Beyond drones: how defence experts imagine war in the 2040s

AI will help sift vast amounts of intelligence data sent from drones - thousands of them

Lockheed Martin's airborne laser turret will be fitted to aircraft built to detect, track and destroy ballistic missiles. Photo: Lockheed Martin
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For many observers of the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, low-cost drones represent the terrifying future of war, where nothing is safe from all-seeing swarms of flying machines or underwater drones that can sink warships.

But defence industry and government experts tell The National that drones are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how armies will fight in the future.

Analysts are hard at work trying to imagine how warfare might be conducted as far ahead as the 2040s, by rethinking everything from weapons to military doctrine.

“We're thinking about the 2040-plus threat environment. And we'll find the technologies and capabilities that are needed to be able to provide the necessary capability to meet those threats,” says John Stocker, who works on the Future Combat Air System, a next-generation fighter jet project known as the Tempest being developed by the UK's BAE Systems and partners in Italy, Sweden and Japan.

Drones will play a central role in future conflict – in the case of the Tempest they will be controlled by the jet acting as a kind of mothership.

The US, Nato and China are working not only on drones that are bigger, faster, smarter and more heavily armed than those seen today, but also on a series of military systems for land, sea and air that will work in tandem.

Each element in this new war will be a “system of systems”, part of a network assisted by artificial intelligence.

No one weapon – be it a type of drone, a stealth fighter or an unmanned tank – will be game-changing. The emphasis instead is on high-tech, instantaneous co-ordination on everything from alerting the network to new threats to flagging logistical problems as they happen.

AI will help sift through vast amounts of intelligence data sent from these drones, thousands of them, as well as from manned systems that have sensors to track targets across hundreds of kilometres.

In the West, this is sometimes called data-centric warfare, while China has a similar doctrine whose title has been translated as “intelligentised warfare”.

New technology such as quantum computing will be needed to make sense of so much data, which will be shared through encrypted communication channels.

Mr Stocker says systems like the Tempest could be upgraded by software downloads, like an iPhone, where operating systems would be compatible with many types of weapons, a concept known as the “combat cloud”.

William Nelson, deputy to the commanding general of the US Army Futures Command, a 17,000-strong branch of the US military focused on modernising the force for 2030 and beyond, told The National that planners needed to think “over the horizon”.

“Developing capabilities that are forward focused and designed to quickly and adaptively learn and change at the pace of an evolving battlefield is absolutely critical to future war-winning readiness,” he said.

Drones, and the buzz around them in defence circles, are just aspects of this.

“Understanding where unmanned aerial vehicle technology is headed drives an approach today that ensures we are prepared for a wide range of possible future threats,” Mr Nelson said.

Drones of mass destruction

The vision of long-range, autonomous fighter drones is a far cry from the armed quadcopters fielded by terrorist groups today, or even Iran’s most advanced explosive-filled drones like the Shahed 101, one of which is suspected to have been used by an Iraqi militia in the attack that killed three US soldiers at a base in Jordan last month.

The threat posed by low-cost drones has spurred a small industry dedicated to countering them, including innovations like lasers mounted on armoured vehicles and special radars with 360-degree coverage to detect the small, low-flying craft.

Fast forward to the 2040s, and the focus of planners looks rather different.

Drones will not only attack using explosives or scan battlefields for the enemy: they could also be used in swarms with electronic jamming equipment to overwhelm communications, something the US is also working on.

In the ocean, projects like the US's Ghost Fleet Overlord envision about 150 unmanned ships by the 2040s, and many smaller surface and underwater drones.

Another project, Golden Horde, is testing swarms of “thinking” bombs that can change targets after being released.

AI will help not only commanders to sift the information needed to co-ordinate attacks and prioritise threats and targets but it will assist pilots faced with a rapid flow of data to quickly make decisions.

A crucial part of this focus is what are loosely called sixth-generation fighters like the Tempest, which will have technology beyond the current fifth-generation jets such as stealth fighters including Lockheed's F-35 Lightning.

“AI is absolutely a key part of how we're able to support the pilots operating this type of system to help them not worry about analysing and understanding data, because there'll be vastly more data produced by this system than there ever has been previously. And the human brain is great, but you can only do so much. It's about presenting them with options and allowing them to do that,” Mr Stocker says.

Next generation aircraft will be at the heart of data-centric warfare, with stealth only one aspect. Projects in Europe, Japan and the US envision quantum computing for code cracking; rapidly improving AI, and aircraft, like the US's new B-21, acting as motherships for other drones.

It is difficult to design prototypes because some of the technology is in its infancy.

“It’s part of an integrated system. So it's not just about one aircraft, it looks at options of other types of systems,” Mr Stocker says.

“Uncrewed aircraft, as we refer to them, that could operate alongside the core platform that will help deliver overall capability alongside next generation weapons as well as the networks that will bind that together.

“If you're operating as a system, it has to be able to communicate together,” Mr Stocker says.

Networks, data and war

Data-centric warfare that “fuses” combat power from different units and branches of service is actually a couple of decades in the making, evolving from the 1990s era “network-centric warfare” but with an emphasis on drones and more computing power.

To an extent it can be seen in action in the Red Sea, where US sensors – from satellites to ship radar and airborne radar – work in tandem as a network of threat detectors against Houthi missiles, quickly assigning targets to ships or aircraft that are best placed to respond. The network is bigger than the sum of its parts.

AI as a helping hand for quick thinking will be vital as the US and Nato allies move closer to the ideal of a highly synchronised, networked attack.

Last year, AI-enabled swarms of small drones successfully tracked targets in a joint Australian, British and American exercise, but there are even more ambitious goals.

The US, for example, is planning to field at least 1,000 unmanned aircraft to accompany its F-35s and the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter, a highly classified programme, with both jets acting as motherships to the drones, also linked to its Replicator Initiative to mass produce drones.

Updated: February 19, 2024, 11:22 AM