Although the Star Wars saga is set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, the machinery and weaponry used in those films are far, far more advanced than what we currently have. Star Wars-style weapons may be the stuff of science fiction and we aren’t likely to see any light sabres anytime soon, but other things like lasers and robots are currently being developed.
Laser technology has been around since the 1960s but it’s only recently that it’s really being developed for use in warfare.
Both the British and American militaries have cutting edge laser weapons in the works.
The UK Ministry of Defence for example has contracted a consortium called UK Dragonfire to produce a laser weapon prototype by 2019. The US Navy meanwhile has contracted Lockheed to develop two laser weapon systems by 2020. Not to be outdone, the US Air Force has awarded a contract, also to Lockheed, to develop a high-power fibre laser to test on a fighter jet by 2021.
Laser is already being utilised to some extent for military use though it’s not common. The US Navy, for example, has a weapon system called XN-1 LaWS which can burn through slow-flying planes, and this has been in operation since 2014.
The US Army has 60-kilowatt laser that, when mounted on a truck, can be used to destroy rockets, artillery, missiles, drones and other ground vehicles.
The US Department of Defence favours lasers because, unlike the colourful versions you see in Star Wars, the ones actually used in earth-based warfare is invisible. It also moves at the speed of light because it’s light. Perhaps best of all, unlike bullets which can run out, lasers can strike repeatedly without a need to reload any ammunition. It’s like having an endless supply of light bullets.
The huge robots you see in the Pacific Rim movies and in the Ironman 3 movie feature robots that can fight in wars but in both those movies, those robots are controlled by humans. Now imagine autonomous robots which are designed to kill the enemy.
Such robots, programmed with artificial intelligence (AI) precisely so they can act autonomously, is likely to be a part of future warfare as many of the major nations are working on this concept.
In December 2016, 123 member countries of the United Nations’ Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons voted to begin formal discussions on autonomous weapons, which doesn’t just consist of robots but includes tanks, machine guns and drones.
AI sceptics like Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking have raised concerns about such weapons and even wrote an Open Letter to the UN about the consequences of developing these things.
“Autonomous weapons, which threaten to usher in the third revolution in warfare after gunpowder and nuclear arms, will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend.
These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways.”
The main concern among opponents of autonomous weapons is that without human input, you could see massive, widespread destruction and killing. No doubt, using robots to fight a ground war will save soldiers’ lives, but it can also result in an overall greater loss of human life because a robot programmed to do something will carry on until its mission is complete. There would be no mercy, no hesitation, no stopping it. And what happens
if something goes wrong and it goes after the wrong target, either because of a glitch or perhaps a hack?
“We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s Box is opened, it will be hard to close,” said Musk, Hawking and others who signed the Open Letter to the UN.
Well, if you listen to experts in this field, when it comes to this Pandora’s Box it’s just a question of when, not if, it will be opened.
It’s unlikely that AI-powered, autonomous robot soldiers will be taking the battlefield anytime soon though because robot technology is still not that advanced. If you go on YouTube and look at robot contests where companies have their robots try to overcome obstacles, you’ll see how clumsy today’s robots still are. But a recent video clip by Boston Dynamics makes it clear that improvements are happening.
In that video, a humanoid robot is seen doing a back flip off a raised platform and landing perfectly on its feet. Now, there’s still a huge gap between robot that can do a back flip and an autonomous robot that can take to the battlefield, run, crawl and evade enemy fire. But it’s a sign of things to come.
PLANES AND DRONES
In the past, the huge development when it came to planes was making them invisible to radar. Stealth technology took care of that. The next step now is to make planes that are smarter, faster and capable of being flown unmanned. There are advanced developments in all three areas. If you want to see what a smart fighter jet looks like, look no further than the F-35, an American plane that has no less than eight million lines of code. It has been aptly described as a flying computer that can take in huge amounts of data, analyse it on board and display the relevant information on the fighter pilot’s helmet. The plane can also communicate with other F-35s. If one F-35 detects an enemy plane on its radar but is out of the range of the other F-35s, that information is automatically relayed to all the other F-35s.
When it comes to speed, Lockheed Martin’s SR-72 is the likely champion. Lockheed Martin was the company that introduced the SR-71 Blackbird in 1976.
Travelling at Mach 3 (or three times the speed of sound), the Blackbird could fly from London to New York in under two hours. It’s still the fastest plane around but it will in time (around 2030) be eclipsed by the SR-72 which is expected to operate at Mach 6.
When it comes to unmanned planes, we’re basically looking at drones, which can be used in swarms to strike with precision.
Drones can also be used to accompany and protect fighter jets and ships which are manned, as they enter into enemy territory. Drones are particular effective because of their small size.
Anti-aircraft systems are not designed to track such small flying objects.
War is hell and we all hope that humankind will never see another World War (two is more than enough already). With all these modern Star Wars-like weapons being developed, there’ll be more destructive power than ever before in human history.
But it might just be possible that the existence of these powerful weapons could actually serve as a deterrent to war because of the realisation that this could result in mutual assured destruction (MAD).
It was MAD, after all, that has so far prevented a nuclear war from happening. Of course there’s the danger that such weapons could fall into the hands of rogue nations or terrorists, but the technological sophistication involved with computer code, artificial intelligence, and advanced robotics means that these weapons will be the preserve of the superpowers and not rogue nations or terrorists. Since Pandora’s Box is going tobe opened let’s hope MAD prevails among these advanced nations.
OON YEOH IS A CONSULTANT WITH EXPERIENCES IN PRINT, ONLINE AND MOBILE MEDIA. REACH HIM AT OONYEOH@ GMAIL.COM