If there is one non-negotiable and undeniable characteristic defining the world we live in it would be technological advancement. Despite the already numerous clichés about the way our daily lives have been transformed in recent years due to technology, it is important to constantly stress and analyze the incredible impact that technology is having not only on the civilian sphere but, more importantly, in the military one.
The Digital Battlefield
Fighting traditional kinetic conflicts on an actual battlefield will always remain a core component of the military’s mission. But now, there is also an emerging digital “battlefield” that is just as important as the kinetic one.
This digital battlefield doesn’t just call for tech-savvy or computer-literate soldiers. Rather, it requires advanced expertise on matters such as cybersecurity, new communications technologies, and other technical capabilities to handle diverse types of hardware and software, as well as new training resources and methodologies.
In this piece, we break down some of the fastest-developing areas that are poised to play a major role in the way military operations are carried out, both from a training and execution perspective.
As the world gets more technologically sophisticated, so do enemies and threats. It is no secret that the number of cyberattacks is constantly on the rise. Cybersecurity firm Purplesec estimates that malware infections worldwide have increased from 12.4 million in 2009 to 812.67 million in 2018, and they will only keep growing.
Among these attacks, some of the most harmful ones are those that constitute acts of “cyberwarfare.” These have the goal of gaining strategic or tactical advantages. They are aimed towards critical information infrastructures or government institutions that keep extremely valuable information for the interests of millions of people. A Forbes piece titled “U.S. Military Admits Immediate Danger Is ‘Keeping Us Up At Night’” explains the difference between civilian and military-geared cyber attacks:
“In military cyber warfare, there is a mix of physical and technological — electronic systems are compromised by finding and exploiting physical vulnerabilities in the “real world,” compromising individuals, accessing physical systems themselves. In the wider, non-military world, an enemy can strike without ever leaving their desks. And they do.”
Zak Doffman, the piece’s author and the founder/CEO of Digital Barriers, a company developing advanced surveillance solutions for defense, national security, and counter-terrorism, elaborates on just how worrisome the cyberwarfare landscape is getting. This because of, among other factors, the “help” of the Internet of Things (IoT).
“The U.S. is vulnerable to attacks on its networked technology infrastructure. And with the [literally] billions of new endpoints forecast to emerge under the push to IoT this will get much worse.”
Doffman refers to the skyrocketing amount of devices being added and connected to the internet and to each other every day. Data management company Vxchnge estimates that there are 127 new devices being connected to the internet every second.
Finally, Doffman highlights the threat that this constant interconnection of devices poses for governments, private institutions, and the general population:
“Mike Brown — the former CEO of Symantec, who now leads defense innovation at the Pentagon, told the Aspen conference that ‘it’s too easy for attackers — they only have to be right one time, so there’s not enough cost. We have to figure out how we are going to — as a government and as private companies — make that a lot more difficult and have it not pay.
Brown explained that this is a mass-scale play. His point being that military cyber warfare is a dart aimed at a small section of a dartboard, but push your strike into the civilian sphere, and you have millions of darts and an (essentially) unlimited board to hit.”
A false sense of security and a lack of literacy regarding cybersecurity issues, along with the high profitability of internet attacks and the rising sophistication of hackers, are some of the factors that make cyber attacks and cyber warfare a constantly-expanding issue.
Some of the most successful video games, in terms of popularity and sales, are based on military action. Titles such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, or Counter-Strike are landmarks that can be recognized by any gamer.
Despite the bad press that these games have historically received due to their “violent” nature, it is important to acknowledge that they can also bring benefits.
In a study called The Brain-Boosting Power of Video Games, summarized by Scientific American, “psychologists Daphne Bavelier and C. Shawn Green explain how fast-paced ‘shooter’ games enhance certain cognitive functions, including […] attention, reaction times and [the ability to switch] from one task to another.”
It is important to note that these qualities seem almost exclusive to shooting games. “Surprisingly, popular marketed ‘brain-training’ games don’t seem to evince the same kinds of benefits,” the study continues.
While the audiovisual training resources used by the military can be hardly categorized as video games “traditional,” mainstream video games remain an easy-going tool for soldiers to experience the battlefield in a drastically more simplistic and entertaining way. As military news portal We Are The Mighty explains:
“In recent years, the military has encouraged many of its soldiers to partake in the thrill of violent video games as a way to continue combat training, even when not on active duty. (In fact, using games to teach military tactics has been a longstanding practice in the U.S. military: Before video games, troops were encouraged to play military-themed board games.)
The games allow soldiers to take their combat roles home with them and blur their on-duty responsibilities with their off-duty, noncombat routines and lives.”
Regardless of whether the abilities honed while playing video games translate into helpful skills on the actual battlefield, video games constitute, at the very least, a peeking window, as remote or fictional as it might be, of what a certain type of military operation might look like.
Virtual Shooting Ranges
A video game 2.0-type resource is virtual shooting ranges. The technology involved in these has long been helping the military prepare for all types of shooting scenarios. Virtual shooting ranges were introduced several years ago at various levels and divisions, providing more affordable and easier access to shooting training.
The U.S. Army has been utilizing these resources as a key component of training. It has documented their advantages over traditional, physical training methods. With characteristics similar to first-person shooting video games, but with more advanced setups and capabilities, these ranges create highly realistic perceptions of shooting situations.
“The simulated environment and weapons-fire images project onto a large screen inside a dark room, creating the atmosphere similar to an oversized arcade arena.”
Virtual ranges are highly cost-effective — they don’t require ammunition and avoid the logistics of traditional ranges, among other benefits. They also allow for ample flexibility and variety in terms of the situations and scenarios they help prepare for, as explained by the U.S. Army:
“The system saves resources including ammunition while it allows service members to become familiar with different weapon systems. Using the EST 2000, service members can train on several small arms and squad weapons systems including the M-9, M-4, and M-2. […]
First Army Division East uses virtual trainers to replicate vehicle convoy training, crew team react-to-contact training, and even simulate vehicle rollovers. Each virtual training range helps make better use of mobilization training time, money and resources by negating the need for ammunition and other training resources.”
Another example of fast-developing training resources allowing soldiers to accelerate and perfect their training are flight simulators. Unrelatability to real flying scenarios is becoming less of a concern, as new technological advancements are bringing flight simulators to a whole new level. The study “A New Real-Time Flight Simulator for Military Training Using Mechatronics and Cyber-Physical System Method” explains just how realistic and sophisticated flight simulators are becoming:
“Real flight simulators with full movement generate movements and images where pilots feel an almost 100 percent level of realism of what would happen in a real plane. These simulators combine a series of technological aspects such as the Stewart platforms that reproduce real-time movements of the simulator software at hardware level and allow stimulating the visual and vestibular system of the pilots, reaching a maximum level of knowledge of various types of favorable and adverse situations and spatial illusions.”
The development of Virtual Reality (VR) is also significantly improving the degree of realism that these simulators are able to implement. VR is also exponentially driving down the costs of operating, maintaining, and utilizing these setups. AirForce Times details the staggering differences in cost between using recently-developed flight simulators, like the ones based on HTC VIVE devices, and legacy ones.
“Despite its greater authenticity, the new technology is much cheaper than legacy simulators. Each (HTC) VIVE costs less than $1,000. And when the seat, computer, software, display screens for instructors, stick, throttle, and other equipment is factored in, each VR simulator setup runs about $15,000. So, the entire suite of 20 simulators in the “sim bay” cost about $300,000.
A legacy simulator, on the other hand, would cost about $4.5 million, (Maj. Scott Van De Water, deputy director of the Pilot Training Next program) said. And students would still have to stand in line to get their shot at the controls, one after another.”
Another area in which technology is helping the military take major steps forward concerns Special Operations Forces.
Operators, as some of the most specialized and high-risk operations groups, require extraordinary methods to succeed in battle.
Special Forces rely heavily on critical communications that, if intercepted or interrupted, can lead to mission failure and put the group in serious danger. For this reason, there is a special emphasis on developing new forms of communications with a higher degree of protection from potential enemy efforts.
Military analysis portal Armada International details the progress being made in building and developing more sophisticated and secure forms of communications, specifically waveform technology, within the area of C4ISTAR (Command and Control, Computers, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance)
“Developments in waveform technology are being undertaken in association with the US Army’s Special Contested Environment Waveform Working Group which was founded in 2017 to identify various courses of action to reduce the probability of detection and intercept of communications by adversaries.
Additional C4ISTAR requirements call for multi-channel capabilities to allow for simultaneous voice and data communications; as well as high bandwidth to support ISTAR mission feeds; and finally, an ability to establish and maintain connectivity in enclosed spaces.”
With detection and interception technologies getting more advanced as well, and the critical nature of communications in special operations, waveform technology will remain a key area for military research, investment, and development.
The technological realm is virtually endless; it will only get more prolific and sophisticated. Warfare and how military units work will continue to evolve in other ways. Nevertheless, the above five areas will continue being developed and push the growth, importance, and complexity of the digital battlefield.