Rapid technological advances are changing the very shapes, scope and speed of warfare, literally turning science fiction into science fact. Miniaturization, computer-aided controls and intense materials research are propagating more deadly weapons and countermeasures in the air, at sea, on the ground and, increasing, in the final frontierspace.
There can be few people in the West who are not aware of the extraordinary technological explosion that is taking place all around them. Pocket computers, unheard of thirty years ago, are now commonplace; hand-held cordless telephones are beginning to become fashionable in peoples homes; there are talking computers in private motor-cars; word-processors abound in offices; factories are full of robots; in the skies supersonic travel in Concorde is now a matter of simple routine for British Airways and Air France; and flights of Americas Space Shuttle are becoming so regular it has been described as a Spaceliner it is even taking non-professional astronauts as passengers, including a US Senator! This advanced technology is greeted as a wonder when it arrives, but within months, perhaps even weeks in some cases, it is considered commonplace.
If this is the case in everyday civilian life then it is even more so in the military fields where technological advances are leading to developments which are quite literally turning science fiction into science fact.
The purpose of this web site is to investigate the defence-related technological developments that are taking place, not just on the battlefields of the world and within the armed forces which face each other over many disputed borders, but also in the laboratories. Indeed, in some cases it could perhaps deciding World War Three in their laboratories today. However, it must be made clear that high technology is manifest not simply in the hardware the ships, aircraft and tanks which epitomizes military might, but also in the materials from which the equipment is made, the power source which makes it work and, increasingly, the electronics which provide its command and control functions.
Sometimes such advances can be totally hidden from the public eye in many ways are quite unglamorous, yet their effect is profound. For example, as equipments have become more complicated and more dependent upon electrical and electronic control, they have required ever-increasing amounts of wiring in general terms, two wires for each circuit. Such wiring is expensive, heavy, frequently a fire hazard, and very demanding in maintenance resources. Today, however, such wiring is being increasingly replaced by multiplexers, which stack up circuits electronically, and then pass them over one pair of wires, or even over a fibre-optical cable.
Above: Many significant advances in military technology are hidden from public gaze. For example, miles of heavy, fault-prone electrical wiring can now be replaced by fibre-optics which carry enormous amounts of information at high speed, saving both space and weight.
Above: Aerodynamicists are now looking at daring new concepts to improve aircraft performance, especially in combat. The F-16 needs a computer to enable it to stay in their air, while this Grumman X-29 has forward-swept wings and canard control surfaces: inherently unstable, but highly manoeuvrable.
Above: The effective life of new technology is getting shorter. Solid-state laser rangefinders entered service just a few years ago, but they are already outdated by this carbon-dioxide laser which penetrates battlefield smoke and dust far more effectively than its predecessor does.
In air warfare new shapes are taking to the skies with novel wing designs, new engines and armaments with totally new capabilities. Perhaps the most significant of the known developments, however, is stealth a combination of various technological advances that results in an aircraft which might ultimately be invisible to radar, electronic, visual and aural detection. If this technology really is as good as is claimed then it will, of course, lead to a great dilemma, in that it will be impossible to tell whether or not your opponent also has such an aircraft because, by definition, you will not be able to detect it!
In land warfare, technology is leading to major advances in many areas, with one of the key fields being that of the armour/anti-armour confrontation, where there is an interesting example of the point/counter point competition in military technology, which is making a direct and important contribution to the ever-escalating cost of defence hardware.
In the 1950s and 1960s one of the major defences against the tank was the hollow-charge warhead: this had excellent penetration capabilities which, most importantly, were not dependent upon the speed of the projectile. This meant that man-portable, accurate and reasonably lethal anti-tank weapons could be designed for the infantry; many missile systems were designed on this basis, such as the US TOW, the British Swingfire and the Soviet Swatter, Sagger and Spandrel. However, the British Chobham armour, a ceramic sandwich material of highly classified composition, apparently provides excellent protection against such warheads and thus virtually negates a whole generation of anti-tank weapons. The other major type of warhead, and one not defeat by Chobham armour, is the kinetic energy round, but reactive armour (such as the Israeli Blazer) has now been develop which may reduce the effect even of this. Thus, vast sums are now having to be spent by both Warsaw Pact and NATO nations to develop an anti-tank warhead which will defeat both these new types of armour and restore the effectiveness of the defence once again.
At sea arguments rage about the effectiveness of surface ships and their value in the primary maritime tactical battle: that of anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Ships have in many ways changed remarkable little in the past 40 years in fundamental technology, or in size and shape, although internally there have been great advances, especially in electronics, and command and control. In naval armaments the primary weapon is now the missile, while the gun, although in no way obsolete, has nevertheless been firmly relegated to second place, except perhaps as an anti-missile weapon.
Perhaps one of the more significant developments at sea, if not the most widely understood, has been the rapid advance in submarine technology. Unlike that of surface ships, the speed of submarines has increased by a factor of at least four in the past 40 years, and many submarines can now outpace their surface hunters. Most significant of all, however, has been the emergence of the submarine as a strategic weapon system with the ability to carry out direct attacks against the opponents land m ass, using ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles, as well.
The effectiveness, and unique value, of the strategic missile submarine lies in its ability to hide itself in the depths of the ocean. However, vast sums have been, and will continue to be, devoted to ASW technology, and in particular to finding new means of locating and tracking submerged submarines. Should there be a breakthrough and there seems to be no reason why there should not then the SSBNs invulnerability as a second strike deterrent will be seriously eroded, even if not totally negated. Such a technological breakthrough may be difficult and expensive, but experience shows that given the incentive and resources scientists can now produce the solution to almost any problem. In such a case the effort to counter a ballistic missile attack needs to swing from deterrence to an effective defence.
Just such considerations are behind President Reagans Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), where it is proposed that an effective non-nuclear defence should provide the United States (and perhaps her allies, too) a virtually invulnerable umbrella against incoming ICBMs and SLBMs. For many people SDI is seen as an unnecessary escalation of the arms race and a negation of the US strategists own arguments about deterrence. However, if it is seen as one possible outcome of an appreciation that SSBNs are reasonable step one that could led to a dramatic change in the balance of strategic power.
One of the more significant areas of technological advance has been in sensors, which enable man to detect, locate, classify and track enemy devices beyond the range available through his own senses. Radar, discovered just before World War II, is now capable of operating effective far beyond the horizon, and of providing such an accurate image of a target that the very class of ship can be determined, or even, by scanning from one aircraft to another astern, determining what type of engines is being used (by make) and thus aiding positive identification. Optical sensors are also developing fast; indeed, the limiting factor tends to be the control and aiming technology rather than of the optical device itself. As is shown in this website, it is now feasible to aim a laser at a space-borne mirror and use the reflected beam to help modify the outgoing beam in such a way that it corrects itself; such a beam can then be used to communicate with submerged submarines thousands of miles away.
The computer revolution, while significant in civil life, has been revolution in military sphere. As sensors have multiplied in numbers and capability, as weapons systems have become increasingly electronically controlled, and as the military forces have become ever faster moving, so the requirements for effective command, control and communications (the so-called C3) has become ever more pressing. The solution has become available through the development of very powerful digital computers and communications systems, and this, allied with the concurrent dramatic reduction in size of electronic devices, enables scientists to produce equipment which helps commanders to keep control of the fluid battle situation.
Above: British Challenger main battle tank and MCV80 armoured personnel carrier, the very epitomy of modern military might. Technologically very advanced, they are conceptually little different from MBTs and APCs used thirty years ago. In twenty years time they could be as out-of date as the dinosaur.
Above: As the land battle has become ever faster and more complex command and control methods have had to be brought up to date to enable commanders to maintain control over events. Displays such as this depend upon reliable, secure computers and communications systems.
Another revolution is under way in metallurgy and non-metal materials. Well established materials such as steels and aluminium alloys are now being used less frequently as technology enables new materials to be used in production processes. Thus, for examples, most of the new tank armours are based on some form of ceramic sandwich. Titanium has long been known as a metal that is very strong, very light and (extremely important in some applications) non-magnetic. The West has not been able to develop a production process which would enable titanium to be welded without some 200 passes of the machine; obviously an expensive, time-consuming process. But the Soviet Union has enable the weld to be made in just six passes, and thus they are able to construct submarines of this excellent material. Another remarkable material is the Swiss-based Dupont companys Kevlar, a very strong and very light carbon-fibre material, and which has found many military applications from infantrymans body armour to aircraft components.
A material that has had a marked effect on military equipment is plastics, which appears in an almost infinite number of varieties. Combining light weight with considerable strength and durability, allied to ease of manufacture, plastic seemed to be ideal for many military uses until the South Atlantic War of 1982 showed that many plastics products suffer some serious limitations as both fire and gaseous hazards. This is an example of a not-uncommon occurrence, where a major advance in one field produces a significant step back in another.
Advancing technology also has both a positive and a negative that of cost. In some areas technology has without a doubt brought the cost of military equipment down. As with domestic devices such as radios and hi-fi, home computers and wrist watches, mush in the military electronics field is very cheap compared with 20 years ago. However, while the relative cost of electronic hardware may have decreased in many instances, the cost of software has escalated rapidly, to the point where it far outweighs that of hardware. Even worse, it also seems to continue escalating throughout the life of the equipment.
In major equipments, such as ships, tanks and aircraft, the development and manufacturing costs have reached a point where few but the largest and wealthies nations will be able to afford the most sophisticated equipment that scientists can provide. The cost of a main battle tank (MBT), for example, has increased from £250,000 for a Centurion in the mid-1950s to £1,250,000 for a Challenger today. Technology can help in some ways, by providing cheaper and less manpower-intensive manufacturing processes, or cheaper components, but all too frequently it also seems to escalate the costs by encouranging the user to ask for yet more capability to be built into a particular platform.
Above: The US is devoting great resources to laser-weapon programmes, one of which has been the Airborne Laser Laboratory (ALL) mounted in an NKC-135. This drone was destroyed when the laser burned through its skin, destroying vital components. Subsequently, the ALL downed five Sidewinder AAMs in five separate engagements.
Below: Microminiaturization, such as in this tiny, but sophisticated electronic component of the Trident I SLBM (left), enables designers to produce ever more capable weapons systems which are nevertheless smaller, lighter and more reliable. However, this is achieved only at a great increase in development and capital costs, to the point where many nations can no longer afford many of the systems that technology offers.
Above: An Earth-generated laser beam being reflected toward a high-altitude target by a space-based mirror, a concept tested on the June 1985 US Space Shuttle mission. This is one of many ideas being researched in President Reagans Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), popularly called Star Wars.
An area of increasing concern to strategists is that of fuel. Apart from a relatively few nuclear-powered ships, all military equipment is dependent upon fossil fuels for its power. The problem is two-fold: not only is the worlds supply obviously finite, but much of the current resources are controlled by a relatively small number of producer. Efforts are being made in some nations to find new fuels, but such efforts seem to be concentrated into particular fields. For example, fuel-cell research for submarine power is being undertaken with a view to powered submarines from having to go regularly to the surface rather than for the simple purpose of replacing oil as a fuel.
The final word, however, must be on the subject of space. In the popular television programme Star Trek space is described as the final frontier and this seems to be a remarkably accurate description of the situation. Military space commands have been set up in the USA and the USSR where generals are as responsible for the space combat zone as other commanders are responsible for a continent or an ocean. The Soviets put far more military than civilian missions into space, and the USA, after zone very well-publicized civil flights, recently made a very highly classified military flight with their Space Shuttle. There have been a number of serious proposals for space interceptors, and actual anti-satellite tests have been carried out. Many of the current satellites have military roles.
Above right: In a popular TV series, space is described as the final frontier, and it could well be that this turns out to be an accurate description, not just for peacefully exploration, but for warfare, as well. Already there is great military use of space by both superpowers mainly for spying and communications. A third of Americans planned Shuttle missions are military.
All this tends to suggest it is inevitable that space will become an area of military conflict, where high technology will rule, and the final frontier may well become the final battlefield.