The next super weapon: believe me, nobody's ready for it

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 22 April 2014. Military powers throughout history have based their strengths on revolutionary super weapons that adversaries couldn't match.

Apr 22nd, 2014
After big defense cuts, what lies ahead?
After big defense cuts, what lies ahead?
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 22 April 2014. Military powers throughout history have based their strengths on revolutionary super weapons that adversaries couldn't match.

The Greeks used the phalanx infantry formation to crush opponents; the Medieval English had the longbow that helped archers defeat armored infantry; the machine gun rendered the infantry and cavalry charge obsolete; submarines could defeat even the most powerful battleships; and nuclear weapons potentially were so devastating that they were used only rarely. The list goes on.

Those who possess the super weapons usually make one big mistake; they believe the advantages their super weapons hold over their adversaries will last indefinitely. This breed of arrogance can lead to ham-handed political blunders because the side with the super weapon never enjoys that advantage for long.

The Roman Legion was the answer to the Green phalanx. The musket spelled the end to English longbow's dominance. More often, the adversary finds a way to acquire the super weapon technology, bringing the conflict back to square-one.

Related: Nuclear ballistic missile command and control technology still a prime military concern

The machine gun is still effective, for example, but everyone has them and they tend to cancel each other out, plus, maneuver warfare and smart munitions make stationary machine gun nests extremely dangerous. Advanced sonar blunts the effectiveness of today's submarines, as do missile-defense systems for nuclear weapons, but submarines are common in navies today, and ballistic missile defense isn't the advantage it once was.

The side with the silver bullet rarely has it for long.

The modern era's super weapon is the unmanned vehicle, particularly those that fly. With a few exceptions the U.S. has been the dominant player in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for years now, with mainstays like the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk long-endurance surveillance UAV, the General Atomics Predator and Reaper tactical surveillance and attack UAVs, and many others.

Other countries, however, have been developing unmanned vehicle technology, and the U.S. advantage in this area is nearly at an end. By 2023, in fact, the largest UAV manufacturer in the world is expected to be the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) in Beijing, say analysts at market researcher Forecast International in Newtown, Conn.

The flagship of the AVIC fleet, the jet-powered LIEOE long-range surveillance and attack UAV, appears almost identical to the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk. Imagine that. Looks like the old days when the Soviet Union produced look-alike aircraft to the most advanced U.S. warplanes are still with us.

Related: Global UAV market to reach $2.3 billion by 2023; Chinese company to be largest UAV builder

There's a lesson there -- particularly today as advanced microelectronic technology increasingly becomes commodity items and information is exchanged readily and quickly on the Internet. Secrets don't stay secrets for long, and the core enabling technologies are available to everyone.

It took a Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb. Today, I hear, you can find the recipe for a nuclear weapon on the Internet, although I have to admit I've never looked for it.

This leads to the next few questions, though.

What will be the next super weapon, who will come up with it, and what kind of advantage will it represent. It's no longer a given that the U.S. will have it. China is increasing its defense budget, while the Pentagon is shrinking its budget.

China, moreover, has several very interesting projects in the works, including one involving ballistic missiles with maneuvering incoming warheads that are designed to neutralize American aircraft carrier power.

Related: Nuclear proliferation raises the specter of EMP attack

It's inevitable that someone somewhere will develop a ground-based high-energy laser with the ability to destroy or cripple orbiting satellites. Might an adversary be able to take out the GPS navigation satellite constellation in an afternoon?

Maybe the next super weapon won't be advanced technology at all, but instead might be a system cobbled together with short-range rockets, cargo ships, and nuclear warheads. I'm talking about an electro-magnetic-pulse (EMP) weapon that might be launched from just offshore and exploded in space over the U.S. or other countries.

Such an event not only could bring down the North American power grid for as long as a year, but also could fry orbiting satellites in its line of sight. Do that and we don't move technology forward, we move it back ... to about the 1870s.

I don't know how events will unfold, but I'll predict that we'll all be taken by surprise. Nobody will be ready, and developments will take us in directions where we've never been.

More in Unmanned