May 17, 2012: How will warfare change in the next 30 years? Military leaders, and the people they protect, are always trying to figure this out. There's an easy way to get some good insight on the future. Simply go back to 120 years (1892) and note the state of warfare and military technology at the time, then advance, 30 years at a time, until you reach 2012. At that point, making an educated guess at what 2012 will be like will like will be, if not easy, at least a lot less daunting.
In 1892, many infantry were using single shot black powder rifles. Change was in the air though, and the United States had just begun to adopt the newfangled smokeless powder, a few years after it became widely available. The modern machine-gun had been invented in 1883 but armies took about two decades before they began adopting them on a large scale. Most artillery was still short ranged, not very accurate, and could only fire at targets the crew could see. Horses pulled or carried stuff and the infantry marched a lot. But the modern, quick-firing gun was recently introduced and still unproven in battle. Communications still relied on the telegraph, a half century old invention that revolutionized, in only a few decades, the way commanders could talk to each other over long distances. They could now do it in minutes. This was a big change for warfare. Very big. At this time telephones were all local and not portable. Cavalry was still important for scouting, although less useful for charging infantry (a trend that began when infantry got muskets with bayonets two centuries earlier).
By 1922, 30 years of unprecedented changes had an enormous impact on warfare. This was largely because the industrial revolution had unleashed so much new technology. This is a process that continues, at an increasing rate. By 1922, all the troops had smokeless powder rifles. This made the infantry much more lethal and made the modern sniper possible. These new rifles (millions of which are still in use) fired faster, more accurately, without a cloud of smoke, and were far more effective than many 1892 models. The modern machine-gun had arrived and every infantry battalion had many of them. Artillery was much more accurate and capable (due to hydraulic recoil systems). Armies were beginning to use trucks to replace horses, a process that would take another three decades to complete. There were aircraft available now, which proved to be the perfect scouts, able to see what distant enemy troops were up to. Now there was a wireless telegraph (radio) which revolutionized naval warfare. No longer were ships out of touch with their governments for long periods. On the ground armies were now rapidly laying temporary telephone lines in the field. The critical problem with all this is that the major armies had not figured out exactly what to do with all this new technology. This produced years of stalemate and millions of casualties in World War I (1914-18). But that conflict also saw the development of chemical weapons, assault rifles, paratroopers, and tanks. Nothing like a major war to really speed up weapons development. In the early 1920s, military experts were still trying to figure out what to do with all this new stuff.
By 1952, the enormous changes of World War I had been overtaken by even more dramatic technological advances of World War II (1939-45). Nearly all the major military technologies of the 20th century were present by 1952. This included electronic warfare, smart bombs, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, wire guided missiles, antibiotics (greatly reduced the death rate in combat), modern assault rifles, radar, aircraft carriers, modern sonar, portable radios, modern body armor, a large variety of armored vehicles, jet aircraft, portable anti-tank rocket launchers, commandoes, operations research, heavy bombers, computers, self-guided torpedoes, bottom mines, land mines, chemical warfare, nuclear weapons, and much more. The transformation was more dramatic than any in history. In less than a century warfare had become unrecognizable to any pre-20th century soldiers. While the 19th century soldier would be recognizable to someone from the 16th century (when firearms were introduced), change had been relatively show for those three centuries. Military, and political, leaders now had to deal with the speed of change, as well as the changes themselves. It was an entirely new situation in human history.
Thus 1982 was, compared to 1952 and 1922, witness to less dramatic change. This was due to one new technology, nuclear weapons (which discouraged wars between the major powers) and the lack of a major war (which always speeded up the development of military technologies). What had happened by 1982, was that many of the new technologies of World War II had been perfected, or at least made cheaper and more reliable. There were some new developments. Guided missiles, night vision devices, spy satellites, laser range finders, and weapons guidance systems, UAVs, remote sensors, ICBMs, SLBMs, composite armor, stealth aircraft, nuclear submarines, all weather aircraft navigation systems, miniaturized electronics (transistors), heat sensors, and more. Basically, all the neat new stuff from World War II was now smaller, cheaper, deadlier, and more reliable. But the biggest change had not been noted until the 1973, Arab-Israeli war. During that conflict the speed with which modern weapons and other systems could destroy the enemy, and speed up combat, shocked generals everywhere. At this point everyone began to ponder the impact of this transformation in the way wars were fought.
In 2012, there were a handful of radical new technologies, like GPS, the Internet, bullet proof body armor, UAVs, combat robots, and personal (and extremely portable) computers, that transformed warfare more than anyone expected. The World War II technologies continued to mature, especially when combined with later technologies like miniature computers. The improvements in communications and night vision sensors had made it possible to operate around the clock and attack with more accuracy and deadly effect. Speed had always been a powerful weapon but now speed included the ability to quickly move anywhere on the planet and attack with enormous firepower. That was seen with dramatic effect in Afghanistan in late 2001. The maturing technologies of World War II had become a form of warfare possessing unheard of speed and destructive power. While a 2012 infantryman would have looked similar to one from 1914, the changes in weapons and equipment were enormous.
So what does this portend for 2042? Faster and deadlier, for sure. Information war will be more than a buzzword by then because better sensors and data processing technology will make situational awareness (knowing where you and your enemy are, knowing it first, and acting on it before the other guy does) more decisive than ever.
If the expected breakthrough in batteries (fuel cells) evolves as reliably and cheaply as expected, the 2040s infantryman will be something of a cyborg. In addition to carrying several computers and sensor systems, he might wear body armor that also provides air conditioning. Satellite communications, of course, and two way video. Exoskeletons are already in the works and may mature by then. A lot depends on breakthroughs in battery tech.
But the big new development will be the continued evolution of robotic weapons. The World War II acoustic torpedo (used by the Germans and the allies, from subs as well as the air) was the first truly robotic weapon. You turned it lose and it would hunt down its prey and terminate it. There may be a lot of public uproar over land based systems that have sensors, can use them to hunt, and have weapons that can be used without human intervention. But those systems will be easy and cheap to build by 2042, and as soon as one nation builds them others will have to follow. By 2042, machines will be fighting other machines more often than they will be looking for the stray human on the battlefield.
But there will be other developments that are more difficult to anticipate. In 1892, most of the 1922, technologies were already known in a theoretical sense. Same with the 1952, technologies in 1922, and so on. What is most difficult to predict is exactly how new tech will be employed. There will be imagination and ingenuity involved there, and that sort of thing is, by its very nature, resistant to prediction.