Friday, April 1, 2016

Imagining Wars To Come: Science Fiction, the Military, and the Wargamer

State of the art science fiction - future tank from Alexander Korda's Things to Come (1936)
As a wargamer, I'm not drawn much to SF (unless one counts a handful of W40K figures left over from my son's adolescence).   I tried WW3 based microarmour when I was an undergraduate, but it all seemed very deadly and rather tedious to me.   I do enjoy listening to other gamers imagine future conflicts - there was a very good thread on the Too Fat Lardies email list some months back with some very good commentary. I respect people like Robert Avery, whose undersung Quadrant 13 rules seem like an honest attempt to look far into the future using a simple gradient of tech levels.  However  I suspect there's a far future event horizon beyond which we simply can't imagine what war would be like, since we have no way of really envisioning future technologies, human or alien,
As a soldier, however, I take great comfort in knowing that my peers in the areas of strategy, doctrine, research and development spend a of time imagining what war in the near future will look like, even given our well-known predilection for imaging that the next war will look like the last war..   A book I reviewed recently on my other blog outines US military research in broad strokes, and includes an interesting piece on how the Pentagon is not adverse to picking the brains of science fiction writers.
There's an interesting collection of SF short stories available free here.  A US military think tank, the Atlantic Council Future Warfare Project, pulled together a number of smart writers and published their work online in a collection called War Stories From the Future. The collection includes a forward by General Martin Dempsey, who was te 18th Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, which tells you that this was not seen as a flake project.  Some of the contributors are well known SF writers like David Brin, and others are young newcomers. 
You won't find aliens or ray guns in this collection.  Instead, you'll see how much netcentric command and control systems, the computer and satellite systems by which today's miltaries are controlled, concern commanders as advantages and laibilities from kinetic attack in orbit or cyber attack on the ground.    Of my two favourites, one is "A Stopped Clock" (Madeline Ashby), which envisions a modern Asian city being shut down by cyber attack, and it's citizens trying to cope - it's a modern update of E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops".  My other favourite is Linda Nagata's "Codename Delphi", in which a small unit of US troops in armoured exoskeletons operating in an asymetric environment are still vulnerable and dependent on a  remotely-located civilian battlespace manager giving them real time intelligence and telemetry updates.  
Some of the stories are downright tedious and poorly written, but they all have something to say about what war will probably look like at some point in the 21st century.
So here's a question.  If you were to design a wargame or rules system for, say, 2060, how might it look different from war today?  Autonomous hunter-killer robots?  Advanced UAVs?  Enhanced human soldiers with neural networks and load-bearing exoskeletons?  Jammers to negate C3 systems?   How would you preserve the importance of the human element (leadership, training, morale, endurance) while modeling disparities in tech levels between combatants^
What would your near-future war look like or would you even want to go there?


  1. What is curious is the options and mistakes in the Global Mind War. Back in the 70s I saw a magazine article with two lists. One list was of things the Communists said was wrong with Capitalism and the other what the Capitalists said was wrong with Communism. The Commies said that Planned Obsolescence was bad about Capitalism.

    Since then I noticed that the Capitalist economists do not compute the depreciation of those goods designed to become obsolete and obviously do not suggest that accounting be mandatory in the schools. But double-entry accounting is 700 years old. So why didn't the Communists use this in the Propaganda War in the 1950s? Looks like it could have been a Strategic Error to me. What do the weapons matter if you can defeat the minds?

    1. Thank you for your comment. I am not sure I quite understand your point, and I am not sure I agree with the idea of Planned Obsolescence. Take the various versions of the Apple iPhone - each delivers an advancement that legions of consumers have happily purchased. Smarthphones have changed banking, communications, inspired countless startups. That sounds like a capitalist success story to me.

  2. Michael - to be honest, I'd rather not think about future war, but that is a pretty stupid standpoint. As always, I think I'd start with a lot of questions, and the first would be in the areas of what future wars will be about, and what their objectives will be. There's a vast history of wars about obvious (let's call them First Order) motives - land conquest, securing of wealth-generating colonies, we want that big meadow behind the forest - then there's political stuff like we are declaring war on you because you are allied with X and we are worried about his ambitions in the Middle East (which is not a million miles away from the effect of the Russia/France alliance before WW1) or because we are determined to defend the balance of power in a particular region/continent - let's call this Second Order (sorry about this, I'm really just showing off my lack of real knowledge here). There appears to be a Third Order around at the moment - an aggressor does not actually own any territory, does not have any positive aims other than disruption or destruction of the established order - IS may be an example - you can't hurt me because I have no territory to attack or conquer, and my soldiers are not affected by normal human values such as respect for life or even fear - you cannot recognise me, you cannot intimidate me, you cannot defeat me by taking away my land or my property - I will always come back at you, just because i can - just out of hate.

    If I'm terrified of anything in the line of warfare, it is that one day some group with no inhibition and no conscience will get hold of a cheap nuke from somewhere, and blow us all up just to spite everyone. If that is your future war, then the big problem I have is what the sci-fi machines will be fighting over - who will deploy them, what will they be trying to do.

    Not trying to spoil your game here, which is a good one; just a few heavy definitions I need to get my head round. A real future war may not be something I can visualise just at the moment. I think that Russians and even Israelis are not daft enough to start a major international war, but I have no expectations at all of terrorists. How sad would it be if civilization was eventually ended by a group whose objectives no-one could actually understand? Is that irony or what?

    Apologies - I fear I have not entered into the spirit of this, but it is a sincere failure, at least...

    1. Good points Tony. I think we are largely past the First and Second Order causes beli. There may be some regimes, such as Putin's Russia, with revanchist blood and volk dreams of conquest, but I think those agendas have been largely superseded by neoliberalism with its myriad trade and security agreements. Whether neoliberalism survives the next few decades, if the EU collapses and a populist US president starts tearing up trade agreements, is in question.
      I read in the NYT today an article on the US and China, where two senior US military officers were overheard musing about whether they would really want to go to war over a Pacific atoll claimed by China. I suppose we could blunder into a war because someone called someone's bluff over the Spratley Islands, or Taiwan, or Estonia, but I'm not sure how much political will there would be to go to war over a minor piece of real estate, and frantic efforts to deescalate if, say, US and Chinese ships started shooting at each other.
      The Third Order threats, as you say, are the most terrifying. The nuclear conference currently underway is talking about ISIS and nuclear material, as I understand it. That scarcely bears thinking about.

  3. I would imagine that distributed computing and drones will be significant force multipliers. Culturally, I think the technological gap between collectively focused societies (like China) and the individually focused societies (like the West) has narrowed - how that will work out is another story. Unlike Stephen Pinker I don't think we are seeing the end of violence as an instrument of policy, I do think that it will be different. Nassim Taleb has some interesting observations on the those trends and is well worth looking at.

    Dispersed, hyper violent and lacking a clear demarcation between war and peace. Controlling the narrative will be of key importance as it places a check on the nuclear options. Do you reckon the atomic genie will remain in the bottle in your lifetime?

    1. Thank you CK. I confess I didn't know about Nassim Taleb, though I have heard the parse Black Swan being used a lot recently and now know where it comes from. He's on my reading list.
      I think two things to watch for in battlefields of the future will be computing power, as you note. The US Third Offset Strategy is an attempt to maintain a technological edge against its likely opponents, but as you say, the technology gap is closing. Gone are the days, I think, when US forces can feast on numerous but technologically primitive opponents like the Iraqi army. The future will be a much more close-run thing.
      The atomic genie worries me. There's a lot of talk in the defence press about Russia's emerging doctrine of "deescalatory" use of nuclear weapons, to freeze or end a conflict with a decisive local use of a nuclear weapon, knowing that no one will want to go any further up that ladder. Also, there is India-Pakistan - the Indians have pledged never to allow another Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attack like Mumbai, and if they send their numerous tanks into Pakistan, a nuclear response is quite likely.

  4. Hi Michael,
    That's an interesting post and a thought-provoking question. I like Things To Come and most H.G. Wells stories. I have been reading and observing human history for over 5 decades. Here is my stab at being Nostradamus.
    The trend I see is the accelerating accumulation of the world's wealth by a continually shrinking percentage of its population. Since they are not going to enact or enforce any laws to mitigate their greed, this will eventually lead to an epic crash, not just of the economy, but of civilization; possibly by 2060, but within 100 years or so. I deduce that this is the primary impetus behind the development of robotic weaponry -- they learned from the Russian Revolution that you can't get the troops to fire on their own families when they sympathize with their plight.
    Assuming the elites don't manage to exterminate the majority of the population with an engineered plague for which they already possess the antidote, I foresee our future wars being mostly small-scale affairs of two types. The most common will be fought between competing groups of survivors over whatever resources they can locate using whatever weapons they can scrounge. The other will be the occasional assault on a robot-protected bastion of the elites by one or more of these groups of survivors.
    It might make for an interesting gaming experience. I don't do sci-fi gaming, but I know there are post-apocalyptic rule sets available, and figures too.

    1. Thank you for these remarks. Your dystopian scenario is quite grim and I would love to read the SF novel that it could be the blueprint for.
      It's interesting to think that the Second World War was cast as a Total War and the Peoples' War, in which social and class divisions were submerged in the nation's struggle. We don't think much about how widening inequality and scarcity of resources could lead to a different sort of war looking more, as you say, like the Russian Revolution. With the erosion of the power of nation states, and the new phenomenon of modern mercenaries (military contractors such as Blackwater), a scenario such as the one you describe seems plausible.

  5. I confess to extreme laziness/willful blindness wrt future war but tend towards John's views with a heavy dash of Orwell, at least in the near future.

    L suspect that the Big Money that really controls most governments, if only indirectly by control of media and influential financing and not something more sinister, would stop any move towards something very damaging to profits. The modern trend towards supplementing and even replacing big nation human bodies with profitable, expendable, continually out dated, technology will continue, preferable against those unable to respond in kind. Hence ever more endless, profitable and distracting asymetrical conflict abroad. At home, it will be a balancing act to avoid tipping civil discontent into smoldering, under reported/down played urban insurrection by any other name pitting paramilitary high tech police vs lower tech rebels with not enough to worry about losing and possibly not enough to win.

    Not a very glamorous prospect on either front but I'm sure there will be expensive military glamour on display to wow people with how ready their country is to defend them against "threats".

    1. Thanks Ross. Your final comment on the manufacturing of threats at first struck me as being rather cynical, but now I think it is quite astute. What do threats mean to those of us in the first world, who have seen the lines between national borders become increasingly fuzzy due to globalization, who have seen our standard of living erode and jobs lost to foreign workers, and who have (if we're wealthy enough) seen more of the world than any other generation in history? Will people today think it's worth going to war over a geopolitical conflict like, say, Taiwan or Lithuania, when the age-old motivators of King, God and country are faded and gone? When we all are aware of existential threats like the oceans rising three feet this century, or the good water disappearing, will we be willing to fight against some other country when we are increasingly aware of our identities as humans on a shared planet?

  6. I find this topic too complex really.

    My only approach to modern wargaming has been while testing TFL's unpublished rules Fighting Season, dealing with asymmetrical conflicts like Afghanistan or Iraq; and frankly it has nothing to do with Starwars, Space 1999 or fiction written/filmed in the 70s trying guessing how wars would look like at the end of the 20th century.

    Future battlefield landscape? Well, not the same fighting movements like ISIS or engaging North Korea (or China or Russia!); so first we need to establish what context.

    Then to understand the objectives of engaging in a fighting: from the recent conflicts is clear that military objectives are totally useless and that coordinated economic, social inclusive and diplomatic initiatives are necessary. This will have an impact on the type of resources that will be used and of course the tactics.

    Not sure if I have added anything of value to the discussion.

  7. Have you read "Ghost Fleet" published last year? Some very interesting concepts in there about hybrid human/drone units

    1. I did read it, Paul. Several US military bloggers, like From the Green Notebook (Joe Byerly) had good things to say about it, and I liked it, in part. You could tell it was written by a couple of defence analysts, because the prose was a bit hackneyed and the characters one dimensional, but it did seem plausible.

    2. I agree completely - interesting ideas it had and written to a Tom Clancey-esque style. But professional fiction authors they are not.

  8. As a SF wargamer, and aspiring SF author, my thoughts on this subject are perhaps a little left field. I will start with that no-one can predict the future successfully in any degree of detail. Those few instances where a writer or Think Tank got it right can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Extrapolating second order effects from the introduction of new technology, in this case the war machines of the industrialized nations becoming networked and changing to an internet of things that can be used to control other things is on the table will only become obvious after the event.

    I will posit some developments: psychological casualties will exceed physical casualties, the world stage will be more balanced – think The Great Game of the 19th Century – and new technology will force the development of new doctrine – much as happened in WW1 and WW2 with tanks, aircraft and radios.

    As for a nuclear exchange – India and Pakistan, the Middle-East and perhaps South Africa (though that seems less likely) are possible, but the main driver of war will be resources: food and water, the latter driving the former – lots of economic factors driving these two things (oil and climate change being two of them).

  9. an interesting post Michael, we were only talking at our club a few weeks ago about venturing into sci-fi but very low tech, infact I am thinking about using my modern Russians with a few add on's. Certainly not flying cars and beam weapons, as to the future I think you will see more automation we were thinking perhaps drone tanks, and sentry guns for starters.... but your post has got me thinking now...


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