New changes in the pattern of combat
The change of combat patterns stems from scientific and technological innovations and has developed in real military battles. The new round of technological revolution, industrial revolution, and military revolution have developed by leaps and bounds in the past few years, and scientific and technological breakthroughs represented by unmanned and intelligent equipment and devices have come forth in large quantities, providing the technological support for the change of combat patterns. In the meantime, with the escalated strategic competition among major powers and constant military conflicts between small countries, technology, demand, and real combats have worked together to generate new changes in the pattern of combat.
Extensive application of unmanned systems in real combats
The US military used unmanned systems in Afghan and Iraq, and the Russian military used them in Syria, but only in a limited scope with limited functions. This year's Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, however, indicated that UAV is applied not only by major powers but also by middle-sized and small countries as a main weapon on the battlefield. As both of their air forces are of a small scale and equipped with old and outdated aircraft, Armenia and Azerbaijan didn't engage in traditional air battles during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict but used UAVs on a large scale in an attempt to gain an edge on the battlefield, and the conflict, therefore, became the first local war in which UAVs were used massively. UAV's remarkable performance – the great survivability, low cost, flexibility, and multi-tasking capability – highlighted the potential of unmanned combat patterns.
Intelligent attack on high-value strategic targets
This approach is perfectly demonstrated in two assassinations. On January 3, the US military assassinated Iranian leader Soleimani with the "MQ-9" UAV, which is able to fly at an altitude of thousands of meters, so ground personnel is unable to pinpoint its position. Fitted with multiple-detecting equipment, the UAV is also able to track and monitor the target for a long time and to actuate the attack at the best moment. On November 27, Iran's chief nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh was assassinated with a remotely controlled machine gun installed on a car, a move that was more advanced than what was adopted to kill Soleimani. Featuring a simple structure and low stature, this kind of unmanned ground systems can camouflage and hide according to the environment and cannot be detected by human eyes or visible light detecting devices. Events like these show that using unmanned systems to assassinate strategic targets has become an increasingly mature approach –Pandora's Box has been opened.
Driven by war demand and AI technology, unmanned combat systems such as UAV, unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), unmanned vessel, and unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) have seen eruptive growth, and intelligent new combat patterns such as unmanned cluster operation, man-machine combined operation, cloud operation, war of algorithm and cognitive war are also in full swing. AI is essential for accumulating basic combat advantages. It is not information technology, said Director of the U.S. Department of Defense Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. The extensive application of AI in real combat is bringing revolutionary changes to the form of warfare.
Faster development of new forces
The capability of innovation is the core competence of a military force. With the ever fiercer international struggle, all countries are rushing to strengthen military innovations and seeking breakthroughs in new domains and new approaches.
Eruptive development of hypersonic weapons
The Russian military has made a head-start in this connection. On November 26, Russia again successfully fired the Zircon hypersonic missile from the frigate, Admiral Gorshkov and the Kazan nuclear submarine for a test. On December 13, the Russian Zvezda TV Station debuted the video images of the Avangard intercontinental ballistic missile, which Russian President Putin once said could penetrate America's missile defense system for its 20-times sound speed and gliding maneuverability. The Russian military plans to install Zircon hypersonic missile on its old and new vessels on a large scale and mass-produce Avangard.
The US military has accelerated its weapon experiment and testing and hopes to commission them at an early date. On March 19, the US military successfully test-launched a common hypersonic glide body (C-HGB), which is operable at sea, on land, and in air, from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Hawaii. On August 8, it carried out the captive-carry test of AGM-183 air-launched hypersonic missile, scheduled to become the first of its kind put into real combat by the US Air Force in 2022. In September, Astro America completed the research on the "Hypersonic Production Accelerator Facility" (HPAF) design, which will assist in the efficient mass production of hypersonic cruise missiles.
Breakthroughs in laser weapon R&D
The US military has invested hugely in laser weapon development and tested multiple laser systems on ships in 2020. On May 22, the US Navy Pacific Fleet announced that its amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland (LPD 27) tested a 150kw ship-borne solid-state laser weapon that accurately shot down a drone. To be able to install laser weapons, the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) is fitted with a large dual-wing structure on its stern. The US Navy plans to install new laser weapon systems on 7 warships in the next 3 years, while the US Army and Space Force are also developing laser weapons of different magnitude.
Heated nuclear race
Nuclear force has been given more importance amid the escalating strategic competition among major powers. The US has replenished its nuclear arsenal across the board and deployed low-yield nuclear weapons. At the beginning of this year, the US military announced that the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine had been equipped with the W76-2 low yield warhead, further lowering the threshold to use nuclear weapons.
Russia has also continuously strengthened its nuclear strategic capability. After the special-purpose, nuclear-powered submarine Belgorod fitted with the Poseidon UUV with a nuclear propulsion system and nuclear warhead came into service, its Khabarovsk nuclear submarine was also commissioned, each capable of carrying six Poseidon UUVs. On December 12, the Russian Pacific Fleet's strategic nuclear submarine launched four "Bulava" intercontinental-range, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, indicating the missile is ready for combat.
Accelerated militarization of outer space
The US has notably reinforced its space development and space combat capability this year. In August, the US Space Force published its first doctrine called "Space Power". In October, the Space Operations Command was formed and tasked to train space forces and form war-preparedness. In November, the US Space Force released the first "Chief of Space Operations Planning Guidance" (CPG), put forth a string of new concepts such as orbital warfare, space cyber warfare, and space electromagnetic warfare, and actively built the Starlink and War Cloud systems, in a bid to accelerate the space-cyber-electronic integration. Other countries have also picked up speed in promoting the space military strengths. In May, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) established the country's first space force called the "Space Operations Squadron"; in September, the French Air Force was renamed the French Air and Space Force as it was shooting for the stars.
Editor's note: The author Zhang Xiaotian is the director of the Institute of National Defense and Military Development Strategy, College of National Security, National Defense University, PLA. The authors Xu Zhidong and Zhang Weiping are associate professors at the College of National Security, National Defense University PLA.