Warfare and technology make the perfect partners of destruction. Military innovations from wooden catapults to nuclear bombs have been transforming the way war is waged since prehistoric humans carved arrows from stones some 10,000 years ago.

The visions of futurists don’t always match the experiences of military personnel, but the battlefields of the future will bear little resemblance to the war zones of today.

Robot wars

Innovations in efficiency could mean soldiers' presence on the battlefield is no longer required. AI robots would be free of human error, but capable of catastrophic mistakes of their own.

It's a valid concern, as one day machines could be killing on their own initiative. Developments in automation may lead vehicles and weapons to identify and attack targets automatically through pattern-recognition algorithms.

Facial recognition could enable them to detect an individual and pull the trigger as soon as they’re authorised.

Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking were among more than 1,000 signatories of an open letter demanding a ban on autonomous weapons published in 2015.

Daniel Jones, a senior analyst specialising in defence, police and security at market intelligence firm Kable, feels these fears are overstated.

"There's this almost sci-fi level of scaremongering about robots," he says. "You can be a little bit more optimistic sometimes and not shut off areas of research. AI could potentially be a benefit."

These benefits could include fewer civilian casualties thanks to enhanced risk determination and a reduction in mistakes caused by stress and exhaustion. But AI warfare remains a long way off.

"We've only just got a computer to beat a human GO player," says Jones. "Warfare is exponentially more complex than that. But what it will be used for initially is to reduce human burden." 

The swarm is coming

The US Department of Defence began 2017 with a demonstration of a micro-drone swarm in California consisting of 103 drones collaborating in decision-making, adaptive formation flying and self-healing.

"The types of anti-air defences and missiles that we have in place are not designed to track things of that size. It would be almost impossible," says Jones.

"[But] that is a technology where you're going to have to see massive increases in battery power for things like that to work effectively."

Larger drones are currently limited by their radar observability, but stealth technology is set to change that.

Autonomous stealth drones such as the Taranis concept aircraft designed by British arms manufacturer BAE Systems can find and identify a target then request permission to strike from a human operator.

Cheap swarms of autonomous stealth drones armed with deadly weaponry could be coming soon.

It gets worse. BAE Systems envisions a future of organic drones "grown" in large-scale labs by digitising synthetic and materials chemistry from a molecular level upwards with a new machine called a Chemputer.

They’ll be backed-up by self-driving boats in the sea. DARPA are trialling an unmanned vessel that tracks submarines called Sea Hunter which can travel thousands of miles without anyone on board. 

Smart weapons

Auto-targeting would add efficiency to the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Action) loop decision cycle that guides terms of engagement in combat.

"One of the impacts of ICT generally is to reduce the timescale it takes to go from each of those stages in the loop,” says Jones.

“You can describe the impact of technology of warfare in the future is to ever reduce the gaps between these stages."

Self-guided bullets designed by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to follow and strike a moving target and smart bombs that guide themselves towards targets using sensors and cameras have already been successfully trialled.

Railguns that use electromagnetic energy to fire shells faster and farther than ever beforeare being developed by BAE Systems, but electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons have even greater potential for disaster. 

An EMP attack is caused by detonating a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere over its target. It can generate electric and magnetic fields that instantaneously disable a nation's power grid and leave a country without food, fuel, electricity, communications, transportation, and running water.

Closer to home

The military has not been exempt from the smartphone revolution. "Battlefield target acquisition apps, even simple things like enabling personnel to receive training on mobile devices" are now common, says Jones.

Augmented reality and virtual reality are other areas of consumer technology harnessed by the armed forces. AR headsets have long been deployed in F16 fighter jet helmets, but have yet to become common on the ground. That could soon change, with ARC4 headsets in helmets already able to send location and tactical information to soldiers.

"The military are investigating it for Project Cortisone, which is going to be the update of the defence medical information capability programme," says Jones. "It's basically defence medical IT but they are looking it in that space with the HoloLens."

Research suggests that the embodiment enabled through VR could make it an effective torture device.

"The power of VR to induce particular kinds of emotions could be used deliberately to cause suffering," researchers from the University of Mainz wrote in a paper published last February.

It could be used to simulate real pain or plunge prisoners into vivid nightmares in psychotechnic torture cells from which they can only escape when the interrogator allows them.

Read next: The Ministry of Defence plans to apply predictive analytics to its weapons and vehicles

Sometimes soldiers prefer the consumer tech they use as civilians to the equipment provided on the battlefield.

"The British radio system that they currently use is called Bowman," says Jones. "Military personnel gave a joke term that it actually stood for 'Better Off With Map and Nokia'.

"It reflected the development that servicemen would find that they had better technology on them and better computers at home than they did in the military."

Social weapons

Radio jamming and computer hacking could disrupt transmission, hijack drones and even turn weapons against their operators.

Ransomware is another threat that is growing in businesses and could be lethal in war. Gunter Ollmann, CSO of threat management specialists Vectra Networks, says it could be weaponised to disable an entire city.

"The reality is that future cyber warfare will likely resemble medieval siege warfare – as critical infrastructure and vital services to a city’s population are shut-down and locked-out as a result of a ransomware attack," he says. "Many nation-state cyber warfare units have adopted and practice such attack doctrines."

Social media has in the past helped mobilise grassroots protests, but has also been used as a weapon of confusion. Russian forces fighting in Ukraine are alleged to have used Twitter and Facebook to spread false information about events on the ground, and to persuade the public to join them in the battle.

Russia was also accused of using malware to hack into an Android app used by Ukrainian troops to improve the accuracy of their artillery in order to geolocate the units.

Space wars

Lasers have long been a science fiction mainstay, and it seems that the future is finally catching up. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) recently awarded a £30m contract to a consortium called UK Dragonfire to produce a laser weapon prototype by 2019.

"A novel laser weapon could complement or replace existing weapons systems with the potential for significant benefits," an MoD press release states.

"It could be employed to protect our maritime and land forces; for example, ships from threat missiles or soldiers from enemy mortars."

In the US Navy, laser weapons are already a reality. A XN-1 LaWS weapon system that can burn through slow-flying planes has been authorised for use on the USS Ponce since 2014.

More advanced ground-based laser weapons systems using the speed and power of light have also been tested and could be in operation within the next few years.

The massive levels of power required limit their use for now. More realistic aspirations in the near future are disabling boats or shooting down missiles by overheating their electronics or destroying their sensors.

"Because they're so targetable, they can act in a non-lethal sense," says Jones. "Destroying the engines of, for example, fishing boats in the South China Sea. If China develops that sort of technology maybe you could control the seas in a more non-lethal way potentially as well."

Another popular cinematic creation is Iron Man’s exoskeletal suit, but Tony Starks' design is an unwieldy fit for the battlefield.  

"I don't think we're yet at the point where someone has developed a suit that isn't actually more of a burden on the individual,” says Jones. “It's about the endurance of the average common soldier."

They’re not there yet, but it’s getting closer. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has designed a more practical prototype that transforms liquid body armour into a bulletproof shield at the point of contact through an electric current or magnetic field. They expect it to be completed in 2018. 

If that proves too cumbersome, future devices might live under the skin. DARPA is now developing a chip that can deliver data on maps and battle strategy to the brains of human soldiers.

Meanwhile in the cosmos, the US Air Force is rumoured to have designed an unmanned spaceship called "Blackstar" which can conduct orbital reconnaissance and launch nuclear weapons from outer space.

Their old Cold War foes have similar plans. Russia’s state-run Sputnik news site claims the country is building a nuclear-weapon space bomber ready to fire at any location on earth within two hours. It will allegedly be ready for launch in 2020.

Sensing change

Military personnel will have little time to rest in big units in future with long-range sensors on drones and satellites constantly monitoring movements.

Large headquarters full of highly detectable electronics are being replaced by mobile units offering smaller targets for long-range weapons and ready to move when required.

Armies may have to destroy sensors to enable air and naval forces to attack, the opposite approach to recent military strategy. 

Read next: Five times that technology imitated science fiction: From hoverboards to War Games

Technologies are already in place to aid adaption to this new reality. The quarter-mile long RAID (Rapid In-Theatre Deployment) military barrier designed by HESCO can be compressed to fit inside a shopping container and then unfolded to set up in 60 seconds.

"The actual size of manoeuvre units has been decreasing for a while," says Jones. "You can have distributed decision-making, and what they used to call network-enabled conflict and network-enabled warfare."

Equipment damaged in future battles could be quickly replaced by 3D-printed substitutes, spare parts, and guns, which were successfully tested in 2013.

Dystopian futures

Bioweapons are highly complex to develop and their production is banned, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t being manufactured anyway.

A European Parliament report released in December 2015 suspects ISIS may be developing banned weapons with potentially pandemic consequences.

Biological weapons of mass destruction could wipe out entire regions by fitting missiles or improvised explosive devices with advanced versions of viruses such as Zika.

Gene editing could produce even greater horrors. Current efforts to map the human genome may result in reductions to susceptibility to diseases, better-functioning organs and improved intelligence, but also global catastrophe.

CRISPR-Cas9 technology could alter individual organisms and their offspring to create killer mosquitoes to destroy entire crops, or viruses that attack human DNA to damage the people of today and create genetic changes in future generations.

The advances are another example of the growing involvement of the private sector in military technology.

"That is somewhat worrying," says Jones. "It increases the number of stakeholders that are engaged in the process.

"It used to be that the military or the defence sector would drive technological developments. This has completely changed now. It is the commercial sector that drives developments."