavirus. The plague that boiled out of Wuhan to crush the entire world offers a sobering example of what bio-weapons can do.
Of course, some believe the Chinese coronavirus was a bio-weapon, or perhaps a byproduct of Chinese research into militarized viruses that escaped the control of researchers. No matter where in China the Chinese coronavirus came from, it was a dangerous virus that spread through human populations with staggering speed, and efforts to contain it crippled the economies and distorted the politics of every major country on Earth.
Years before the Wuhan outbreak, Chinese military scientists wrote a paper exploring how coronavirus could be “artificially manipulated into an emerging human disease virus, then weaponised and unleashed in a way never seen before.” U.S. intelligence believes China has developed bombs, missiles, artillery shells, and other munitions especially for delivering biological payloads.
The shadow of virus warfare has loomed over the world for a long time. The new twist is that the Chinese coronavirus demonstrated just how devastating it can be. Most concerningly, Chinese propaganda is pushing the notion that pandemics are much more devastating to democracies, thanks to their high levels of dissent, disobedience, and political volatility. China argues forcefully that authoritarian regimes are much better at controlling pandemics and minimizing their economic damage.
This line of thinking could make bio-warfare look very appealing to hostile tyrannies like the one in Beijing, especially when combined with China’s success at thwarting investigations into the origins of the Chinese coronavirus in Wuhan. Like hypersonic missiles and A.I., weaponized viruses could become ideal aggressor weapons that erase the deterrence calculations of the past century.
The most disturbing thing about the Next War is that there are so many ways it could start, but it is very difficult to predict how it would end.