In the Future, Wars Will Be Fought with Lasers and Robots

If you take a step back and really think about it, we're living in a pretty futuristic age. People are flying around on jetpacks. Everybody's carrying around pocket computers. We go to space, like, all the time. We can control prosthetic limbs with our minds. Pretty futuristic! Not everyone is so convinced, though.

For better or worse, a lot of the people who run this country aren't necessarily hip to things like autonomous systems (read: drones) and instant manufacturing (read: 3D printing). If they don't know—or deny—where technology is heading, then they remain unready to invest resources to keep America ahead of the curve. This is why think tanks exist.

This month, the Center for New American Security published a comprehensive report called "Game Changers: Disruptive Technology and U.S. Defense Strategy." It goes into detail about how we're fighting wars now, and how we'll be fighting them in a few years. This analysis includes everything from cyberattacks to laser battles. And since The Washington Post referred to the group as "Washington's go-to think tank on military affairs," it's safe to say that a lot of leaders will be paying attention to the center's advice.

The report is free for download (PDF) and worth a read. We've highlighted a few of the hot topics to watch out for below.

3D Printing

Also known as additive manufacturing, this decades-old technology is getting cheaper and easier by the minute, and that's a big deal:

It could also allow new approaches to tactical adaptation of equipment, as already seen in Afghanistan where the Rapid Equipping Force has deployed mobile labs to make improvements to everything from flashlights to power attachments for ground penetrating radar.22 It is important to note, however, that potential U.S. adversaries may benefit from these technologies as well.

Drones

The United States once had a monopoly on drone technology. Not any more:

To realize their full game-changing potential, militaries may need to use more contentious concepts of operation including fully autonomous ISR or even combat missions.25 Unmanned combat ground vehicles or robots – perhaps using the concepts established for explosive-ordnance demolition robots in Iraq and Afghanistan – are likely to be increasingly used for basic tasks given rapidly rising personnel costs, the sophistication of adversaries’ anti-access and area denial capabilities and the lethality of today’s battle spaces.

Directed Energy

These are the weapons of the future. In a few years, we won't just be blasting bullets, bombs and fire at each other. We'll be shooting lasers:

For example, high-power microwaves and electromagnetic pulses would provide the ability to destroy electronic systems within a given area, whereas high-energy lasers would provide stealthy, highly accurate weapons that have no flight time, can engage more targets than traditional munitions and possess almost limitless magazines.

Cyber Warfare

We keep hearing what a threat cyberattacks are to the country. Soon, we may have to learn firsthand:

The “Internet of things” could potentially optimize processes, resource consumption, and improve analytics through connected sensors across society. For warfighters, this could create game-changing alterations to current concepts of persistent ISR and enable large-scale management of autonomous systems.

Human Performance Modification

Think "cyborgs," and know that our enemies aren't afraid to build them:

DOD is less comfortable increasing individuals’ performance beyond their baseline by, for example, improving IQ or night vision. Technologies to do so are increasingly available, and there are some indications that other nations are willing to run programs that the United States is not. …

While these technologies may not yet be available, they are no longer in the realm of science fiction.

[CNAS]