For this post, I collaborated with Hannah Givens, from Things Matter (which you should totally check out). Our mutual love of international relations shines through everything we do, apparently.
Technological innovation raises some obvious questions. What kind of technology will humans use in the future? How will it work and what will it do for us? How will it change the way we do things? Those questions are, perhaps, at their most controversial in the realm of national security, where technology can kill (or protect) ever-greater numbers of people. Fortunately, geek culture is an oracle of war. Science fiction has been imagining the future for a long time now, and was already providing possible answers before national security experts even understood the questions.
The basic trend in warfare and national security is that humans are moving farther and farther from the front lines. This means fewer deaths, which is good for public relations, general welfare, and mission success. When soldiers are not being injured or suffering from PTSD, then a) soldiers are protected from harm, and b) militaries are more efficient. The necessary ingredient is technology. A military can only get as far away from battle as its longest range weapon.
As it happens, the necessary ingredient for the science fiction genre to exist is also technology. Science fiction is a vast and difficult-to-define genre, but at its core, it’s basically about hypothetical science. Writers imagine the technological and social changes that might happen in the future, and design hypothetical ramifications for those changes. Sci-fi is usually right on the cusp of scientific innovation, incorporating ideas that are only just being talked about by researchers, because even though it’s based in science, it’s not limited to what is literally possible at any given time. So, it comes as no surprise that science fiction was thinking about military technology long before the military.
Computers are now a staple of life in every field, and represent the foundational technological change of modern times. Science fiction, while not entirely predicting the scale at which we now use computers, has expressed concern over their power from the beginning. For instance, “A Taste of Armageddon,” a classic 1967 Star Trek episode, shows the Enterprise crew finding a planet engaged in computer-based warfare. The computers are running an advanced war simulation, and citizens voluntarily disintegrate themselves (based on their presence in simulated attack locations) to prevent real weapons from destroying their buildings and culture. This encompasses a host of computer-based concerns, from worries about letting computers rule our lives in general to the possibility of computers making bad wartime decisions.
Still, the problem is presented as an outgrowth of traditional methods and concerns. The people want to keep away from battlefields, but computers are running a simulation of a traditional war conducted with bombs and rockets launched against cities. Instead, the real world is choosing to move battlefields away from humans — onto (or into) the oceans, and perhaps eventually into space, the traditional realm of science fiction.
The nature of space travel and the nature of humans mean such travel requires a closed-in ship. Closed-in ships combined with futuristic weapons and a 3D environment create a whole new set of strategic considerations in which the combatants may never see each other at all. (This can be seen in much military sci-fi and really anything involving spaceships, although with varying degrees of imaginative success). Space-travel considerations extend directly into modern warfare. Ships no longer line up to fire cannons at each others’ broadsides; they launch weapons from miles away, never making visual contact with the enemy. Submarines, closed-in ships moving in three dimensions through hostile environments, directly inspired conceptions of space ships. As submarines become more advanced, they begin to imitate the space ships they inspired: taking action at greater speeds, from further distances, with more advanced weaponry than ever before.
The ultimate way to remove humans from battlefields is to use remote-controlled drones, which are famously operated like video games. Of course, it’s not always army vs. army or nation vs. nation, and humans can’t always be removed. Science fiction has an answer for that too: powered armor. The idea of encasing oneself in armor — currently most prominent in the form of Iron Man — appeals to humans who feel vulnerable. In contrast to medieval-style plate armor or unwieldy tanks, futuristic technology allows personal armor to become comfortable, livable, and useful in more situations.
Three of the most recent inventions that seem to be pulled directly from the pages of popular science fiction and comic books are really fascinating.
First, the era of the force field may be nearly upon us. Military tacticians have reached the maximum capacity for tank armor. The prototype Ground Combat Vehicle, slated to begin production in 2019 to eventually replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle for the United States Army weighs in at an unprecedented 84 tons. The tank is designed to be nearly “IED proof,” an important issue that has come to the fore since the Afghanistan and Iraq offensives. Unfortunately, this type of tank is nearly useless for fighting in terrain with poor infrastructure, since it is too heavy to be supported by most bridges.
Vehicle design engineers are now working on ways to increase the safety of armored vehicles without increasing their weight. One proposal is for “electric armor.” This armor is designed specifically to interrupt IEDs. “This consists of two electrically charged metal plates separated by an insulating layer. The idea is that when hit, the metal in a projectile shorts the two charged plates together, forming a circuit and releasing a surge of electricity which can break the warhead up.”
One of the greatest concerns to any security strategist is climate change. As much of the world is developing and industrializing at the same time as the human population continues to grow exponentially, environmental degradation has become a real problem. Among the greatest concerns for human survival are the lack of sufficient fresh water, and the lack of food. Scientists may have solved one of these problems with the creation of 3D printed food. While the research is still in the early stages, and most of the demonstrated food is simply to show off the technology, there is the real possibility that 3D printed protein bars, much like the nutrient bars in Firefly and other space-age media, will be the best way to sustain human life. The primary ingredient for these bars is actually derived from insects. Researchers are currently using meal worms to create a unique type of “insect-based flour.” While they haven’t worked out all the kinks yet (the inability to fully de-fat the flour still prevents long-term preservation), this may be the answer to sustainability for people on Earth, and possibly for future manned space travel.
Another deeply disturbing security issue arising from the increasing human population and the massive urbanization associated with developing states is the idea of super cities, with police no-go zones in their centers. Not only do these super cities in countries with low infrastructure lend themselves to drug trafficking, terrorism, and mob activity, but they are also areas of heavy pollution—so much so that police and military cannot even penetrate them. A possible solution presents itself in the form of an exoskeleton, similar to the Marvel villain Ivan Vanko, “Whiplash,” or an Iron Man suit. The additional strength and skeletal support from the exoskeleton can allow a single operator to do the work of two or three soldiers. “When I’m in the suit I feel like me, only a faster, stronger version of me,” says test engineer Rex Jameson. While the “Iron Man” suits do not come equipped with J.A.R.V.I.S., they do provide the wearer with a safe, climate-controlled environment that will allow them to penetrate badly polluted areas that would otherwise be impassable.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actor Clark Gregg in the Raytheon Sarcos XOS 2 exoskeleton
Of course, science fiction and comic book writers are able to invent technology as diverse and innovative as their universes require, unhampered by the laws of physics. However, while there is no way to tell whether scientist are actually taking their cues directly from the pages of those creations, it does seem as though life is imitating art, especially where technology advancements are concerned. Will we see even crazier sci-fi technology in the real world? Only time will tell.