Welcome to World War III

You know, we haven’t had a truly modern war yet but we are now about to do just that. In fact, it has already started.

Our recent wars have been fought with equipment and tactics that harken back to WWII.  In this new world, the Abrams tank is nothing more than a millstone around the Army’s neck  Our aircraft, aircraft carriers, surface ships and submarines are relics of a previous epoch.  Both the strategies and tactics these artifacts force us into are outdated by the nature of the electronic battlefield.

A truly modern war will be fought electronically by adversaries who are screwing with each other’s information structures. They will be fought in space, as we knock each other’s satellites out of commission, using high-powered lasers concealed in commercial satellites that have maneuvering capabilities comparable to down-looking surveillance satellites. High-powered lasers have a unique advantage: they never run out of ammunition. As long as there’s sunlight to convert to electrical energy, the lasers will keep working.

Some adversaries will detonate nuclear device in low earth orbits over each other’s territories that will generate electromagnetic pulses that will fry the entire computer-based infrastructure, anything that has not been specifically hardened to withstand an EMP…and those hardened infrastructures may or may not be hard enough. Since we haven’t detonated a nuclear device since 1992…before we converted to digital technology…we have no idea if those hardened sites are hard enough.

The net result of an EMP attack would begin with basic services. Municipal water systems will shut down because they will be unable to control the flow of water….or bill their customers for the water they have consumed. Electrical grids will shut down because the transformers will be burnt to a crisp by the EMP. As a result, almost all electric vehicles will become useless but that doesn’t matter because gasoline pumps can’t pump gasoline without electricity and they can’t bill credit card customers. (In hurricane prone areas, many gasoline stations have their own emergency generators, but that doesn’t mean the electronically controlled pumps will work after an EMP attack.) There would be no traffic lights, no street lights, no telephone service, and no internet service. In fact, all commerce based upon credit card usage with simply stop dead in its tracks. From one minute to the next we would be thrust back into the 18th century.

Don’t have nuclear weapons or the systems needed to loft them into low earth orbit. No problem, because hackers can cause the same exact calamities without an EMP. Weaponized hackers will hack their way into each other’s command and control systems, wreaking havoc, while others will be saturating social media with false rumors designed to dishearten each other’s troops and civilian populations  Within multi-ethnic countries, open conflicts will break out between groups with historical animosities toward each other. Denial of services attacks will shut down  hospitals and clinics, the banking system, along with water and sewer, electrical service telephonic communications, and the  internet services upon which we are now dependent.

Regardless of whether the attack employed an EMP ore a team of talented hackers, the results will be that the nations who have surveillance satellites aloft will lose their information advantage. We will be fighting blind. Since we have long since become dependent upon those satellites for both communications and intelligence, there will be wholesale breakdowns in communications between the command levels and the operators in the field. Communications from the presidential level all the way down to company commanders in the field will be disrupted, which means the commanders will have no idea what’s going on in the field, and the troops in the field will not be able to call for support or extraction.

A truly modern war will be fought with smart drones equipped with artificial intelligence. A truly modern war will be fought asymmetrically a far piece away from the population centers of the adversaries, where a stateless cohort of fanatics has access to the same technology as last year’s super powers.

In this modern warfare, our 11 nuclear aircraft carriers – the best in the world – will fail us as they are inundated by thousands of smart drones. Our nuclear submarines – the best in the world – will be tracked down and destroyed by submersible drones we can’t even see and against which we have no defense except drones of our own. Our tanks – the best in the world – will be overwhelmed by microbombs delivered by drones the size of your fist. Our aircraft – the best in the world – will be overmatched with hundreds of drones attacking and destroying each plane.

This isn’t science fiction. This is starting to happen right now in Ukraine, Russia, Israel and Iran. We aren’t completely there yet, but we are well on our way.

Let’s be very clear about one thing: tactical ballistic rockets may be much larger than your average drone, if there is such a thing,  but that’s all they really are,  very large drones.  So, when Iran attacked Israel with a combination of  three hundred rockets and drones, Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome held firm (with some assistance from the United States and several other friendly nations, including Jordan.)  Attacking Israel with THREE THOUSAND devices at the same time might overwhelm the Iron Dome, which was not designed to absorb attacks of that size.  Attacking with 20,000 drones and rockets will definitely overwhelm the Iron Dome because, when the Iron Dome is concentrating on the drones, it can’t focus on the rockets and vice versa.

It all boils down to economics. It takes billions of dollars, and years of effort, to produce one new aircraft carrier, but the same amount of money could pay for millions of drones that could be available for use in a matter of days or weeks, depending upon who you buy them  – or their components – from.  The same logic pertains to other naval vessels, aircraft, and mechanized armor. In fact, you can buy killer drones for much less than the $13 billion we spent on the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford.

There are quite a few science fiction novels that describe the use of androids in military operations but reality has bypassed the robot infantry.  In the 2019 film, Angel Has Fallen, the president of the United States (played, of course, by Morgan Freeman), is attacked by a flight of self-directed mini-drones launched from a truck equipped with multiple launching tubes.  The drones take out the entire presidential security team, except for Freeman and Gerard Butler, who plays the intrepid Secret Service agent Mike Banning. The same type of self-directed drones could be used to attack ground forces from overhead or down at knee level, and it would be impossible for infantry units to defend themselves from such assaults.

In 2019, the concept of launching hundreds of self-directed drones was considered science fiction. On April 13 of 2024, Iran committed an act of war against Israel, using drones. This is actually the first time that Iran has ever struck Israel. (To be fair, Israel bombed the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, Syria, on April 1, killing seven Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers, including three high-value targets.) Since the Iranian embassy in Damascus is technically Iranian sovereign ground, this was an act of war by Israel against Iran.  Israel’s cause of action was that much of the support being channeled to Hamas was coming from Iran via Syria.

Hamas has been launching missile and drone attacks on Israel since 2007, a date that coincides with the Israeli-American cyber attack on Iran’s uranium refinery, disabling twenty percent of the centrifuges…but these attacks have never risen beyond the annoyance level….until Hamas attacked Israel directly on October 7, 2023.

However, the most salient point about the Iranian  attack – a supposed retaliation for an April 1 Israeli missile attack on the Iranian Embassy in Damascus –  is that it was a gesture, not a genuine retaliation because the attacks were aimed at relatively isolated targets, rather than Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or Haifa. Iran wanted to make a statement. not go to war against Israel, a country with which it shares no borders and against which its chances of success would range between slim and none.

Iran actually informed the United States (through Switzerland) exactly when the attack was going to be launched and exactly which targets had been selected, so that the US could tell the  Israelis when the attack was coming and where they were going to be hit.

In order to launch a ground attack against Israel, Iran would have to cross Iraq, Iran’s sworn enemy for many centuries, or go through Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, all of whom have strong financial and political ties with Israel today, and none of whom would allow an Iranian army to pass through their territories unopposed. (In actuality, since none of these nations have the military capacity to defend themselves against Iran, the United States – and Israel – would inevitably be drawn into the conflict if Iran chose to launch a ground attack against Israel.)

Three hundred drones and missiles is nothing. Iran could easily have launched three thousand projectiles and might have the capacity to launch ten thousand more…but they didn’t because they really don’t want to get into a shooting war with Israel which has the technological expertise to destroy Iran’s entire computer infrastructure in the same manner that they destroyed Iran’s uranium enrichment program in 2010.

Drones have been in use by the military for more than two decades, but now their time has come. Drones have arrived as weapons of war. Produced in large numbers, released in large scale attacks, these faster, smaller drones are virtually impossible to detect and interdict. (The ones that Iran used were larger, slower, long-distance drones that are easily targeted and destroyed.)

The bottom line is that the U.S. military – and every other first-world military that has been built to either support or oppose the U.S. military – is basically obsolete….as we are about to find out.

There is another point of view, one that supports the notion that wars are won or lost by boots on the ground, that, in order to win a war, you have to take and hold the high ground, the strategic features of the physical landscape…but that is no longer true.

Drones can do that too. They can hold real estate against attempts by defenders to take back areas taken during drone attacks.

Welcome to the future. Hope you enjoy the show.