Future factors – how ground force technology could evolve towards 2040
The shape of ground warfare is set to change radically over the next few decades under the influence of factors as diverse as climate change, changing population demographics and new sources of energy. Rear Admiral Chris Parry, former director general of development, concepts and doctrine with the UK Ministry of Defence, identifies some of the major drivers of conflict to 2040 and highlights new military technologies that could come to the fore.
Defence acquisition is facing an unprecedented challenge of supplying ground force equipment for an ever-shifting vision of future ground warfare. Gone are the days when a main battle tank designed for use in Germany would languish in the British Army's fleet for decades and suffice for whatever new combat arena in which it was called to participate.
While recent conflicts have seen a surge in responsive designs fielded through operational requirements, these are now being absorbed into the main fleet, and, if they cannot be sufficiently customised, will need to be replaced with better suited tools for a potentially radically different future theatre.
But the factors that influence future theatres of combat and the equipment to best operate in them originate far beyond the battlefield, and the recent turmoil affecting the global economy and political alliances means these drivers are changing at an unprecedented rate.
At the recent Force Manoeuvre and Protection Conference in Rome organised by TDN UK, Rear Admiral Chris Parry, former director general of development, concepts and doctrine with the UK Ministry of Defence, attempted to identify some of the major drivers of conflict to 2040, and what new military technologies could best respond.
The changing world
The current population of the Earth is around seven billion, and the UN predicts it will soar to close to nine billion by 2040, with the West's birth rate stagnating and that of the developing world growing. Parry believes renewed competition for resources will lead to an interdependent and highly competitive future world.
"It's what I call a variably polar world," he says. "Countries will look at risk and opportunity around the compass with the same countries cooperating at one level, but competing on another."
However, Parry believes US power will persist, not least because the nation will become energy independent by the year 2038 and will not have to import any oil and gas except from Canada.
"That will make them extremely powerful and I think they will be a reviving superpower by the 2020s," he says.
Regional powers will cultivate global influence, leading to new rising and falling states, with some countries falling into dependence on others. "You could say Greece is dependent on Germany, and a lot of countries around the former Soviet Union are falling into energy and financial dependence on Russia," says Parry. "Ukraine's move to move away from the EU recently is a symptom of that."
Despite new oil and gas resources being exploited, costs will continue to rise globally because distribution systems and market forces will increase costs.
"Because of continued turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa for the next 20 years at least, combined with the demographics and lack of opportunities, there will need to be a safe, sustainable plan," says Parry. "In the past that has meant territorial ambitions, and I'm afraid the democracy will not be the only show in town."
As far as the world's economy is concerned, Parry foresees debt default in the West which will constrain the money supply and the availability of actual assets, leading to increased costs of necessities while consumer goods will get cheaper. He predicts the surging economies of the BRIC countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China - are going to falter, leading to instability, increasing criminality and an uneven political process. All of these will lead to the key drivers of near-future conflict - the scramble for commodities, ownership of the Polar Regions, limited habitable land, and the opportunities and threats in the new domains of cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum.
Changing military roles
Parry suggests that we will see NATO and the EU entrenching and less able to rely on the US to be the force of last resort as time goes on, meaning multilateral intervention will be normal.
"The US won't lead a posse in the future, where we all group up together and do something," he says. "The approach will be, you sort out what's going on in your neighbourhood, particularly in Europe, and the cavalry will come to your rescue when you need decisive military power."
The roles of defence and security will evolve, continuing the trend of 'expeditionary fade' towards collective solutions that centre on containment of the symptoms of crises so the causes can be sorted out.
"I think in the future we're going to have high-impact, low-footprint operations," says Parry. "We're not going to want to hang around on the ground like we did in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we want to be able to do it quickly at source."
Parry also believes not everyone involved in these future operations will wear a uniform. "A prediction for you; I think the United Nations of the future will resort to private military companies rather than relying on lower grade militaries that can't do the job," he forecasts.
Changing military technology
The use of ballistic missiles will grow; Syria is known to have them and China has been testing its DF-21D ASBM against carrier-shaped targets in the desert, although they are not thought to have mastered an accompanying targeting system yet. The US fields counter ballistic missile systems on its ships and is increasingly using high-altitude missile defence shields, which it is looking to mirror on the ground.
Groundbreaking weapons technology currently under development will increasingly find its way onto the battlefield - directed energy weapons have already been deployed by the US Navy aboard the USS Ponce in the Gulf, for instance. More anti-space and satellite capabilities will be deployed and the battlefield will be increasingly dominated by unmanned and robotic systems.
"But remember you can jam the hell out of these robots," cautions Parry. "And the last time I saw a military robot at an exhibition, I threw my coat over it and it couldn't go anywhere."
Parry believes unmanned ground and aerial combat systems are becoming more mature; for example, Boeing's X-45 has been very successful launched and recovered from an aircraft carrier, and can fly 2,000 miles armed with bombs or a Brimstone missile. However, countries other than NATO allies are also obtaining increasingly sophisticated weapons.
"The Kornet ATGM [Russian anti-tank guided missile] is in extensive use in Syria by the rebels, and they're taking out T-72 tanks with them," say Parry. "The Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile that was used on an Israeli frigate and sunk an Egyptian coaster was supplied to Hezbollah by the Chinese through the Iranians. That's their equivalent of the Exocet."
Technology that is state-of-the-art now may not stand up to future conflicts. During Afghanistan and Iraq, new armoured vehicles were ordered via Urgent Operational Requirements (UOR) with heavily-armoured undersides to withstand IED blasts, but these would not withstand mortars with roof-penetrating munitions as being used in Syria. But manned warfare could actually be taking place on the ground less often, with long-range engagements taking over.
"The USS Florida [submarine] has 152 cruise missiles, both the strategic and tactical version that hangs around for about three hours before targeting," says Parry. "That's more cruise missile capacity than the UK has in its inventory. Excalibur with all its sub-munitions gives us the opportunity of stand-off range and we are able to engage."
Among the weapons in the course of traversing from the laboratory to battlefield are railguns, several models of which the US Navy has trialled.
"A railgun is not a thing of the future any more," says Parry. "It's capable of firing a London bus at five times the speed of sound and hits you with a devastating impact with no explosive whatsoever at a range of 200km. Nothing is capable of surviving that blast in terms of the number of Newtons getting coming towards you, so how do you protect against it?"
A concept still on the drawing board so far is the firebasket; a network of coordinated platforms interoperating above a battlefield to launch or defend against attacks.
"A firebasket could consist of loitering munitions, fly-through munitions and other sub-munitions guided to their target by people on the ground," says Parry. "They can target weapons fired at them from outside the battlefield as part of a coordinated attack, including aircraft, missiles, from ships and UAVs. In the future the firebasket will revolutionise the agility and high-impact, low-footprint aspects of ground forces."
Cold War weapons revival
Chillingly, however advanced the weapons allied nations develop, Parry believes the sheer weight of numbers that could be fielded by potential future armies means Cold War deterrents may need to be revisited.
"How do we counter mass in future? We have to keep our nuclear weapons," says Parry. "There's a limit to how many munitions we can get on the ground to deal with opponents who are demographically gifted. You can't kill people quickly enough in the modern world; you have to use nuclear weapons."
Given this complex picture of shifting demographics, political drivers, and rapidly evolving technology, what is Parry's message for those planning to equip the battlefield of the future?
"Expect the unexpected," he says. "Whatever is predicted, human beings have the habit of not actually doing it."
Global Defence Technology: Issue 21
In this issue: how over a million fake components made it into the US Air Force’s supply chain, technology to detect biological threats, the F-16 AIDEWS radar warning system and progress of the US Navy’s railgun.
The future for armoured vehicle technology
The variety of models currently out for tender demonstrates a lack of consensus on future vehicle designs, especially in key areas such as mobility and protection. There are, however, certain areas where consensus is growing in areas like high-tech armour, systems, sensors and vehicle components.