Future War

Conflict is at the heart of much science fiction, but just how ‘realistic’ are these future war scenarios? Paul F Cockburn asks if our literary futurists have matched the development of real world military scientists and engineers?

Future war, and how scientific and technological advances have affected human conflict, have been a part of science fiction from the start. For instance, just five years after H G Wells had put the British on the wrong end of superior military technology in ‘War of the Worlds’, he was describing massive armoured tanks on the battlefield in his 1903 short story ‘The Land Ironclads’.

After Wells, some of SF’s earliest big names – such as E E ‘Doc’ Smith – sent their heroes roaring around the galaxy inflicting serious damage on all and sundry. From these largely American writers, war and conflict amongst the stars were generally glorious affairs, in stark contrast to the war-related mainstream literature published in the same period – such as Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and Frederic Manning’s ‘Her Privates We’.

After the Second World War, and the conceptual cold shower of potential nuclear weaponry, SF on the whole moved away from discussing war. Yet to this day, there remains a strong subgenre of military science fiction, mostly published in the US. At a basic level this continues to be characterised as SF centred on military personnel who are involved in armed conflict in space or alien worlds. And there’s a deliberate focus on traditional military values – bravery, sacrifice, duty and camaraderie.


Critics insist that much military SF is little more than gun porn, the focus being on tactics and hardware. Much -- particularly that seen on TV or in the cinema – is simply a ‘translation’ of past conflicts into space, where countries become similarly characterized planets and battleships and aircraft are replaced by spaceships: ‘pilot of the future’ Dan Dare operated in an RAF with rocket ships; George Lucas modeled parts of Star Wars on Second World War dogfights; the Space Marines in ‘Aliens’ (1986) still fought with pistols, machine guns and grenades; and, of course, the galaxy-spanning Starfleet seen in ‘Star Trek’ is essentially just the US Navy on a bigger scale!

It’s arguable that this is a necessary compromise between scientific realism and the need to present a wide audience with something they can easily comprehend. Yet, scientific accuracy can be an effective tool; in ‘The Forever War’, Joe Haldeman exaggerated the dislocation experienced by soldiers returning home by using the inevitable time-dilation effects of long-distance space travel to return his central characters to Earth decades – even centuries – after they had left.


Particularly in the US, there have long been arguments for a Revolution in Military Affairs; RMA concepts that have come of age in both Iraq and Afghanistan include the use of small, covert teams of soldiers – supported by high-tech sensors and long-range, highly accurate missiles – and the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), including vehicles some armed with precision-guided munitions.


Quentin Davies, the UK’s Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, seems to be a fan of UAS, which currently range from purely tactical systems (Desert Hawk provides ‘situational awareness’ to infantry deployed on the ground) to automated combat aircraft. When it comes to the latter, Davies has said: “We shall be able to save the weight currently involved in having a pilot with an ejector seat and various systems that pilots have to have. We shall achieve greater endurance, because pilots can’t sit around for three days in an aircraft.”

But the rise of completely autonomous weapons worries some people, and we’re not just talking about flower lovers. Professor Noel Sharkey is a professor or artificial intelligence and robotics, and is sure that the development of machines capable of deciding who to kill, where and when, is on all military agendas. “The problem is that this is all based on artificial intelligence,” he recently told New Scientist magazine, “and the military have a strange view of artificial intelligence (AI) based on science fiction.”

Sharkey is of the opinion that AI, particularly as seen in much SF, is a ‘dangerous dream’ and that robots are unable to fulfil two of the basic tenets of warfare: discriminating friend from foe, and determining the ‘reasonable’ amount of force needed to gain a given military advantage. “They’re not bright enough to be called stupid – they can’t discriminate between civilians and non-civilians,” he said. “It’s hard enough for soldiers to do that. And forget about proportionality, there’s no software that can make a robot proportional. There’s no objective calculus of proportionality – it’s just a decision that people make.”

When it comes ISTAR (Intelligence-gathering, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance), the Royal Artillery currently use Lockheed Martin's Desert Hawk III – a hand-launched mini-UAS and the Elibit Systems’ Hermes 450, which is capable of remaining airborne for more than 20 hours at a time. Hermes will be replaced by the Watchkeeper in 2010, which will be able to fly for longer periods (particularly through the winter months) and give far more detailed images.

The infamous Reaper Hunter/Killer UAV is operated jointly by the RAF and the US Air Force, and is capable of carrying various combinations of smart weapons including Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs.


In the real world, the last 10 years has seen a whole new front open up – online. Even if you never personally use a computer, the reality of early 21st century life is that large parts of all our lives – from supermarket distribution to electricity supply and sewage control – are dependent on computer systems. This is a whole new kind of infrastructure that’s open to attack, be it from hackers with nothing more than a little vandalism in mind, or those determined to cause more serious damage to a nation’s economy or infrastructure.

Just this September those hostile neighbours India and Pakistan announced they were upgrading their ‘Cyber War’ capabilities with the help of, respectively, Israel (which has some of the best internet engineers on the planet) and China (which has a strong reputation for aggressively and shamelessly using Cyber War techniques for political and industrial espionage).

To be honest, few of today’s military SF writers have taken this on board, still ‘playing’ with alien wars and conflict across the timelines. So, does this mean that military SF is out of step with the real world’s apparent emphasis on virtual battlefields, and – wherever possible – using remote controlled and autonomous weapons that minimize casualties (at least one side)?

Yes and no. For, despite the best work of the guys at R&D, wars are ultimately still about people who cannot – or are unwilling to – resolve their differences through negotiation or other non-violent means. And they show that wars are not won just by superior guns or bombs. They’re won by determination, bravery, tactical foresight, and other military virtues. In short, they’re won by people.


Enders Game by Orson Scott Card*

A book about training future military leaders in humanity’s war against yet more alien insects.

Dorsai by Gordon Dickinson

The first novel featuring the adventures of Donal Graeme, a genetically enhanced military mercenary warrior; the writing’s a bit dated now, but this remains an influential novel.

Semper Mars by Ian Douglas

Though set largely on Mars, this shows a future war between a brow-beaten US and the dark ‘one nation’ future represented by a resurgent United Nations.

Hammer's Slammers by David Drake

David Drake's collection of stories based around the mercenary tank regiment led by Colonel Alois Hammer helped define modern military SF and remain gritty must-reads.

Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The author’s own Vietnam experiences filtered through a space opera story, this arguably anti-heroic novel remains a classic novel – and also an effective response to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein*

Follows the story of raw recruit ‘Johnnie’ Rico as he rises through the ranks during humanity’s war with the alien ‘bugs’; as much about civic duty, capital punishment and the necessity of war. Remains a controversial book to this day.

A Hymn before Battle by John Ringo

Earth is in the firing line between ‘good’ aliens and their enemies; this is the story of a group of ‘grunts’ dropped into the front lines of intergalactic conflict.

Old Man's Army by John Scalzi

75 year old John Perry joins the Colonial Defense Forces and has his mind transferred into a young cloned body – the novel follows his progress from raw new recruit to Captain.

Armor by John Steakley

Very much a novel about the psychological effect of warfare on humans, with a future anti-hero experiencing the memories of a former human soldier which were stored in his high-tech body armour.

Honor Harrington Series by David Weber

Inspired by C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series, these novels are part political intrigue, part kick-ass space warfare.

* Books on the US Marine Corp's recommended reading list!

. . . . . . .




the six-foot tall Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot, being developed by US military, will scoop up even the heaviest of casualties and carry them back to safety and medical attention.



a highly-portable, wireless, projectile camera that provides 360-degree video coverage even in flight, giving steady picture and easy-to-see high-value, high-quality images in real-time. Fired from a grenade launcher or thrown into a room, I-BALL (or should that be ‘iBall’?) will give troops vital information of who – or what – is on the ground.


the MoD believes work on its first unmanned air vehicle demonstrator will help develop the technology and expertise for future unmanned long-range offensive aircraft and establish their place within the RAF’s future mix of aircraft.

And in the end two men will face each other with sharp impliments, bayonets,spears and fight just as Cain and Able

I'm not sure about weird, although some of the poster decidedly are ;) , but it is the Current Affairs, News and Analysis forum - which means it's mostly meant to be for threads discussing surprisingly enough current affairs and what's in the news. Since your original post doesn't really seem to be covered by that might I point you towards The Intelligence Cell forum, you might get a better reaction in there.


Book Reviewer
Blimey - shocking reponse.

I like the theme though. SF writers have, by their very nature, predicted (often very accurately) the nature of equipment to be used in war in the future.

As pointed out, some of the best known writers have been writing about kit we use now, years and years ago, and that's why it's called 'Science Fiction'.

There was one well known author who wrote about a traveller landing on some far-distant planet, only to find that the whole place was a battle-zone, entirely frequented and run by autonomous battle tanks, aircraft, guns and robots of various kinds, with central computers running the overall strategy - one for each side in the conflict. Turns out it's a war that was started by an alien species, but the kit they made was so good, all the aliens on both sides got wiped out and there was nobody to tell the robots to stop fighting.

Anyhoo, plot aside, this book was written nigh on 40 years ago, and yet only now are autonomous aircraft starting to go into production.

If you really want to get a good idea about future military technological themes, it doesn't hurt to read a good dose of science fiction. After all, sci-fi writers research their science subjects very well, and then forecast where such technology might go, and then write about it.

Latest Threads