In the past 100 years of conflict, the victors in a high intensity warfare (HIW) scenario have often been determined based on either quantitative or technological overmatch in air, land, and sea. However, considering the significant advances in technology and wider shifts in socioeconomic norms since the end of the Cold War, strategists are having to contend with a new operational environment that is more populated, urbanised, digitised, and interconnected than ever before.

Listed below are the key technology trends impacting the high intensity warfare theme, as identified by GlobalData.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)

Though the current state of this technology remains fundamentally too underdeveloped to radically affect the conduct of HIW, AI/ML is widely regarded as one of the most promising and important disruptive technologies that could be employed in future armed conflicts. It can be expected that AI/ML capabilities would most likely be employed by geopolitical powerhouses such as the US, China, and Russia, increasing the likelihood that they would be included in any HIW operations plans.

The US military is currently pursuing 685 separate AI projects, many of which are linked to existing platforms like the MQ-9 Reaper UAS and the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle as part of a wider effort to integrate AI capabilities into all theaters and service branches, while the Chinese military has reportedly focused its AI/ML development efforts on intelligence analysis and information warfare as well as target recognition and fire control for lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Directed energy (DE) and laser weapons systems (LWS)

One of the most important factors to consider in HIW is the prohibitive cost of many current high-end A2/AD systems like Israel’s Iron Dome, US Patriot Missiles, and other interceptors designed to protect against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear threats. In a sustained high intensity conflict (HIC), success may be determined by one faction’s ability to economically sustain its defensive capabilities and outlast its opponents’ ability to sustain its offensive capabilities.

This is currently a point of contention in military circles, as the prohibitive cost and manufacturing timelines of current interceptors compared to the relatively lost cost and ease of production larger powers like Russia or China would face when developing lower-grade offensive capabilities mean that long-term missile defense in its current state would be unsustainable for HIW. Therefore DE/laser weapons are gaining increased attention in defense circles, as they have the potential to provide equivalent A2/AD capabilities at a fraction of the cost, enabling defenders to outlast offensive capabilities and ultimately succeed.

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Though less complex than the development of AI, manufacturing a reliable DE/laser-based weapons system remains prohibitively expensive, once again limiting the ease of access to such technologies.

Electronic warfare (EW)

One of the key emerging technology trends within the field of HIW is the development of EW capabilities and technologies. Indeed, on the increasingly digitised battlefield, heavy reliance on electronics could prove to be a devastating vulnerability against an adversary with advanced EW capabilities, like communications, unmanned systems, and data sharing networks could all be targeted or disrupted to cause disarray among military forces in all domains.

Both the government and industry have been preparing for the possibility of conflicts in Electro-Magnetic Spectrum (EMS)-contested environments for several years, with EW resilience now a key feature in many emerging military communications and data transfer technologies. Offensive EW capabilities are also gaining increased traction, as illustrated by the US Army’s decision in 2021 to triple its EW personnel and distribute joint EW/cyber capabilities at the brigade level to facilitate the exploitation of EW vulnerabilities in hostile forces.

Multi-role systems and platforms in HIW

Another defining technological trend within the sphere of HIW is the development of dual-use or multirole systems and platforms as militaries worldwide continue to adapt their equipment to function effectively in a multi-domain conflict scenario. This can be seen at all levels and domains, from the F-35 JSF; to A2/AD systems; drones; and personal protective equipment (PPE).

These kinds of technologies will be essential in a HIW scenario, as the significant material losses and interconnected threat environment dictate that many systems and platforms will have to be modular and adaptable to evolving circumstances and mission parameters. Multi-role platforms would also mitigate the strategic impact caused by the losses of very specific equipment and capabilities, as capability gaps could more easily be filled with a similar platform or systems capable of completing that role.

Space warfare

Over the past three decades, major military forces such as Russia and the US have relied heavily on space-based technologies to support military operations around the globe. Military forces have relied on satellites to provide vital services including GPS navigational and positioning data, real-time satellite imagery, communications relays for SATCOM devices, early-warning systems for ICBM threats, and signals intelligence (SIGINT), among others.

As satellite technology becomes more affordable, military strategists will increasingly rely upon space-based technologies to support situational awareness on the battlefield, thus creating an impetus for the development of anti-satellite systems and associated capabilities as well.

Several nations including the US, China, India, and Russia have developed anti-satellite capabilities over the years, with the most recent demonstration occurring when the Russian Federation destroyed one of its own satellites in a missile test in late 2021. International condemnation of this test illustrated how kinetic activities in space pose a threat to both military and civilian infrastructure, with astronauts on the International Space Station having to temporarily seek shelter due to the fallout of the Russian missile test.

HIW and unmanned systems

Arguably one of the most important technologies to emerge in recent years has been unmanned systems technologies. The benefits they provide in the military sphere are numerous, from improving force survivability, providing scalable ISR and precision strike capabilities, or even the potential for ‘swarm’ systems to provide overmatch against existing kinetic systems through sheer overwhelming numbers.

The viability of employing such systems on a large scale was questionable for many years due to the extremely prohibitive acquisition and life-cycle maintenance costs operating advanced unmanned systems entailed, which consequently resulted in only major military and economic powers choosing to adopt such systems.

However, the rapidly decreasing costs and increased availability of both commercial and military unmanned technology has meant that the market for unmanned platforms will likely experience significant growth over the coming decades.

This is an edited extract from the High Intensity Warfare (HIW) / High Intensity Conflict (HIC) – Thematic Research report produced by GlobalData Thematic Research.