Remember the 2012 Presidential debates when Mitt Romney made the statement that the U.S. Navy had less ships now than in 1917? I remember watching and thinking "what the...? One modern aircraft carrier could have destroyed the entire U.S. 1917 navy and you could have probably thrown in the British and German fleets as well. That's my thinking as we look towards the future of warfare. I don't pretend to know what top secret items have been or are in development across the world's major military powers, but I have to believe that advances in micro and nano technology and cyber warfare have rendered quite a bit of old school tactics obsolete.
Nanotechnology is defined as "the branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometers, especially the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules." It is already leading to breakthroughs in the fields of medicine and manufacturing and its applications for the military range from enhanced lasers, fabrics that can breakdown chemical weapons to Star Trek-like cloaking devices - essentially an invisibility shield for objects like aircraft. We've already managed to shrink drones down to the size of hummingbirds; a convenient size for unobtrusive spying or perhaps for incredibly accurate targeting of individuals. Working down at the nano level opens up even more possibilities not all of them exactly comforting. Sophisticated nano machines (and again, I have no idea if they exist today - this is pure speculation on my part) could penetrate and adversary's infrastructure, armaments, even human bodies and wreak havoc without a shot being fired. Think of microscopic machines that can enter a tank or jet fighter or human body through the tiniest of openings or orifaces and then engage as they are desined to do.
Coupled with cyber warfare and a future conflict might be unrecognizable to the military strategist of just a few years ago.
So you may be asking, if we've got this stuff wouldn't we (or they) be using it now? Perhaps we are on a limited basis. The Stuxnet virus that disabled Iran's centrifuges comes to mind. I think that there are some potential explanations for why we haven't seen anything on a newsworthy scale:
1 - We are not there yet. Nanotechnology is in its earliest stages. We are still in the experiment and test phase.
2 - They don't want us to know. Limited use of such technology is taking place but it is on a level that is barely noticeable and can easily be explained away as something else.
3 - They are saving it for something big. the current state of warfare is too limited in scope to expose secret technologies. These weapons would be unleashed in the event of a major incident with a major power.
4 - A combination of the three. Early stage, yeah, may have tested it somewhere and, no we won't use the technology on any scale unless the situation threatens us directly.
What does this mean for you and me? Surely this is a matter that really concerns military planners, scientists and technology producers. Where we come into play is how we direct our elected officials to set priorities. When politicians equate a strong military with increasing the number of ships in the Navy or men and women in uniform, they are playing to an outmoded line of thinking...similar to the Romney comment I mentioned in the outset or perhaps the thinking in 1939 that armies needed more horses for cavalry units. If you're an investor in defense industries, you may want to look at a few of the nanotech firms. You may want to question the need (and cost) for another aircraft carrier. And you just may want to stay on top of technological developments that are going bring us much benefit and potentially much concern in the coming years.