Robot soldiers and ‘enhanced’ humans will fight future wars, defence experts say

Josh Gabbatiss
The new report examines the possibility that soldiers could be 'enhanced' by 'gene editing, physical and cognitive prosthesis and pharmaceuticals': Getty

Future warfare will likely be conducted by armies of robots and humans enhanced by gene editing and drugs, according to a new Ministry of Defence report.

As the world becomes more volatile due to increased threats from terrorism and climate change, “new areas of conflict” will also open up, including space and cyberspace, it is thought.

In an analysis developed with experts from around the world, the potential challenges facing the UK are laid out.

The document, entitled The Future Starts Today, also warns of an increasing risk from nuclear and chemical weapons as technology rapidly advances.

“This report makes clear that we are living in a world that is becoming rapidly more dangerous, with intensifying challenges from state aggressors who flout the rules, terrorists who want to harm our way of life and the technological race with our adversaries,” said defence secretary Gavin Williamson.

“Identifying these threats means we can continue to build an armed forces that can stay ahead of them.”

Published in the sixth edition of the Global Strategic Trends report, the document has been developed by the MoD’s think tank the Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre, along with partners in Sweden, Australia, Finland, Germany, France and the Netherlands.

It said: “Whilst it is envisaged that humans will continue to be central to the decision-making process, conflicts fought increasingly by robots or autonomous systems could change the very nature of warfare, as there will be less emphasis on emotions, passion and chance.”

The report examined the possibility of “human enhancement”, including “gene editing, physical and cognitive prosthesis and pharmaceutical enhancement”.

Their development over the next 30 years is likely to offer “profound expansion of the boundaries of human performance” and “the application of these technologies and the integration of human and machine on the battlefield present opportunities to enhance military capability”.

The willingness to adopt these technologies could confer a competitive advantage over adversaries, but “moral, ethical and legal thresholds” would need to be defined.

The report also suggested a “hybrid” approach could go beyond military or economic attacks and open up “new arenas of conflict, including in space, cyberspace, sub-oceanic and, potentially, augmented and virtual reality”.

In a bleak assessment, the use of weapons of mass destruction is also more likely because of increased access to the technology.

“The number of nuclear-armed states could rise and increasing investment in tactical nuclear weapons and electromagnetic pulse weapons will increase the risk that nuclear weapons are used,” the report noted.

In September, the US and Russia were among a handful of nations blocking talks that were intended to prevent the development of so-called “killer robots” – fully autonomous weapons that can act without human oversight.

Experts and military officials have said that such weapons will be common within a matter of years, but they have faced pushback from campaigners who have blasted them as “morally reprehensible”.

Additional reporting by PA