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Speed and Mass – the future of war

By Malcolm Davis

What does the future of war look like? This is a question which often occupies defence planners and strategic analysts as they look out at a worsening strategic outlook confronting Australia in the 21st Century.

Our approach to war has tended to favour high-end exquisite ‘silver bullet’ solutions. We invest in highly expensive, long-term projects.  The F-35 has taken twenty years to develop and costs billions of dollars. Our future submarine fleet won’t appear in significant numbers until the mid-2040s, and naval surface combatants that are at the centrepiece of an Australian naval shipbuilding industry may be increasingly at risk from large numbers of low-cost highly capable antiship missiles.

Our approach to military modernisation is taking too long and costing too much. The peer competitors we face have plenty of time to respond and develop effective asymmetric counters. Their political systems means they are not answerable to their people, either for issues of defence spending, or the legal and ethical constraints on how they use force. 

When thinking about future war, we should factor in the potential for military-technological discontinuities to emerge. Two are worth focusing on, specifically the return of mass and the re-emergence of speed in warfare.

Both can act to upend our approach to the use of force. Since the 1980s our approach to warfare has emphasized precision effects enabled by an information advantage, and this has enabled us to de-emphasize mass in war. Rather than mass forces we employ precise weapons – the ‘smart bomb through the bedroom window’ approach – and its qualitative edge rather than quantity that matters.

Yet, quantity has a quality of its own.  The potential offered by swarms of low-cost attack drones that are cheap and quick to manufacture (add in automated 3-D printing allowing rapid mass production) changes the equation.

Both China and Russia are investing in research and development towards networked swarms of low-cost drones, that can coordinate their actions, sense the environment around them and attack en masse to overcome our defensive capabilities at sea, or over land. It’s the battlefield of the future where the ‘small, cheap and many’ overwhelm the ‘large, expensive and few’, that we could face in coming years.

Speed also will return as a factor. The US, Russia, China, India and others are all developing hypersonic weapons (which travel faster than five times the speed of sound), as well as directed energy weapons such as high energy lasers, that act at the speed of light (300,000km per second).

These technologies may begin to appear on the battlefield within the next ten years, and will compress time for battlefield commanders, and the political leaders upon whose authority they act, to make critical decisions and set rules of engagement (RoE). A slow response in the face of high speed attack means the slower actor loses against the ‘fast draw’. We will not have the luxury to debate responses and options.

Two possible options emerge. We can invest in high speed weapons, and a race to the swift emerges where we must engage in a battle for the first salvo in future war. The side which strikes first, wins. Or, we can allow our decisions to be made by swifter decision-makers in the form of building greater autonomy into our systems – we let our computers choose.

Both options are risky. The first suggests a ‘cult of the offensive’ in future war, whilst the latter implies the risk of loss of control, particularly if we factor in future developments in AI.  Do we strike first, or give control to the machine? This may be the future war we face.


Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst, defence strategy and capability, at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published by: The Australian on 01 Sep 2017