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Advanced military technology that will win future wars | British GQ

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The success or failure of a third offset will depend a lot on how much the West squeezes from its broad cultural advantage. To make the most of it, the US will craft algorithms that determine which soldiers should receive which bits of intelligence, says David Shedd, until recently acting director of the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency. Automating the “pushing” of intelligence to soldiers in this way will free them from the need to surmise what might be helpful and then dig it out of vast databases. Exquisite visualisation technologies, he adds, will be developed for this. Before 2050 Western soldiers will assimilate tactical intelligence without taking their eyes off their surroundings. The screenless displays necessary for this are already in the works.

By mid-century, some reckon, headset-mounted lasers will scan imagery directly onto soldiers’ retinas. Others, including a US firm, Avegant, see more promise in using silicon chips bristling with tiny hinged mirrors that flip back and forth to reflect bits of multicoloured LED light onto a viewer’s retinas. It sells a headset named Glyph that uses two chips with more than 1.8 million mirrors, each 5 microns across, which flip at least 3,600 times a second to generate an image that appears to float in mid-air without blocking out the surrounding world. The firm’s co-founder, Edward Tang, foresees an eventual “augmented reality” capability that superimposes tactical intelligence on relevant objects, as the beholder shifts gaze.

These advances will not be trivial, says James Geurts, procurement boss for the US Special Operations Command. By displaying intelligence on the objects it relates to, the technology will deliver, he says, “meaningful, tactically relevant information at the point of need – that’s the Holy Grail”. Markings that indicate suspected insurgents’ hideouts, say, or the locations of previous improvised-explosive-device blasts will appear to hover over the right spots, even as soldiers walk and turn their heads. The idea, he says, is to better harness American soldiers’ competitive advantage of “adaptive velocity” in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.

By 2050, in any case, stunning advances in military kit and capacity may be only part of the story. Martin van Creveld, an Israeli military historian, worries about another side. A lot of the West’s elaborate military R&D, he says, increasingly serves as a dangerously comforting substitute for a declining will to fight, epitomised by timid resistance to Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya. This has happened before. The decadent, declining Roman Empire put more effort into engineering better catapults than actually fighting barbarians, van Creveld says.

As worrisome, some reckon, is that some countries’ advances in military technologies will encourage adversaries that feel they cannot keep up to compensate with nuclear weapons. Tellingly, Pakistan and Russia, both faced with the technologically superior rival forces of, respectively, India and NATO, decline to forswear the first use of nuclear weapons. Further, the inevitable spread of expertise to build and deliver small “battlefield” nukes will increase temptations to use nuclear weapons. This is one more possible ramification of advancing military technologies that strategists would be well advised to keep in mind.

This is an extract from "Military Technology: Wizardry And Asymmetry" by Benjamin Sutherland, a chapter from

Megatech: Technology In 2050

, edited by Daniel Franklin. Out on 16 February (Profile Books), £15