After a brief post Cold War hiatus, great power conflict has returned and it is likely to intensify as the economic woes of China, Russia, and the US worsen.
During the Cold War, great power conflicts were fought through proxies using a variety of different means (my friend Frank Hoffman's Hybrid Warfare). This method of indirect fighting was used to avoid situations and military casualties that could trigger a nuclear war.
In the near future, we are likely to see the great powers — China, Russia, and the US — fight it out in the same way they did historically, in intense set piece battles (see explanation below).
What is a set piece battle?
- It's optional. It only occurs when both opponents agree to fight (it’s not a siege).
- It's contained. It’s only fought in a finite battlespace that both opponents agree on (e.g. a specific field or river crossing or island).
- It’s a showcase of capability. It allows both opponents to execute their plans simultaneously.
However, unlike historical set piece battles, these battles won’t be fought with people. That would be too dangerous since high numbers of Chinese, US, and Russian casualties could lead to a nuclear crisis.
Instead, these battles will be fought and won by autonomous robotic systems.
In the next dozen years, as robotic weapons become autonomous and capable of executing mission orders, we’re going to see a spike in the number of lethal (to the system) tactical engagements between robotic weapons fielded by peer competitors. These early engagements will condition the military and political leadership to fighting in this way without escalation.
However, it won’t be long before one of the great powers decides to test their capabilities in robotic weapons against a regional antagonist.
For example, China could deploy a fully robotic A2/AD (anti access, area denial) system of precision guided munitions, autonomous drones/UUVs/etc. across hundreds of the Spratly islands. A veritable hedgehog of lethal machines capable of destroying anything that entered the territory.
China could then provoke a set piece battle by activating the system and declaring that anything within a very specific territory is off limits to all traffic not specifically approved by the Chinese government.
At this point, the US has three options in response to this “pop-up A2AD” (I love that term). It could:
- Ignore it. This would likely lead to more pop-ups all over the world from any power capable of fielding robotic A2AD.
- Engage it with manned forces. There are two options here. First, the US could sail a carrier battle group into the area in a classic Cold War test of strength, challenging the Chinese to sink it, which would escalate the engagement to a nuclear war. Second, the US could choose to attack it with conventional forces augmented with robotics (teaming), however the battle would likely result in significant loss of US life (a waste of lives if the islands aren’t retaken or neutralized).
- Engage it with autonomous robotics in a set piece battle. This option would test the relative strengths of the respective militaries in robotic systems and AGI (artificial general intelligence). It would be bloodless and contained to a specific battlespace.
These battles could be short and over in hours, fought with robotics and cyber combined arms. In some cases, they could go on for decades. An eternal contest until one side or the other runs out of money or the political need to distract an angry population.