"Technological and geostrategic flux."
This is how a recent Pentagon document summed up the world we are entering and the pressure that military leaders felt to understand trends ranging from terror groups running amok on Twitter to autonomous drones taking off from aircraft carriers. Indeed, in just a few weeks, the US Army's officers will gather in Washington, DC for their annual convention, the theme of which cuts to the heart of their dilemma: How can one "win in a complex world"?
This flux, and these questions, are also at the heart of Motherboard's September theme week, All Fronts, which wrestles with the many amazing ways technology is driving military change in 2015 and beyond. It's a story of the two sides of the Silicon Valley buzzword of "disruption." Disruption is about both innovation and destruction, just in All Fronts we'll explore it in a realm where the stakes couldn't be higher and these terms take on new meaning.
Much of the technology we're wrestling with couldn't have been imagined by military planners a generation back. Throughout the week, you'll learn about everything from the militarization of space with Becky Ferreira's look at how to prevent modern space war to Rachel Dovey's story of military smart underwear, which may seem amusing but could end up saving lives.
The technology that matters now is not just the physical now, though, as war is moving to the virtual domain. Tim Hwang explains how "cognitive security" matters in an age of information weapons, while Geraldine Cremin tells how "loose tweets will sink fleets." In this virtual realm, what is fun and games can also be serious. Emi Jozuka examines how virtual and mixed realities will shape the so-called networked battlefield, while Emanuel Maiberg introduces Verdun, a new multiplayer shooter set in a past world war.
It's not all tales of high tech. Sometimes, as John Ismay writes in a deep look at how the ballyhooed—and vastly more expensive—new gear that we taxpayers are spending over a trillion (yes, trillion) dollars on may not be as good as the cheaper, lower-tech solutions. Or the answer may be found in a hot rod mentality, as Cremin's tour of the factory building the "Mad Max" tanks of Ukraine shows. And, of course, the technology won't just be in the hands of the big powers, as my look at the "terrorist of tomorrow," likely using the off-the-shelf technology we can buy at the shopping mall, darkly illustrates.
So much of this reads like science fiction, and so we'll go there as well. David Axe explores a future where robots do most of our fighting for us, battling other robots. They have artificial intelligence, meaning they can learn and improve. But the one thing the bots' human masters can't allow them to learn is resentment toward people. So it's the job of our hero, a medic for injured robots, to euthanize the bots that are beginning to get rebellious. It's an entertaining story, but the narrative evokes the real world concerns driving the global debate that Nobel Prize winner Jody Williams writes about, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
Innovation is not just about reaching to the future, but letting go of the past. But will we be able to? Josh Kopstein looks at the Cuban spy station that won't die, while Doctrine Man pokes fun at the military culture wrestling with all this change.
But no matter the technology, war is a human story. It's an important point we all should be careful never to forget, and Brian Castner brings us the harrowing story of Air Force Pararescuers, the amazing elite warriors who save lives in war using a hospital emergency's latest devices and know-how. War is driven by human aggression and miscalculation and comes with human costs. Indeed, as the philosopher William James once put it war is "life in extremis." We often see both the best and worst of humanity in its maelstrom.
Or, is war really only a human story? Roisin Kiberd looks at the role of animals and animal cyborgs.
It's a whirling tour of the future, but maybe the past is prologue. We've got Alix Jean-Pharuns on the storied history of wall wars, from the Great Wall of China to Donald Trump's call for a Great Wall of America along the US-Mexico border. Sarah Baird weighs in with a retro-future piece on growing up near an Army nerve gas stockpile in a small Kentucky town, while Matt Braga takes us on a visit to the US Navy's undersea warfare training range, the realm that proved so crucial 70 years ago to the US victory in World War II, and might, in turn, be key to the next war as well.
And much, much more.
Leon Trotsky is once reputed to have said, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." Well, hopefully, the wild, crazy, and scary ride we have in store for you in All Fronts will make you interested in its future.
Peter Singer is a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, author of Ghost Fleet and Wired for War, and guest editor of All Fronts.
All Fronts is a series about technology and forever war. Follow along here.