As military and tech gather to address the frosty world defense conditions and what the intersection of technology’s role is with attendees at AFCEA West, it’s clear that the global warfighting world has changed. No longer relegated to a side-show, tech is embedded into virtually every new piece of gear entering the battlefield, and that is changing the perceived responsibility of tech – tech can now kill.

Long gone are the days of hackers in your mom’s basement patching kernels; tech now wrestles with making itself good enough to go to war. While rebooting a server solved many tech problems, it’s harder in a missile.

Also, it simultaneously depersonalizes war and brings terror right into your face. The prevailing belief is that future conflicts will be largely robot-on-robot, and yet they will gather destructively powerful impact images of people running for their life and pipe them right to our screens in a very personal way.

Also, because tech can seem far less personal, sensors can be sent farther into a conflict without fully committing a force if they’re destroyed, changing the geopolitical optics of what it means to go to war. I’m not sure we ever intended this, but tech platforms will be the future of proxy wars.

One conversation surrounded mining harbors to thwart ship-based attacks, but one panelist argued that we should just let the tech do it. No need to blow up ships in a harbor if you can stop a country’s ability to transfer products because you hacked the cranes needed to load and unload cargo containers, which could have a similarly paralyzing effect.

Speaking of effect, there is a school of thought that tries to tie data feeds directly into a person holding a weapon, so that that person can more clearly focus on the net effect, and just use data as an enabler. But thinking further ahead, the whole defensive constellation could be directly brought to bear on a specific effect by feeding swarms of data to swarms of weapons that could ALL focus on a specific effect, say, restricting a beach landing. This disaggregated approach can become a force multiplier at scale, which is far more effective than a specific data-enabled fighter with a great night scope that can paint a target to suggest a target for a drone.

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Turns out, bringing swarms of data to the battlefield of the future is tough, very tough. While in theory we could argue that the parts to accomplish it are largely there, we know from tech ecosystems that playing together nicely is devilishly difficult, especially in an adversarial environment, like when people are shooting at your equipment and data links vaporize in a pile of shrapnel the shape of a mushroom cloud.

Either way, geopolitical forces have entered a kind of a tech arms race. It’s always been hard to conceptualize the future of war and conflicts; going forward it’s also going to be far harder to spot what could be used as a weapon.

Tech stacks, after all, can have multiple purposes within the same machinery. What might seem to be an innocent icebreaking ship, for example, can also focus on a clandestine secondary role of extensive high-resolution mapping for future military initiatives, and no one would be any the wiser.

Meanwhile, securing it all will be daunting at the very least, and an ongoing challenge for the foreseeable future. Also, we continue to hope that tech will be used to make the world better, not tear it apart at the seams – we still hope for that, dream about it, and work towards it.