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Extract from The Future of Almost Everything book - written 2019.  

* "Life with AI - How to survive and succeed in a super-smart world" - Patrick Dixon's latest book on AI is published in September 2024 by Profile Books.  It contains 38 chapters on the impact of AI across different industries, government and our wider world, including the impact of AI on defence, war, battle strategies and autonomous weapons.

More than $1.8 trillion is spent every year on weapons and other defence costs, or 2.5% of global GDP, down from 4% in the last days of the Cold War, equivalent to $250 per person on earth. Combined sales of the largest 100 arms companies is around $320bn a year.

However, 40% of all global military spending is by one nation alone: America, which burns up more in this way than the next 15 highest-spending nations combined. This is a truly spectacular imbalance of military fire-power, and will be unsustainable in the longer term, as we will see. Next is China with 9.5% of global military spending, followed by Russia at 5.2%, UK 3.5% and Japan 3.4%.

America needs to spend just 3% of GDP on arms to achieve such dominance – compared to Russia, which today spends 4% of a much smaller economy, China 2%, India 2%, UK 2%, France 2%, Israel 6%, Saudi Arabia 9% and Oman 12%.

This relentless build-up of ultra-powerful weaponry will continue to feed tension, resentment and fear over the next two decades. America’s army, navy and air force will be dominant globally for the next 15‒20 years, despite rapidly increasing military budgets in Russia and China.

However, the perceived ‘moral strength’ of America and its reputation as the world’s ‘police force’ is likely to continue to weaken rapidly around the world, following adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet more news reports on abuse or torture of prisoners, held sometimes for years without trial, and because of more routine killings using drones of foreign citizens in other nations.

China and Russia will enter a new arms race with America also stepping up

So how long will it take China to catch up with the global military power of America? The answer depends on whether you measure this in size of armies or smartness of missiles and other tech. Even if China were to raise military spending from 2% to 5% of GDP, and even if China’s GDP were to grow 4% faster each year than America’s, it would probably take over two decades for overall capability to catch up with US military might, unless America slashed spending.

Russia will not be able to create such global strength in 40 years, but within 5 years could easily mass a million troops in Eastern Europe, up from half a million today, backed by huge numbers of lower-tech weapons, and smart tactical nuclear delivery systems.

And Russia will continue to boast of new and spectacular military weaponry, such as undetectable hypersonic missiles, as part of a national strategy to project strength around the world, and huge new nuclear warheads on submarines.

So, then, both China and Russia will be able to engage in significant military excursions in their own regions, if they choose, even if far-flung conflicts of any size will be difficult to sustain should they act alone. Only America will have the global power to try to stop them, which, on the whole, it will be very reluctant to try to do.

New nuclear threats and the Space Race

Expect to see major nuclear scares over the next 30 years as various countries or groups claim to have got hold of nuclear weapons or material, or to have developed their own, and threaten to use them.

We will see an accelerating nuclear arms race in a growing number of emerging nations, with rapid upgrades of small tactical nuclear weapons by Russia and America, and tearing up of 30 year old nuclear weapon treaties.  The two nations between them could spend over $2 trillion chasing nuclear weapon supremacy over the next two decades.

America will really struggle to develop an effective anti-ballistic missile defence, following many failed attempts to shoot down intercontinental rockets in tests, despite spending almost $100bn in 12 years. Russia and China will also try to crack this problem.

The trouble is that intercontinental missiles travel at 10km per second, and can release large numbers of decoys in flight. And ‘ordinary’ looking satellites could also be launched, containing hidden nuclear devices that could be detonated while flying over a country like America or Russia.

No nuclear warhead has been used in anger since 1945. As I say, expect someone to use this threat somewhere and for massive international confusion about how to respond.

Do other countries threaten to go to war against a nuclear weapon-using nation, if a warhead is used by such a country in self-defence, after repeated warnings to an aggressor? How would such a war be waged?

Where do you target your first or second strike(s)? How many warheads do you retaliate with, of what size, and how rapidly do you press the fire button? How do you counterstrike against an invisible terrorist group that has no national support base? What happens if a group threatens again, and explodes a second warhead?

Countries in such a crisis may have only hours or at most a couple of days to work out how to respond.

National arms industries

As I predicted, there has been significant consolidation in the arms industry, and there will be more to come. Defence research is only cost-effective when there are large economies of scale. That means selling to other nations whose policies and behaviour may make many uneasy, despite the argument that if one country doesn’t sell to them, then another will just step in.

Rethink about high-tech weapons

High-tech weaponry will not be enough to win future wars. Most wars will be fought inside nations rather than between them, and low-tech, as we have seen in Syria: guerrilla wars fought wall by wall and house by house, ethnic conflicts or terrorist attacks; mucky wars where tank commanders park their vehicles inside a large children’s hospital, where civilians are caught up in bombing attacks; traditional military hardware and chemical weapons, fired in shopping precincts, around public libraries, by ancient stone bridges and in fields of corn, reducing entire cities to rubble.

Landmines and other messy weapons

New weapons replace old, which move down the arms chain, into the hands of the poorest (and often most unstable) nations where they are frequently used for internal repression. Then arms fall into the hands of criminals.

Weapons are also lost or unaccounted for, like the machine gun I stumbled across in woodland near London one day. Landmines are a global menace, designed to be hidden and ‘lost’ from the moment they are scattered. Tens of thousands of square miles will remain uninhabitable because of the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel devices, which will remain dangerous for at least three more decades.

Over 110 million mines have been laid and lost, affecting at least 70 countries, and 2 million more are planted each year. Each mine costs $700 to detect and recover, in work that kills many experts every year. A million ordinary people have been injured or killed in 25 years, mainly children (who often pick them up as toys), women and old people.

A further 100 million landmines are neatly boxed in military stores across the world, waiting to be used. Landmines will continue to be scattered widely, not only to protect bases and kill armed men, but also to stop farming, travel and trade.

Power of the few will break the mighty

Gigantic military strength is almost useless in delivering many types of strategic objectives – as America has repeatedly discovered.

For 50 years, America has struggled to ‘win’ a single ‘foreign’ war, and even more to ‘win’ a lasting peace, whether in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. This will reduce America’s willingness to embark on yet another major war in the next 10‒15 years, barring a NATO-triggered response to a major Russian offensive against Europe, or more major terror attacks.

As Stalin once said: ‘A single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are just a statistic’.

Surveys show that Americans paid more attention to the beheadings of two US journalists in the Middle East than to any other news report over the previous 5 years.

As a direct result, 75% of Americans said they supported air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq, with 66% supporting air strikes against rebels in Syria. This was a complete reversal – 12 months earlier, only 20% supported missile attacks on the Syrian government after chemical weapons were used.

Such huge emotional reactions to tiny numbers of American deaths are proof of how vulnerable the nation is to being provoked and goaded into large-scale military reactions.

This makes further beheadings of hostages or similar atrocities inevitable. Enemies of the US will ask: ‘What will it take to tempt America into another asymmetric conflict that will wear it down further? Another ten journalists beheaded, or would it take twenty, or a larger attack on US soil?’ The answer of course is that it will depend on many different factors, but probably far fewer deaths than many might suppose. 

Fewer unilateral decisions to embark on major wars

As we have seen, by 2030, global military power will be more equally distributed, with the relative decline of American military dominance, and this will also result in an eventual restructuring of the old UN security council.

Individual nations will be less able or likely to embark on major military action some distance from their borders, without acting jointly with several other nations. This also means that major multinational wars (or a Third World War) will become less likely, but expect many minor conflicts over resources/borders/sea-bed rights and other similar issues.

Worrying results from war games

Every large nation in the world is playing war games on a regular basis, the Pentagon more than most, exploring outcomes of imaginary conflicts in faraway places.

However, many such war games reveal the same pattern as in the Middle East. Small, highly motivated groups on the ground, with tiny budgets, easily provoking large, foreign military powers into long-term fighting at enormous cost. War games also show rather worrying outcomes from any scenarios that begin with a sudden, major Russian assault.

The greatest weakness of American military strategy is that the public is not usually prepared for more than a handful of American forces to be killed abroad. Servicemen are rarely motivated enough by the ‘cause’ to engage in widespread suicide missions. Therefore, future military strategies will be based mainly on technical power, firing long-distance weapons, at eye-watering cost, using very few human beings on the ground.

So a young drone operator sits in an American city watching live video, firing smart missiles into targets in a nation he has never visited, on the other side of the world. He thinks the enemy are terrorists that could threaten America.

On the other side, perhaps, is a young man with a gun who will soon sacrifice his own life as a local hero, for his own people, and for the ‘rightness’ of his cause. He thinks that he is a freedom fighter.

The trouble is that the history of warfare shows that those who fight with greatest passion for the ‘rightness’ of their cause tend to win in the long term. So which of the above has the strongest passion?

Terrorist or freedom fighter? This battle over perception will be central to many future conflicts, as during the Second World War with the French Resistance, and with the Nicaraguan Contra movement that was covertly funded by America in the 1980s, along with the Afghan mujahideen.

More double and treble agents – with strange results

America’s intelligence agency budget has more than doubled in real terms since 2001, to $75bn a year, including the Military Intelligence Budget, while Russia’s intelligence spending has also soared.

Expect huge growth in double agents, treble agents, quadruple agents – people or networks working for more than one intelligence service, infiltrating activists and militia groups, playing one off against the other with disinformation and subterfuge (such as sending a fake report to a drone operator, hoping that women and children will be killed ‘by mistake’).

Expect many strange events and news headlines. At times the numbers of spies planted inside some smaller terrorist cells may form a very significant proportion of the number of genuine members, as has already happened from time to time in Northern Ireland. Expect many moral dilemmas, and legal action in future – spies will often have to prove they are not spies by carrying out attacks or atrocities themselves.

And one day the shocking truth will be revealed… with ethical and legal questions.

This strange world is being shaped further by the massive expansion of cyber-monitoring and surveillance, which in future will be added to by many tens of thousands of tiny low-cost drones, to watch us from the skies. (See Chapter 1 for more on cyber-crime and state monitoring).

Hybrid wars – blurring of war and peace

Our world is being subverted by hybrid conflicts that are hard to track, recognize or measure. Future hybrid conflicts will mainly be about enhancing national interests and economic growth in a hyper-competitive world.  

We will see combinations of the following being used as foreign policy strategies by various nations: traditional military; threats and economic bullying; humanitarian aid; paramilitary groups; informal militia (volunteers and mercenaries); concealed, rebadged or disguised armed forces with official deniability; criminal gangs; terrorist acts; killing “unfriendly” journalists; mass rape of women and children; drone assassinations; insurgency of all kinds and cyberattacks – sometimes accompanied by large secret, teams running social media, fear campaigns, disinformation, subtle propaganda, bending the truth.

The gap between war and peace is already blurred. And future conflicts will be very confusing, hard to interpret – with conflicting reports, and uncertainty about who the ‘enemy’ is, or if there really is a conflict at all.

Covert activities will include commercial espionage; buying members of parliament as consultants; buying up key companies; blackmailing influential bankers, business leaders, media owners or government leaders; indirectly funding political campaigns and secretly funding dissident groups. Blackmail will be a particular risk for high-profile business leaders who take senior jobs in some emerging nations, where they will be targeted, compromised and corrupted, with the aim of controlling them when they return home. 

Challenges from failed states

Time and again, the might of the most powerful nations will be tempered by the difficulties of ensuring stable regime change. Whether in Zimbabwe, North Korea, Sudan or Syria, it will become even clearer that mending so-called ‘broken states’ by sending in foreign armies in traditional fighting machines is a near-impossible task.

One of the greatest challenges will be how to find ways to bring stability and security by other mechanisms, which may include friendly support from neighbouring countries, IMF development loans, NGO activity, use of UN peacekeepers, and so on.

The net result of all these trends will be a radical reshaping of military spending by all major military powers over the next two decades. It will always be true that ‘real’ wars will require ‘boots on the ground’. Tens of thousands of troops, artillery, tanks and other hardware will always be persuasive when massed close to borders. But we can also expect developed nations to invest in more drones, smart missiles, rapid response troop vehicles and helicopters, and better intelligence, for longer-distance operations.

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