War in an Era of Intelligent Machines: What’s the War Medal of the Digital Era?

By Pippa Malmgren

We just witnessed the first truly digital bank run (SVB), and it’s no exaggeration to say that we are now in the midst of the first digital war.

We think we understand digital because we’ve been to so many talks on “The Digital Future” that our eyes roll when the subject comes up.

And yet, the requirements and consequences of a digital world still surprise us.

Some will say we’ve had digital for a long time. It’s not new. That’s true.

It’s the assemblage of technologies at a speed that’s new.

Consider China’s ability to autonomously 3D-print a dam that’s on par with The Hoover Dam. Remote keystrokes can trigger an army of autonomous robotics to create massive structures incredibly quickly. Only a few days ago KENYO Precision Machine Manufacturing built a two-story building in Luhe in just 50 hoursChina’s new autonomous Super-Dregder will create new islands in the Pacific in weeks.

Keystrokes, code, and encryption combined with 3D printing now mean that a nation can create everything it needs in peace or wartime at speeds the West can’t match.

That includes gunsammobombsrocketsaerial, land-roving and sub-sea drones, hospitals, livestock farms, bioprinted human organsbones and prosthetics. We need to ask the question that Manuel De Landa asked in the extraordinary book he published in 1991, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines.

What is the defining military technology of our time?

As De Landa points out in great detail, the answers are not obvious. He speaks at length about the importance of the metal stirrup. We take a stirrup on a horse for granted now. Stirrups had been around since the Chinese started using them in the 10th century AD.

But, it was Genghis Kahn who realized, centuries later, that making stirrups out of iron and attaching them to sturdy wooden saddles gave his nomadic warriors “winged sandals.” With them, they could ride on horses with the full weight of their armor and the stability needed to ride hands-free. This left the Mongol cavalrymen (and women), free to concentrate on their archery, whether facing forward or backward. In 1206 his nomadic warriors swept through Central Asia astride this innovation, overwhelming sedentary agrarians, creating the “largest consolidated land empire in history.”

The assemblage of metal stirrups, amour, stability, hands-free archery, and the new tactics these allowed for permitted an extraordinarily successful and sustained lighting strike across vast distances.

The story of the conoidal bullet is similar.

The technologies underpinning this decisive innovation had been around for a long time. Humans had been developing fueling (breach loading, muzzle loading, etc.), ignition (the right weight between gunpowder, saltpeter, and charcoal as well as flintlocks, matchlocks, percussion locks, etc.), controlled explosions, propulsion methods, materials (wood, brass, lead, etc.) and shapes (Minié balls, conical, cylindrical, conoidal ), ballistics, and particular impact qualities for centuries. The assemblage of these technologies took time to coalesce into something with overwhelming lethality.

It wasn’t the bullet itself that changed the course of history but the assemblage around it. The conoidal bullet required other infrastructure, like accounting systems, railways (gauges and tracks) and improved signals and communications, and quality control to shift bullet production away from being an artisanal endeavor to being a standardized, engineered, and reliably mass-produced item that an unskilled soldier could easily deploy in the field.

This last point has relevance today.

In the West, everybody says we don’t need to worry about China because they have no battle experience.

Is that even necessary in a digital war?

It sure looks like China has returned to core principles. Sun Tzu said, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

China has also already concluded that they lack the societal ethos necessary for humans to engage in warfare.

What do I mean?

In college, I studied ancient Greek military history with the leading military historian of his era, Don Kagan. We went deep into The Peloponnesian War. (As an aside, everybody told me, “You’ll never get a job, and now I brief NATO Generals”). It isn’t easy to get unpaid humans to stay in a phalanx formation eight men deep and possibly very wide, especially when it’s pretty much-guaranteed everybody on the front face of the formation and to the right of it is going to die. They’d lock shields with the left arms so the right arms could be used for the long spears. The poor lefties had no chance because their right side was so exposed. A belief system is the only thing that causes that kind of coherence. We can argue about the beliefs underpinning cohesion.

Did they adhere to the phalanx out of loyalty and pride? Or, did they fear the consequences of running away? One can spend hours on this. China has already concluded that humans should be kept out of the battlefield as much as possible. It’s a compelling approach. Everyone is a conscript. Even the lowly fisherman in a tiny boat technically now comes under the rubric of the Chinese Navy. But, few will be asked to fight. Instead, they are replacing humans with code.

The next war for China is a digital operation run by highly responsive and obedient self-replicating robotics, informed by the best data sets and AI that exists anywhere in the world today.

Humans won’t even be needed for decision-making. In conjunction with super-computing, AI is replacing Generals, especially as the warzone expands beyond a battlefield and across the entire supply chain.

What is the West doing?

More weight is being placed on the most superhuman individuals in the military – Special Ops. There is a logic behind this. Special Ops Forces (SOF) have become the “easy button” because they have the military’s best impact/expense ratio. They are relatively inexpensive and punch far above their weight. But as SOF leaders themselves keep pointing out, they can only do their job if supported by the rest of the massive American/NATO military infrastructure.

Yet, the West is still enamored of the idea that an individual with experience and judgment will win over automation and AI.

This is the tip of a more profound philosophical split between the West and the East over the importance of the individual over the community.

We see how much we love this idea in the West by watching Maverick who defies all the odds and all the orders and achieves victory over faceless and flagless opponents simply flying by the seat of his pants. We cannot underestimate this love affair with the individual. With that one film Tom Cruise not only glamourized war. Steven Spielberg says he “Saved Hollywood’s Ass” and the entire film industry by getting people to leave home and experience the film in a theater.

This is a profound philosophical split between a West that lauds individuals and an East that lauds the community. When people say there is no ideological split between the US and China, I think no; we are experiencing continuing stress over a very ancient divide.

Eric Schmidt recently wrote a piece on all this in Foreign Policy Magazine. He says, “Rather than natural resource wealth or mastery of a given technology, the source of a country’s power now lies in its ability to continuously innovate.” The US seems to be making a bet on innovation and on domains as well.

It has chosen to have command and control over space. This would give the West the advantage over communications, guidance systems, and long-distance targeting. This is driving the race to establish a base on the moon. It’s increasingly clear that both the US and China see the moon as a strong vantage point for remotely controlled and autonomous, perhaps self-replicating robotics that 3D print structures (from power grids to launch pads to satellites). In a digital war, the moon is the commanding height.

China’s strategy is distinctly focused on the same thing.

Their approach is to build “Little Giants” and “hidden” or “single champions” based on the view that “manufacturing is the foundation of a modern power.” The WSJ describes Little Giants as thousands of small tech firms that can master core technologies and make critical items that “build self-sufficiency and dominance across a swath of industries, aimed at unblocking what Beijing has called technological “chokepoints” where it fears the U.S. and its allies can hamper its progress.” They can also create choke points for the West and embed themselves in supply chains in ways that can disrupt the West. Hidden or single champions are firms with “decisive significance to the country’s strategy to become a manufacturing superpower.”

The West has tried to ban Chinese-made parts. Still, they find their way into America’s most highly classified and sophisticated weapons systems, including the F-35 Fighter Jet. Most Western firms cannot map their entire supply chain. Cost-driven outsourcing has pushed most firms into buying from the cheapest supplier at any given time. External parties, from MIT’s Forum for Supply Chain Innovation to apps like FibreTrace are trying to help industry understand and account for their supplies, but all this is still new to most companies.

So, the US may be trying to “kneecap” China’s companies by depriving them of access to chips (through the recent Chips Act) and overseas sales, but China has its own strategy for “kneecapping” Western firms when they least expect it, especially in space.

Even Taiwan doesn’t get supply chain dependence. Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) recently sent a theodolite measurement device back to the manufacturer in Switzerland for repairs. The Swiss sent it on to China, outsourcing the actual work.

So, a key component of Taiwan’s antiship missiles ended up in the very country that these missiles might be used against. The supersonic missile in question “is land-and naval-target capable, and it delivers a 500-pound armor-piercing warhead out to a range of 250 miles.”

The Taiwanese got their measuring device back, but the Chinese repair team unsurprisingly removed all the critical data. Digital information bleeds in wartime.

The US response to this supply chain strategy is to move into space faster. As Eric Schmidt says, “any future great-power war is likely to start with a cyberstrike.” He says, “the US must increasingly rely on the largest constellation of sensors of any country, ranging from undersea to outer space.” Put in plain English, the US hopes that command and control of and from space will provide a decisive advantage on earth. Space also offers a way to break China’s lock on rare earth metals.

But this isn’t quite right.

China has a lock on the refining of rare earth metals. There are loads of rare earth metals around, but refining them into a usable form is messy and toxic. Nobody wanted this environmental nightmare in their neighborhood, so it all went to China. Today there is deep planning for building on the moon and in space. Rolls Royce has just been funded to build the first Small Nuclear Reactor on the moon and Firefly just got $112m to execute payload deliveries with its Blue Ghost craft on the moon’s dark side.

What will we be doing with this power supply and these deliveries?

We’ll likely be mining asteroids and refining (check out Astroforge) either on the moon or in floating 3D-printed, potentially self-replicating, and automated space factories. The factories can be communicated with once firms like Aalyria get the cislunar comms networks into place, which is well underway.

The reality is that you don’t need high volumes of this stuff. Elon Musk’s Starship, or any of its competitors, will soon be able to bring higher-grade resources and refined rare earth back to earth ever more cheaply. We may need to rename “rare earth metals” as “ubiquitous galaxy minerals.” This is how the US anticipates breaking the supply chain dependency. But this takes time. Perhaps a decade. China may not wait. This may be another reason why China taunts Taiwan. It forces the West to divert attention and capital to that immediate threat and distracts them from this hyper-solution to the supply-chain problem.

My concern is that we still see Western militaries assessing and preparing for war in old-fashioned ways.

We count aircraft carriers and tanks.

See Rand’s Interactive Look at the U.S.-China Military Scorecard.

If there is one thing Ukraine should have taught us all, it’s that digital capabilities beat kinetic capabilities.

Could the West is now like the Prussians, still practicing military formations that had worked 100 years before but which were doomed when faced with modern assemblages?

How do you manage the roughly 1.3m US military personnel against China’s 2m, especially if the Chinese keep the (hu)man out of the loop?

How fast is our OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop? How fast is theirs? We need to think about the whole assemblage of technologies, belief systems, and ideas that together create decisive capacity.

De Landa says that in the past, military orders became “frozen in steel” in the form of gauges, weapons, rail links, and even war medals. Today’s military orders are becoming “liquid AI” in the form of decentralized data-driven decision-making.

What’s the war medal of the digital era?

A digital certificate with special powers? Schmidt says, “innovation power” is the “defining new force of international politics.

Innovation power is the ability to invent, adopt, and adapt new technologies. It contributes to both hard and soft power”.

Belief systems matter today just as they did for the hoplite phalanxes during The Peloponnesian War.

We see a fight building between the power of individual human creativity versus the power of centralized control.

It’s an old fight.

But it’s happening. So, now is the time to ask, what is the stirrup of our time?

What is the Conoidal bullet of this generation?

What is the philosophy and the Offset-X we need to build now to ensure a better future?

Credit Image: Shuttercock