Imagine a flying machine-gun that can recognise faces – and pick its own targets. Or a new kind of computer chilled to the temperature of space and able to calculate in seconds what a supercomputer would take millennia to solve. Then suppose you could beam co-ordinates from a satellite to an army base using an unhackable encryption key, or send a swarm of undersea drones to lie in wait for a stealth submarine.
These technologies are no longer in the realm of science fiction; some are already cresting the horizon.Talk of artificial intelligence, quantum technology, hypersonic missiles, cyber weapons and other “undersea capabilities” may have been missed in the fanfare (and shock) of Australia’s plan to build its first fleet of nuclear submarines, but such things are also listed as part of the new technology-sharing AUKUS pact between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. The fields are not new, and not just the domain of the AUKUS trio; many also appear in China’s latest five-year plan, for example. But experts say some of these technologies could disrupt the traditional battlefield before Australia’s nuclear submarine fleet is even online.
So how developed are they? Who else is working on them? And how might they change the face of war?
What does ‘cyber’ have to do with warfare?
War has already changed in one big way. The first act of a major conflict will now play out in cyberspace, says Professor Michael Webb, director of the Defence Institute at the University of Adelaide. “If you think back to the Gulf War, we were fighting first for supremacy in the air.” Today, because of how connected the world is, “we’ll be fighting for supremacy in cyber”.
If you can jam an enemy nation’s satellites to mess with their GPS navigation, or blind their air radar systems, or even shut down their electricity grid, you can sow chaos before you’ve fired a single shot.
The world’s first digital weapon was unleashed in 2009, a highly advanced computer worm known as Stuxnet, built by…