Postmodern warfare tastes ancient. Information technology and AI are advancing but replacing the soldier with machines is still a utopia

von | 22. Mai. 2024 | English content

At the time of writing, news arrives about the successful launch test of the new Russian 3M-22 Tsirkon missile. Jewel of Russian military technology, the device just released from the arsenals of the Federation, launched from the frigate Admiral Gorškov, completed its test in the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, managing to hit the pre-set target about nine hundred kilometers from the launch site. Conceived and designed as an eminently anti-ship weapon, the Tsirkon has actually already made headlines over the Ukrainian skies, becoming a symbol of the recalibration of Russian tactical needs, but not only. Conceived to decrease the Anglo-American tactical advantage on the seas, the new Russian missile found itself having to operate against ground targets of the Ukrainian armed forces (UAF), in the most classic conflict scenario between two land powers. The idea of seeing such an advanced weapon, conceived for what was supposed to be post-modern warfare, fought in the skies and on the seas, far from the great terrestrialspaces, clashes widely with reality: the Tsirkon finds its baptism of fire in war that still has a lot of twentieth-century wars. Long meanders of trenches scattered across immense plains, battles between armored vehicles, exhausting house-to-house fights: this is the context in which the new missile found itself operating; something very different from the kind of conflict for which it was designed. The new conflict in Ukraine seems to bring back typically twentieth-century images and sensations after long decades of asymmetrical conflicts between Western superpower and run-down teams from the second and third worlds. We would never have imagined, even just two decades ago, that the war of the future would once again consist of trenches and calls for mass military service. And yet, today, we live in that future. Can we therefore try, on the basis of the current present, to imagine what the near future will be like in the field of war? We can do it, provided we take good care of the extreme mutability of reality which, as demonstrated by the ongoing conflict, can reserve the most interesting surprises.

Multidomain conflicts

As already anticipated, the conflict in Ukraine has denied the rumors, which in recent years had become increasingly insistent, according to which the wars of the future would have been increasingly outsourced to the IT sector and even entrusted in an increasingly important part to robots and unmanned vehicles (planes, but not only). This means that the conflicts of the future will not move from the physical to the cybernetic domain, so they will not transition from human to robotic personnel, but will increasingly become multi-domain conflicts[1] . It is a further evolution of the concept of total war that does not go beyond, but integrates the three classic levels of land, sea and air. Just as the total war of the twentieth century invests all areas of the economic and social life of a country, but in a radically different form: the actual bombs are flanked by cybernetic offensives, both of a purely aggressive nature (IT attacks, etc.) and of a soft power nature (propaganda, counter-proganda, fact checking, etc.), with, not a secondary fact, a direct involvement also of neutralstates, whose public opinion falls fully within the targets of the multidomain war. The irruption of the cybernetic sphere within the warfare, while disruptive in terms of change and heavy in terms of the importance in the clashes, does not go beyond but rather integrates the war as we have known it up to now. The logistics of tomorrow’s armies will no longer have to be limited to coordinating and supplying troops on the ground, but will also have to coordinate and make them collaborate with the intense cyberwarfare activity that future conflicts will require.

Crisis of the old paradigms

Devices such as the aforementioned Tsirkon (and its Western equivalents) undermine the old paradigm, established with the 2WW, which almost always saw victory smile on the holders of air supremacy, and not only because there may be peoples ready to pay the price for a lack of air supremacy (see the examples of Vietnam and Afghanistan) but also by virtue of the new progress achieved in the missile field. Paradoxically, progress in the field of missiles, which seriously endanger even the most recent models of warplanes, relaunch the role of large maneuvers of infantry and armored vehicles. The close collaboration between missiles (Kalibr, Tsirkon and Kinzhal in the case of Russia, HIMARS for UAF) and troops on the ground has relegated the role played by aviation to an almost secondary level: something unthinkable in the second half of the 20th century, but paradoxically relaunched the role of typical paradigms of the first: the importance of the number of men employed, the quality of the armored vehicles, the good organization of the logistics chains and so on. The re-emergence of these paradigms that we believed relegated to the old military history books catches both Western and Russian experts unprepared and, more generally, nonaligned ones, with implications that will have heavy repercussions even within civil societies[2] , which until now they lived in the myth of an inexorable demilitarization of society and consciences.

Transhumanism on the battlefield

In this sense, the revival of the role of the soldier, and more generally of the person, does not however exclude the role of technology but, here too, it is called to integrate and coordinate with the individual in arms. In this sense, perspectives that almost taste like science fiction open up. Exoskeletons and highly computerized suits are already a consolidated reality (think of the Russian armor Ratnik-3), but military research is already far ahead. The integration between AI and the human body is already undergoing indepth studies in the laboratories of the three main military powers of the globe. However efficient the AIs currently used by the world’s armed forces are in the context of situational awareness, they are still seriously deficient in the context of reaction flexibility in the face of unforeseen situations, a quality in which human beings are still largely more skilled than the machines. How to bridge this gap between machine and man is the task of highly specialized laboratories, some of which we know are certainly located in Europe if, as we know, armed forces such as the French ones have already admitted to working on bionic implants and augmented soldiers[3] . We are still a long way from the science fiction cyborgs, but the road seems traced, even taking into account the fact that research in the military field is often much more advanced than what is admitted in front of public opinion.

From microcosm to macrocosm

Faced with innovations of this kind, it is legitimate to ask whether the way of waging war in the 1940s was truly „total“ or whether we are not, only now, entering the era of total conflicts, which, that is, invest not only nations, but individuals even in their own bodies. But if warfare becomes total towards the microcosm of the body, it certainly does not stop before the macrocosm, space, the universe. Cinematography, but also history, is full of suggestions concerning an evolution of war technology towards star wars: famous are the so-called star wars theorized, albeit never put into practice, by the American president Ronald Reagan. However, despite the fall of the Iron Courtain and the supposed end of history, research in this area has continued. As known, at the end of 2019 the US created an ad hoc armed force, the USSF (United States Space Forces)[4] , with headquarters in the Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. The USSF, which is playing a very important role in supplying sensitive data on the movements of Russian troops to the UAF, employs, as far as is known, about one hundred satellites, which have already shown that they know how to coordinate very well with the constellation of private satellites Starlink, owned by Elon Musk, in turn engaged in the supply of highly sensitive data to the troops of Kiev. In this sense, countermeasures have been taken by the armed forces of other countries, including Russia, which with its brand new S-500 Prometej missile is already virtually capable of hitting, in addition to aircraft and missiles, even satellites located in the most low orbits (including most of the military satellites)[5] . Although we are still far from duels between spaceships dear to the imagination of George Lucas, the road seems traced, again in deep integration with AI and digital technology, thanks to means such as the Boeing X37 spaceplane, an unmanned plane-spaceship in service for the US since 2006 and itself nominally vulnerable to the Russian Prometej.

Total war as destiny

Such a great variety of changes, which go beyond the normal progress of more classic war sectors, such as armored vehicles or large aircraft carriers, invests, as already mentioned, the whole sphere of human existence, even going so far as to threaten to alter its nature. In this scenario, not only does war become multidomain, but, thanks to the breadth of areas touched by it, it becomes a perpetual ontological condition. The border between war and peace therefore ends up thinning to a condition of conflict that fluctuates perpetually between hot phases (war as we know it, as in Ukraine today) and cold phases (with attacks limited to the IT sphere and psy-ops) but which nevertheless never stops. The social implications are, of course, enormous, and connect the theme of the explosion of new conflicts with the increasingly applied paradigm of the perennial state of emergency, with its apparatus of special laws to support it. Finally, in the age of liquid capitalism and liquid society, war itself becomes rhizomatic, melts into the microphysics of contemporary power until it becomes part of existence itself in a sort of caricatured version of primitive societies. Finally, those who study the problem and its countermeasures will be asked about the enigma of how much space will remain for human beings in a scenario of this kind[6].






[6] F. MINI, Che guerra sarà?, Il Mulino, Bologna 2017