Will a ‘Digital Military’ Change War?

Jacob Parakilas

According to General Jay Raymond, the head of the U.S. Space Force, America’s newest military branch is also on its way to becoming the world’s first fully digital armed service. 

Rather than a Tron-esque idea of soldiers fighting virtually in a purely digital battlefield, what Raymond was referring to — previously laid out in a Space Force vision statement — is somewhat more prosaic, emphasizing the need for the new service to be interconnected and innovative. In other words, the actual ambition is more or less to have a military service that works within the frameworks created by the current state of digital technology rather than adopting them piecemeal. The particular mission of Space Force lends itself naturally to networking — after all, Space Force personnel are expected to remotely operate satellite and reconnaissance platforms, rather than piloting space fighters or boarding enemy spacecraft. (For the foreseeable future, at least.) That stands in stark contrast to the marines, for example, who are still expected to operate in a world of very real mud and blood.

That contrast might make being a “digital service” an inherent quality rather than an aspirational goal. But the idea does raise the profound question of what military force means in an increasingly incorporeal world. After all, as every student of military history knows, war is politics by other means. And politics — not to mention commerce and virtually other element of human endeavor — is increasingly carried out in the digital realm. Why should war not follow suit?

To some extent, the answer depends on how central physical violence against human beings is to the concept of war. War in space and war in cyberspace have in common that human beings are not directly in the line of fire. As it stands, a war in space might be carried out entirely by remotely-controlled systems, and its targets might in turn be exclusively inanimate. Moreover, given the total reliance of space systems on links to the ground, the weapons themselves might be digital. 

In that sense, a “digital military” is simply a further extension of a longstanding trend: airplanes allowing soldiers to rain death on distant targets and return home; cruise and ballistic missiles putting the operator far beyond the horizon; armed UAVs allowing an operator sitting in a shipping container halfway around the world to observe a target for hours or days before deciding whether to end its life or not. The march of technology, it seems, allows us to abstract at least some of the warfighters ever-farther from the wars, or even to abstract the concept of war itself.


The article's full-text is available here.


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