Who’ll Win the Next War: the Tank or the Geek?

I was asked on Quora how the tanks of the future are going to be designed. Here’s my answer – I hope it’ll make you reflect once again on the future of war and what it entails.

And now, consider this: the Israeli Merkava Mark IV tank.

Merkava4_MichaelMass02.jpg
Merkava Mark IV. Source: Michael Mass, Yad La-Shiryon, found on Wikipedia

It is one of the most technologically advanced tanks in the world. It is armed with a massive 120 mm smoothbore gun that fires shells with immense explosive power, with two roof-mounted machine guns, and with a 60 mm mortar in case the soldiers inside really want to make a point. However, the tank has to be deployed on the field, and needs to reach its target. It also costs around $6 million.

Now consider this: the Israeli geek (picture taken from the Israeli reality show – Beauty and the Geek). The geek is the one on the left, in case you weren’t sure.

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The common Israeli Geek. He’s the one on the left of the picture. Source: Israeli reality show – Beauty and the Geek.

With the click of a button and the aid of some hacking software available on the Darknet, our humble Israeli geek can paralyze whole institutions, governments and critical infrastructures. He can derail trains (happened in Poland), deactivate sewage pumps and mix contaminated water with drinking water (happened in Texas), or even cut the power supply to tens of thousands of people (happened in Ukraine). And if that isn’t bad enough, he could take control over the enemy female citizens’ wireless vibrators and operate it to his and/or their satisfaction (potentially happened already).

Oh, and the Israeli geek works for free. Why? Because he loves hacking stuff. Just make sure you cover the licensing costs for the software he’s using, or he might hack your vibrator next.

So, you asked – “how will futuristic tanks be designed”?

I answer, “who cares”?

 

But Seriously Now…

When you’re thinking of the future, you have to realize that some paradigms are going to change. One of those paradigms is that of physical warfare. You see, tanks were created to do battle in a physical age, in which they had an important role: to protect troops and provide overwhelming firepower while bringing those troops wherever they needed to be. That was essentially the German blizkrieg strategy.

In the digital age, however, everything is connected to the internet, or very soon will be. Not just every computer, but every bridge, every building, every power plant and energy grid, and every car. And as security futurist Marc Goodman noted in his book Future Crimes, “when everything is connected, everything is vulnerable”. Any piece of infrastructure that you connect to the internet, immediately becomes vulnerable to hacking.

Now, here’s a question for you: what is the purpose of war?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not about driving tanks with roaring engines around. It’s not about soldiers running and shooting in the field. It’s not even about dropping bombs from airplanes. All of the above are just tools for achieving the real purpose: winning the war by either making the enemy surrender to you, or neutralizing it completely.

And how do you neutralize the enemy? It’s quite simple: you demolish the enemy’s factories; you destroy their cities; you ruin your enemy’s citizens morale to the point where they can’t fight you anymore.

In the physical age, armies clashed on the field because each army was on the way to the other side’s cities and territory. That’s why you needed fast tanks with awesome armanent and armor. But today, in the digital age, hackers can leap straight over the battlefield, and make war directly between cities in real-time. They can shut down hospitals and power plants, kill everyone with a heart pacemaker or an insulin pump, and make trains and cars collide with each other. In short, they could shut down entire cities.

So again – who needs tanks?

 

And Still…

I’m not saying there aren’t going to be tanks. The physical aspect of warfare still counts, and one can’t just disregard it. However, tanks simply don’t count as much in comparison to the cyber-security aspects of warfare (partly because tanks themselves are connected nowadays).

Again, that does not mean that tanks are useless. We still need to figure out the exact relationships between tanks and geeks, and precisely where, when and how needs to be deployed in the new digital age. But if you were to ask me in ten years what’s more important – the tank or the geek – then my bet would definitely be on the geek.

 


If this aspect of future warfare interests you, I invite you to read the two papers I’ve published in the European Journal of Futures Research and in Foresight, about future scenarios for crime and terror that rely on the internet of things.

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5 thoughts on “Who’ll Win the Next War: the Tank or the Geek?

  1. Geekus Israelitus is certainly more awesome than a tank. Also, more cuddly. 🙂

    However, I’m running the scenario you propose, and hitting two questions. First, I suppose we can expect some international conventions that would limit what military hackers can do with the opponents’ civilian population? (Sabotaging hospitals, for instance, would be right out.) It’s almost an extension of the Geneva convention, applying it to new methods of warfare, isn’t it?
    Now, of course, conventions only limit the players who are willing to abide by them. Non-state actors (like terrorist organisations) are not limited by them, and some states might just choose to ignore them if they think they can get away with it. The penetration of technology into terrorist organisations and some countries (Iran, North Korea) are not as deep as they are in the West: not everything is connected, not everything can therefore be easily hacked. It seems to follow that the kind of players who would make more damaging use of cyber-warfare are the players who would be less vulnerable to it, and would need to be fought the old way. Doesn’t it? (Not that geeky warfare would be absolutely useless against such enemies, of course. But they are less vulnerable to it than us.)

    Tackling the whole issue from yet another direction: what would the future war try to achieve? For a long time war was fought over territory. More recently, we see the rise of the ideological war. What about the future? I mean, surely the goals dictate the tools used?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those are some good points you made. Let’s see how I can tackle them.

      1. Regarding conventions: warfare changes with the years, and the conventions change likewise. The conventions of the past have made a sharp distinction between enemy combatants and citizens. It’s more difficult to make that separation when there is another digital battlefield which everyone can enter from their computers, and when everyone – a housewife, a pensioner, a 15 years old kid – can have that ultimate weapon: a computer connected to the internet.
      I’m not saying that we’ll let go of things like the Geneva Convention completely, because we won’t. But some of the rules will change in accordance with the new reality that wars will force us to acknowledge.

      2. Against terrorists: there’s some truth to what you say. Even though terrorists are using smartphones just like everyone else, the rural areas are not as developed as the Western World. That is why I say that we’ll still need tanks – you can’t just relinquish the physical aspect of the battlefield that easily. However, the importance of tanks will be diminished in many cases – especially in wars against technologically sophisticated enemies.

      3. The new goals: I would posit that territory is still important, and in fact – obtaining territory and governing it is probably what everyone is fighting for… at the moment.
      In the future they’ll probably fight for territory as well, but also for computing resources which will enable everything else. But that’s just a guess, obviously.

      What do you think?

      Like

    1. Today? Not much. But the question was about the far-away future, in which everything will be connected. And then the balance of power starts to change.
      Besides, the tank needs to get to that computer technician first!

      Like

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