The Future Of War Has Fewer Guns, But It’s Just As Dangerous

What will a war look like when it’s fought entirely by machines and computer code?

The Future Of War Has Fewer Guns, But It’s Just As Dangerous
[Image: Drone, Jim Sher via Flickr]

It feels like that eerie opening scene in a horror film, the first ripple of awareness that something isn’t right before the threat manifests. The locals, sensing that a force beyond their control is starting to take shape, take out their weapons and prepare to fight.


In Deer Trail, Colorado, the horror is taking a somewhat different, though very real, form than you’d usually find onscreen. Hunters want to apply for $25 licenses to shoot drones out of the sky. One supporter says he wants to launch a preemptive strike against drones, to reject the feeling of living in a “virtual prison” or surveillance state, even though there may not even be any drones over the small town–yet.

Right now, only a few jurisdictions in Colorado allow drone flights, through permits issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. That will change before September 30, 2015. President Obama signed a law in 2012 that allows for much more extensive integration of drones into the airspace before that date. As with all technologies, the way humans choose to develop this potential will be a mixed bag that reveals both a spectacular capacity for innovation as well as the time-tested evil streak that runs throughout our species. For a glimpse of the array of drones out there, check out highlights from the world’s largest drone fair, which took place last week.

Far more complicated than the presence of drones is the fact that the theater of war itself has shifted to include not only new forms of soldiers and weapons, but also code and algorithms. Battlefields no longer end at the distinct edges of a measurable perimeter. Instead, the theater of combat–not just between nation-states but also between organizations and individuals–will soon encompass all of human imagination.

What can we expect from the future of warfare?

Smaller, Faster, and Cheaper

Some drones will be as small as birds and, over time, much smaller than that. Others will be large enough to shut down highways when they crash to the ground, like the recent Air Force drone accident in Florida that closed a highway for 24 hours. The U.S. military has deployed over 11,000 drones for combat, and countries all over the world are manufacturing their own. In John Horgan’s feature for National Geographic, Unmanned Flight, he explains the trajectory of drones from hobbyists and military use to an increasingly lucrative industry as expansive as human ingenuity. A swarm of self-assembling 3-D printed drones isn’t a futuristic idea anymore.


The list of civilian uses for drones is also long. Drones can enter dangerous terrain and monitor air quality, border skirmishes, volcanoes, floods and other potential disasters. The civilian market for drones, Horgan writes, could dwarf military’s nearly $3 billion in purchases. Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired, now runs DIY Drones, which includes a community that grows by the day. On July 27, he posted on Twitter that the community includes 42,000 members and 25 moderators who have, together, created 8,000 blog posts so far.

“You thought it was disturbing that the NSA could sift through your phone calls, email, and Web journeys?” asked Adam L. Penenberg in a piece called “The Drones Are Coming: The View from Dystopia.” “Imagine if a drone could shadow a person’s every move from thousands of feet up. Unlike CCTVs in London, these drones could be dispatched by anyone–a divorce attorney, private investigator, gossip blog operator, jealous lover, prankster, or perv.”

On Saturday, August 15, Time Magazine Senior National Correspondent Michael Grunwald tweeted that he “can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike” that would take out Julian Assange. While the tweet was deleted by Sunday in response to swift reaction from the Internet, the fact remains: drones are becoming a deep part of our national ethos.

If drones follow a similar path of innovation to personal computers, Penenberg noted, “they will get smaller, faster, smarter, cheaper, and far more commonplace.” Eventually what starts off as military technology has the potential to filter down to the street, requiring a constant evolution of new drones to counter the effects of existing drones. Their ability to withstand dangerous or hostile environments and even kill quickly without being detected means that drones will be the ultimate soldiers in the wars of the future.

In the last couple of years I’ve been interviewed a number of times about drones and the future of warfare (including for this Al Jazeera documentary, Robot Wars). While a future full of swarming drones seems inevitable, that doesn’t mean that the future of warfare will end, or even start, there.


The Future of War is Information

War has always been fought in a theater, defined as the sea, land or air in which combat would take place. As the world became increasingly interconnected, the weapons invented to protect the boundaries of nation-states became too powerful to neatly deploy within perimeters. Nuclear missiles, for example, are still perched underground in silos, poised for a counterattack in case an enemy overseas uses them first, but this scenario has become nearly unthinkable. The capacity to blow up the world many times over can only be exercised once.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to attend the Aspen Institute’s Security Forum as a futurist. My work is largely focused on strategies for maximizing the relationship between human creativity and machine technologies. Some of the attendees had flown in from Afghanistan to participate. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen was there, along with Michael Chertoff, the former United States Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush (and co-author of the Patriot Act), current Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Richard Clarke and many other figures in the field of national security. Many topics from port security to nuclear non-proliferation were discussed, but cyberwar took center stage.

In contrast to traditional theatres of war, cyberwar is nebulous and largely invisible. In a small world permeated by increasingly interconnected systems, cyberwar has an uncomfortable parallel to nuclear war in that it doesn’t just stop at the edges. Disabling a massive swath of Chinese cyber infrastructure can impact the U.S. economy just like the volcano in Iceland threatened flowers, produce and even human organs around the world as they waited, boxed on docks, for air travel to begin again. Our global economy is more interconnected than most of us realize. The power to code armageddon is always going to be one step removed from an inevitable counterattack. The wars of the future will be conceived and executed in the theater of the imagination. This requires us to imagine war itself on a different plane.

War and the Imagination

War used to be limited to a state of armed conflict between different nations or different groups within a nation or a state. By that definition, wars are happening all over the planet right now, though they are less frequent and deadly than ever before. Modern wars don’t always involve combatants conveniently costumed in identifiable uniforms carrying weapons that can be easily identified. One thing, however, hasn’t changed–wars need to be funded.

The way we choose to deploy technology has been largely the result of the priorities of our leaders and their beliefs about economic development, dominance and security. The arms trade, and all the highly engineered death toys that go along with it, is very lucrative. If wars are increasingly conceived in the imagination, which Albert Einstein called “the preview of life’s coming attractions,” this may be a good sign for humanity.


Drones are making their way into art, a sign that they are now a fixture in the human story. Artist James Bridle’s drone art is currently on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., an attempt by the artist/activist to make the invisible visible. My friends Kim Boekbinder and Warren Ellis recently told me they are working on a collaborative project called “Girl in the Strikezone,” which they call “a hallucination of the near future in which every citizen is the subject of drone devotions.”

Unlike guns, bombs and tanks (which have only destructive uses), drones and code can be weaponized, but can also be used as a force for positive change. In Women and the Art of War: Sun Tzu’s Strategies for Winning Without Confrontation by Catherine Huang and A.D. Rosenberg, the authors note that the “existing flow of male-dominated history” is changing into a course more favorable for women, not to exchange one form of power for another, but rather to “stabilize the order into a more natural balance.” In the future, as leadership qualities evolve away from characteristics traditionally considered masculine toward those perceived as feminine, practiced by leaders of both genders, there’s reason to believe that funding priorities may shift too.

Ancient wisdom adapted for the modern battlefield tells us that “the exquisite combination of universal timing and momentum … lies beyond the imagination of the majority of your competitors.” If we start educating future leaders properly now, they may have such a radically different conception of war that lethal combat might become a relic of the past, before we knew better how to choose our battles, manage relationships and prevent escalation. We are transforming along with our drones and realizing that the challenges we face can be met more effectively if we can work out a collaborative framework for minds and machines, together.

About the author

Rita J. King is the EVP for Business Development at Science House, a Global Fellow at the Salzburg Global Seminar and has served as Futurist at NASA Langley’s think-tank, the National Institute of Aerospace.