Trying to anticipate the evolution of technology both as a warfighting capacity, and more broadly, is difficult, not least when we consider past predictions have often missed the mark. For example, U. S. Rear-Admiral Clark Woodward in 1939 suggested that an airplane wouldn’t be able to sink a ship, and this same view was shared by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who at the time was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (in 1922). We in the UK are not immune to making predictions which turn out to be inaccurate, for example, the across the British Military during World War II many were resistant to the use of machine guns due to their complexity and high fire rate.

What is undeniable in that over the last 100 years we have seen a significant shift in the landscape of technology and its use. While technology is still used to fight wars – using technology in the broadest of senses - there has been a paradigm shift in its use, to areas such as logistical, humanitarian support, health and communications (including with family and loved ones). To try and understand more about this topic, the Defence Research Network held its first Twitter Hour on the theme of ‘war and technology’. A Twitter Hour is where questions are posed (via Twitter) and the community engages in discussing the question/topic. For this theme, four questions were asked to the community:

  • What comes to mind when we say war and technology? Is it technology for good, for example, humanitarian support, or technology to wage war? Tell us your thoughts;
  • Taking a step back, and exploring the historical perspective, how has war and technology changed over the last 100 years?
  • What role do you think technology will play in future conflicts? Are we moving towards strictly cyber warfare or do you still see a role for "boots on the ground";
  • Moving away from war, how can we, as researchers, support the development of technology to support the Armed Forces Community in its health and wellbeing post conflict.

We had a fantastic response to the session, and this post will summarise the key elements of the discussion.

Up first we asked what comes to mind when we say war and technology? We had a wide variety of responses which provoked much thought among Tweeters, including: the notion of if we think of military hardware in terms of its capability, or how it will be used to the suggestion that technology appears to offer quicker, more precise, maybe even more humane way to conduct war. It was clear from the responses that technology can be used for good causes, such as humanitarian aid/support, but also be used as during war.  A full list of responses is listed below:

  • Whether we think of military hardware in terms of capabilities or what it will be used for;
  • Delivery of relevant technology in times of continuously changing warfare;
  • Lack of expertise in specialist areas e.g. cyber warfare;
  • How technology influences the way in which war is described and thought about;
  • Technology being used to wage war and then adapted for humanitarian use especially technology used in logistics;
  • War brings an increase in technological developments (e.g. radar, trauma equipment, new materials) with positive applications for society;
  • Technology appears to offer quicker, precise, possibly more humane, ways of waging wars although not always reality;
  • Available technology has always shaped warfare: symbiotic if often unpredictable relationship between civil and military technology;
  • Peaceful crossovers such as food preservation techniques.

We then took a step back to consider the historical perspective of war and technology, and asked community how war and technology have changed over the last 100 years. As suggested by the introduction on this post, things have developed quickly, but it was interesting to see what the community thought. From the use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft, to improved information flows and the use of digital technology for decision making. Moving away from ‘direct’ warfare, the role of technology in the medical domain can’t go with an acknowledgment. Technology has changed the landscape of medical care, from remote surgical care, to digital patient records, to battlefield monitoring – all of which are designed to save life. A full list of responses is listed below:

  • Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) are mindblowing in that decades ago it could take weeks to get to the battlefield;
  • Speed of information flow and decision-making is determined by digital technology, but speed of manoeuvre is still determined by the internal combustion engine;
  • Development of military communications is probably the biggest catalyst for changes in warfare. Would there have been Blitzkrieg, Deep Battle or modern manoeuvre warfare without advances in battlefield comms;
  • Change in where technological developments are driven from. Once it was military lead, today the military is more often a consumer and in most cases lacks the resources to lead across multiple tech fields;
  • Medical advances sue to war mean that frontline first aid has changed our of all recognition. Injuries that were certain death in the field or lingering death in the hospital are now survivable.

From the past, to the future now, we turn out attention to asking the community what role they think technology will play in future conflicts? Are we moving to conducting war in the cybers, or do we still need a professional ‘boots on the ground’ fighting force? The predictions from the community indicates that while we will move to autonomous systems, and cyber weapons, we will still need less ‘sophisticated methods of combat, such as boots on the ground, to tackle geographical differences. There were also suggestions that more integrated systems, such as integrating soldiers with biotechnology. A full list of responses is listed below:

  • More use of autonomous systems and cyber weapons, mixed with militarisation of social media platforms to provide disinformation and grow internal dissent;
  • Not all warfare is sophisticated so you will always need boots on the ground, especially when taking geographical differences into account;
  • Moving towards an era when technology and the soldier are much closer, perhaps even integrated thanks to biotech developments;
  • Hybrid warfare will become the norm with technology such as Bluetooth being used to detect that everyone is in the helicopter on return, to remote measurement technology of biomarkers.

And for our final question, we are moving away from war, and asking how can we, as researchers, support the development of technology to support the Armed Forces Community in delivering health and wellbeing post conflict? As researchers, we are always trying to conduct researcher that benefits the wider community and it was great to see comments such as the need to share our research online to ensure the widest possible dissemination to help promote the health and wellbeing. Other suggestions included the real need to first, understand the problem, then perform rigorous research that actually developed technology to meet the need. Finally, one commentator suggested that Artificial Intelligence could be used to support those in the field, and as they return. It is clear that technology to support the Armed Forces Community is in its infancy, and it’s a rich ground for developing innovative technology that can bring real change and benefit to the Armed Forces Community.  A full list of responses is listed below:

  • Sharing our reach online to help health and wellbeing;
  • Trying to understand the problem, conducting rigorous research and develop technology suitable for the coalface;
  • Development of ‘talking therapy’ AI systems to support people in the field and after they return.

Be sure to keep an eye on our Twitter account or Twitter Hour page for our next Twitter Hour!

Headline photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash