Flashpoints | Security

Will a ‘Digital Military’ Change War?

The U.S. Space Force claims that it is in the process of delivering a “digital military branch.” Is it a contradiction in terms?

Will a ‘Digital Military’ Change War?
Credit: Depositphotos

According to General Jay Raymond, the head of the U.S. Space Force, America’s newest military branch is also on its way to becoming the world’s first fully digital armed service

Rather than a Tron-esque idea of soldiers fighting virtually in a purely digital battlefield, what Raymond was referring to — previously laid out in a Space Force vision statement — is somewhat more prosaic, emphasizing the need for the new service to be interconnected and innovative. In other words, the actual ambition is more or less to have a military service that works within the frameworks created by the current state of digital technology rather than adopting them piecemeal. The particular mission of Space Force lends itself naturally to networking — after all, Space Force personnel are expected to remotely operate satellite and reconnaissance platforms, rather than piloting space fighters or boarding enemy spacecraft. (For the foreseeable future, at least.) That stands in stark contrast to the marines, for example, who are still expected to operate in a world of very real mud and blood.

That contrast might make being a “digital service” an inherent quality rather than an aspirational goal. But the idea does raise the profound question of what military force means in an increasingly incorporeal world. After all, as every student of military history knows, war is politics by other means. And politics — not to mention commerce and virtually other element of human endeavor — is increasingly carried out in the digital realm. Why should war not follow suit?

To some extent, the answer depends on how central physical violence against human beings is to the concept of war. War in space and war in cyberspace have in common that human beings are not directly in the line of fire. As it stands, a war in space might be carried out entirely by remotely-controlled systems, and its targets might in turn be exclusively inanimate. Moreover, given the total reliance of space systems on links to the ground, the weapons themselves might be digital

In that sense, a “digital military” is simply a further extension of a longstanding trend: airplanes allowing soldiers to rain death on distant targets and return home; cruise and ballistic missiles putting the operator far beyond the horizon; armed UAVs allowing an operator sitting in a shipping container halfway around the world to observe a target for hours or days before deciding whether to end its life or not. The march of technology, it seems, allows us to abstract at least some of the warfighters ever-farther from the wars, or even to abstract the concept of war itself.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But that is not to say that a war wholly contained to space, or to the digital realm, would be harmless to civilians. Disruptions to the civilian communications or network infrastructure — whether by physical destruction of satellites or successful attacks on networks — can very quickly create ripple effects through increasingly complex and fragile supply chains. We have had example after example in the last 18 months of how wide-ranging those impacts can be, even when it is in the interest of all parties to restore regular service as quickly as possible. It is hard to imagine an intentional disruption being quicker or easier to fix.

Moreover, abstracted warfare will not be any more immune from the potential for escalation than any other form of combat. With countries already struggling to define precisely how they might respond to a sufficiently damaging digital or space attack, leaving the possibility of uncontainable escalation open, no one should be under the impression that a war that begins in space or in cyberspace will remain there. There is no safe space where national interest can be advanced against the will of others without unintended consequences.

After all, we have just in the last few weeks witnessed a coalition of technologically unparalleled Western countries retreat in the face of a fundamentalist militia that — while not without its own technological and tactical innovations — was militarily weaker in every meaningful respect. Except, of course, in terms of its staying power and local knowledge, which in the event proved to be determinative.

It may indeed be necessary for militaries to become “digitally native” and prepared to contest every domain — physical, inhabited, or otherwise. But we should not mistake that for the ability to change or skirt the fundamental principles of war.