on geopolitics

Apr 11, 2019 | 05:00 GMT

8 mins read

Sensor Proliferation Is Changing How We Wage War

 A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle returns from a mission to an air base in the Persian Gulf region on Jan. 7, 2016.
(John Moore/Getty Images)
  • The proliferation of sensors in warfare, and the ability to combine their output into an unprecedented level of situational awareness, will allow for increased clarity in war.
  • For sensor proliferation to translate into actual situational awareness, incredible challenges in supporting functions such as network bandwidth and artificial intelligence processing will need to be overcome.
  • As the ability to deploy sensors and combine their information increases, so will efforts to disrupt this capability, most likely through the denial of networking and processing capacity by means of electronic warfare and cyber warfare.
  • Increased capabilities from sensor technology will not alter the nature of warfare at its core, but it will further widen the gap between highly technologically advanced military powers and less developed military forces.

When imagining the future of warfare, we often envision newly developed weapons systems and anticipate their impact on the actual conduct of warfare. Not all warfare evolutions, however, can be encapsulated by individual systems or platforms. The most radical changes in the conduct of war often result from particularly extensive technological revolutions that apply across multiple weapons systems, altering the very nature of the constraints and imperatives that drive combat decision-making.

The Big Picture

Continuous technological advances keep propelling the way in which wars are fought into new arenas. While the nature of war — and its presence in the realm of geopolitics — may itself be a constant, these changes in technology have an immense effect on how different actors are balanced against each other and how they approach the challenge of maintaining a military edge.

One such revolution currently underway is the proliferation of sensors. Warfare utilizes sensors in countless ways — from optical sensors (aka cameras) to electronic intelligence sensors, up to full-fledged radar systems — and they are not new to the battlefield by any means. However, rapid technological advances in multiple fields have vastly expanded military sensor capability. Defense industries are developing new kinds of sensors at an accelerated rate — smaller, stronger and more accurate than previous generations. All are supported by modern platforms that carry significantly more sensors into the battlefield than previous systems. And beyond the sensors themselves, technologies that enable operators to simultaneously process large volumes of data are increasingly potent. The realm of warfare is well on its way to sensor proliferation, and changes are coming rapidly.

Sensors in Warfare

The field of earth observation provides a good example. Earth observation satellites support military planning by collecting intelligence, and have done so since 1959. Initially, satellites were individually launched and, upon completing their reconnaissance, released film cartridges for aircraft to collect as they fell to the ground. Since then, technology has advanced in various ways: Earth observation satellites now boast a much longer lifespan, as they can transmit digital imagery back to earth instead of using a limited physical supply of film. Satellite output resolution has improved exponentially, providing pinsharp visual detail. And a greater number of state-owned and commercial imagery satellites allow for more consistent and adaptable coverage of the earth's surface.

Sensors are not new to the battlefield by any means. However, rapid technological advances in multiple fields have vastly expanded military sensor capability.

Now, the satellite field is on the verge of another leap in capability. Technological advances in miniaturization and greater cost-effectiveness for satellite components have enabled the development of microsatellites. The affordability of microsatellites heralds an intelligence gathering future in which constellations of sensors in orbit are constantly beaming increasingly higher resolution imagery back to earth. Imagine a situation in which, rather than perhaps four or five large imagery satellites passing over a particular location throughout a day, vast collections of microsatellites pass over that same location every 10-20 minutes. The result is near-permanent observation on a global scale, introducing many new possibilities for intelligence gathering, such as near real-time tracking of every single one of an opponent's naval surface vessels.

Far below the boundaries of space, optical sensors are increasingly being used in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones), which also carry wide varieties of signal interception sensors and radar. The U.S. Navy has voiced its ambitions to build a "ghost fleet" of unmanned vessels that will carry several different types of sensors over the oceans. Various sensors are already embedded in military ground vehicles and even individual soldiers' personal equipment, tracking data such as location, sound (to detect gunfire and its origins) biometrics and thermal signature. UAVs were once considered the gold standard in surveillance capabilities, providing a never-blinking eye in the sky. But the quality of UAV data is increasingly being outmatched by the picture provided through the sum of all these sensors. Achieving true omniscience might be too high an ambition, but available technology is rapidly bringing commanders and decisionmakers closer to that point. The pervasiveness of sensors will eventually allow for near-permanent observation of almost all battlefield activity — whether in the form of actual physical movement, sound, radiation or electronic emissions.

Networks that pull data feeds into a single combined intelligence picture further amplify the effect of collections of individual sensors. Overlaying the feeds of multiple sensors allows humans to reach new levels of situational awareness far beyond those achieved by individually interpreted sensors. The F-35 fighter aircraft provides a great illustration of how modern weapon systems are utilizing this capability on a limited scale: The F-35 not only boasts a multitude of sensors to capture different types of information, but it also pulls together sensor data between different aircraft to provide pilots unmatched situational awareness. On a greater scale, modern command centers bring together different types of sensor data from different weapon systems over wide-reaching areas in real time to support decision making. Efforts to tie more and more sensors into a single network, and to combine their data in more meaningful ways, continue to push boundaries.

Sensor Proliferation and Its Challenges

The advancement and distibution of sensors raises a few problems, however, not least of which are the vast amounts of digital data that must be processed. For starters, the constant transmission of high-quality data requires an incredible amount of network bandwidth. And considering the nature of the data, the bandwidth requirements for a complex high-intensity military conflict could easily rise above the total available bandwidth of the internet infrastructure of a developing country. This data requirement will strain any military network infrastructure and introduce new bandwidth considerations into standard military operations.

The advancement of sensor capabilities raises critical challenges, as it results in vast volumes of digital data that must be processed in a way that allows humans to meaningfully interact with it

Once data transmission can be guaranteed, data interpretation is the next hurdle to overcome. There is simply no feasible way for humans to effectively process and interpret in real time the massive volumes of data that come with the proliferation of sensors in warfare. The solution, then, becomes artificial intelligence (AI). AI is already the focus of many military and national security research initiatives, due to the vast potential it has to translate incredible volumes of data into humanly digestible relevant information. Distributed AI solutions reduce the strain on networking infrastructure since AI tools could digest sensor information in real time — at the level of individual platforms or at lower echelons of the sensor network — and discard irrelevant information from the raw data feed before transmitting it over the network.

The Consequences of Sensor Proliferation

As with all advances in warfare, the world will not sit idly by and avoid responding to the realities of increased sensor use. As sensor technology proliferates, the defense industry is also developing weapons, technologies and tactics to counter its effects. The very concept of sensor proliferation provides a great degree of resilience to such counters in the form of redundancy; a vast distributed network of individual sensor platforms is difficult for an opponent to physically destroy. However, the common networking and processing infrastructure is a much more likely target for disruption. Capable military powers are already focusing on electronic warfare and cyber warfare for this purpose. The United States, for example, is developing small portable emitters designed to trick electronic sensors by imitating various radars, communications and other equipment. Only the most technologically advanced military powers will likely be able to effectively disrupt vast networks of sensors at this level, but that still means sensor effectiveness will not be guaranteed in a high-intensity conflict between peers.

Overall, the vastly increased situational awareness that comes with sensor proliferation can reduce the effects of the fog of war for military commanders and politicians, ideally allowing for smarter military decision-making. Especially in potential military action against less capable opponents, but to some degree even in peer-to-peer conflicts, this level of information-based overmatch could help reduce the uncertainty of military operations. The availability of information could even preemptively restrain some actors from engaging in high-risk operations. On the flip side, access to a near-complete intelligence picture would also encourage military action when decisionmakers perceive a clear advantage — and this could lull the overly confident into a false sense of security.

Developing sensor capabilities are unlikely to alter the basic principles of intelligence and situational awareness, though they would allow those involved in warfare to operate at vastly improved scale and speed. Indeed, the biggest consequence of increasingly advanced sensor technology in the military sphere is that it will further widen the stratification between truly advanced military powers and those less capable.

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