Warfare is never stationary for long. Just as the geopolitical situation around the world continues to evolve on a constant basis, so too do the weapons, vehicles and equipment used in modern battlefields as armies fight in new locations, terrains, and against different enemies. But while fresh threats emerge in the form of new weapons and tactics, so do the means by which modern armies can defend themselves — whether that’s new smart approaches to monitoring for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or new methods for ensuring IED blast protection.
Here are three of the main ways modern warfare is developing on the physical battlefield, and the countermeasures that help protect against them.
The new threat: Smart technologies incorporating new types of sensor and artificial intelligence capabilities are changing every aspect of life. So why not warfare as well? Over the past decade, new weapons drawing on the latest developments in AI have appeared on the scene. Whether it’s ground-based killer robots or swarms of deadly drones, many of these revolve around autonomous vehicles on land, air, and sea. Such autonomous systems change the face of warfighting by allowing actors to deploy lethal force potentially from long distances, and without having to risk troops in the process.
There’s also the possibility that AI will increasingly be used as part of the strategizing process in future warfare scenarios, just as AI has demonstrated that it can be used to outmaneuver human “players” at games like chess and Go. In September 2019, the Russian military reportedly carried out testing of an AI-based system that could assess combat scenarios in real time, and provide a ranked list of potential decisions to be made and the likely results of implementing these.
New defenses: Smart technologies open up new possibilities for offensive warfighting. But it also opens up new possibilities for defending troops. 3D-mapping drones can help soldiers assess dangerous battlefields without having to risk their lives. Smart sensors can employ machine learning tools to help spot enemies on the battlefield. And defensive tools like Laser Weapon System (LaWS) are just one means by which drones can be blasted out of the sky on the battlefield.
The new threat: As far as technological sophistication goes, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) exist on the other end of the spectrum to the kind of smart technology described above. IEDs are typically rudimentary devices frequently used for roadside attacks, made up of an explosive element attached to a mechanism for detonating them. This might range from timers to remote control. While they are undoubtedly low-tech in their design, however, IEDs have redefined the modern battlefield — especially in places like Iraq and Afghanistan – in a way that few other weapons have.
Due to their low cost and required lack of expertise, IEDs have become every bit as widespread as (if not more than) the use of bullets, mortars, and grenades on the battlefield. In recent years, IEDs have been used in 66 countries, with eight of these countries having recorded upward of 1,000 civilian casualties as a result of the weapons. In the process, they have ushered in a new period of asymmetric warfare, in which lesser-trained insurgents can challenge the might of larger, better equipped military forces, along with striking fear into the hearts of civilians.
Defending against them: Given their prominence on the battlefields of the 21st century, it’s no surprise that there have been a number of counter-IED innovations intended to defend against these improvised explosive weapons. Many of these have focused on finding ways to deactivate or clear IEDs in advance by detecting them and then removing them — whether by using signal-jamming equipment to stop them detonating, anti-explosive robots, or methods of monitoring for insurgents planting IEDs.
But despite large amounts of money being spent on these approaches, there is no 100% guaranteed way of stopping IEDs from damaging their targets. For that reason, a large part of the solution has involved evolving military vehicles so that they can better defend against these explosives. Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) light tactical vehicles have replaced the likes of the Humvee so as to better withstand the potentially devastating impact of IED attacks and ambushes. Meanwhile, other approaches such as blast-protecting seats that can be retrofitted into existing vehicles, along with new ones, shield troops from the effects of underfloor explosions and the deadly shockwaves that can result from them.
Artillery for a new century
The new threat: No one would deny that IEDs have changed modern warfare. But not every enemy will plant explosives as their main mode of attack. Particularly when it comes to near-peer adversaries, artillery is making a comeback in a way that it hasn’t for decades. RAND Corporation officials have noted that Russian cannons have 50% to 100% greater range than the current equivalent weapons used by the United States military. It’s not just about range, either. New artillery weapons boast more firepower and better targeting capabilities.
Defending against them: The best defense is a good offense, as the saying goes. But aside from simply developing rival artillery that can be used for taking out enemies before they have the chance to use their own weaponry, considerable attention has been paid to developing new ways of avoiding getting hit. Vehicles such as the T Ghost camouflaged tank utilize special ADAPTIV camouflage technology to render themselves invisible to thermal imaging systems. In the future, technologies like quantum stealth camouflaging could make this kind of disguise against enemy weapons systems even more effective.
Since it’s impossible to defend against all attacks, new types of protective armor are being created as well. Modern tanks and other military vehicles offer unprecedented levels of protection, even as parallel development of armor-piercing weapons has continued. These modern vehicles have also managed to offer this better protection without compromising maneuverability. Far from it, in fact: Modern armored vehicles are more maneuverable on the battlefield than ever.