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January 2, 2022 | The Next War: Hypersonic Missiles, A.I., Space Combat

John Rubino is a former Wall Street financial analyst and author or co-author of five books, including The Money Bubble: What To Do Before It Pops and Clean Money: Picking Winners in the Green-Tech Boom. He founded the popular financial website in 2004 and sold it in 2022.

Excerpted from a much longer Breitbart article. Read the rest here. 

2021 was a year of mounting apprehension about the next great power conflict – perhaps triggered by a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or a Russian invasion of Ukraine – coupled with uncertainty about what the “next war” will look like.

Has the next generation of missiles made existing defense systems obsolete? Is conventional force projection via aircraft carriers and long-distance warplanes still possible? Will autonomous weapons cause the next war to spiral out of control? Will cyber combat swiftly bring the war into the homes of every civilian?

Both Russia and China aggressively tested hypersonic missiles in 2021. Russian leader Vladimir Putin claimed his forces conducted three successful hypersonic launches in the final weekend of the year.

China’s test of a low-orbit missile with global range and a hypersonic delivery system became an embarrassing intelligence failure for the Biden administration in October, with stunned intelligence officials calling China’s progress “astounding” and admitting they had “no idea” how such an advanced system could be created in total secrecy.

Hypersonic missiles are a game-changer because they can, in theory, evade existing missile defenses and strike with very little warning. Putin, in particular, brags about his hypersonic weapons as a decisive and unbeatable advantage over American and European defensive technology.

If Russia’s claims about the performance of its new missiles are true – always a big “if” when considering Russian boasts of technological superiority – they travel so quickly, at such low altitudes, that they can outrace every interceptor missile in the U.S. inventory, and they are nearly undetectable because the superheated, pressurized wave of air in front of the missile becomes a shield against radar waves.

The proliferation of hypersonic weapons would do more than return the world to a state of Cold War detente, before the advent of missile defense systems.

The advent of hypersonics is accelerating the militarization of outer space. In the last days of 2021, the U.S. Space Force awarded a $32 million contract to an Arizona-based company called GEOST for developing satellite sensors that could help detect hypersonic missile launches. The project was reportedly fast-tracked after China’s hypersonic test in October.

Drones and other autonomous weapons will clearly play a major role in the next great conflict. 2020 and 2021 were big years for drone warfare, especially after affordable Turkish-made drones proved decisive in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh was a relatively brief conflict, but it may loom large in future histories as a turning point for military strategy. Azerbaijan’s drones were able to obliterate Armenian armor and artillery with such ease that the post-World War II age of armored warfare could be drawing to a close.

The manufacturers of Turkey’s Bayraktar UAV suddenly found themselves swamped with deeply impressed customers. The cost-effectiveness of those drones proved staggering. Armenia lost about a third of its entire inventory of tanks in less than two months of fighting.

Drone weapons are appearing in the inventories of relatively unsophisticated military forces around the world, from autonomous missile launch platforms to simple remote-controlled flying bombs. However, the world has not yet seen a full-blown drone war between near-peer competitors, as would be the case in scenarios where the U.S., NATO, or their major Asian allies engaged Chinese or Russian forces. We don’t know what happens when two large and technologically advanced armies unleash swarms of next-generation autonomous weapons against each other.

Military analysts over the past decade have considered the possibility of hyperwar – a conflict including both conventional forces and drones, coordinated by A.I. computer systems and accompanied by large-scale cyberwarfare, which would inevitably envelop civilian targets and cause massive disruptions in everything connected to the Internet.

Artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology is the key to hyperwar, the ingredient that makes the prospect of fighting such a conflict so frightening. A.I. is shrouded in a veil of science-fiction mystique about self-aware robots waging genocidal war against humanity, but in truth A.I. is dangerous because it operates very rapidly, with minimal human input.

Imagine your favorite real-time computer wargame with the game-speed slider stuck at maximum, and you can understand how a hyperwar featuring drone weapons managed by A.I. systems would be difficult for human officers to control – and prone to escalation.

Adding to the unpredictability is the amount of research every top-tier military power is pouring into confusing or hacking enemy A.I. systems, from camouflage tactics that can help human soldiers elude drones, to scorched-earth viral weapons that would be unleashed upon the Internet in a frantic bid to crash military computer systems.

As with hypersonic missiles, A.I. weapons can change the calculus of deterrence that has restrained great-power conflicts since World War II. Autonomous weapons make perfectly deniable, instantly disposable assassins. Drones allow effective military action with minimal risk of friendly casualties, and the moral hazard is reduced when computers are pulling the triggers – a very attractive combination for politicians worried about backlash from their constituents. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict generated the tremendous cost-effectiveness of drones in financial terms; they are also reducing the political cost of warfare, and when something gets cheaper, demand tends to increase.

China is all-in on military artificial intelligence, as explicitly ordered by dictator Xi Jinping in 2017. Chinese planners believe they can use A.I. weapons to paralyze enemy command and logistics, essentially crashing American or European armies instead of defeating them on the battlefield. They also view the incredible speed of A.I.-directed weapons as the key to staging the kind of lighting-fast attack that would be needed to capture Taiwan and contested South China Sea territory.

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January 2nd, 2022

Posted In: John Rubino Substack

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