The Royal Air Force (RAF) describes it as “fictional intelligence, useful intelligence, a meld of narrative and nonfiction”. The world’s oldest air force should know. After all, it is the RAF which recently published three volumes of FICINT entitled Stories from the Future.
Launched in 2021 by the RAF’s chief of the air staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, the three-volume series imagines the RAF in 2040 and the challenges it, and the wider world, face. This year’s annual Defence and Security Laboratory’s annual Operating in the Future Electromagnetic Environment had a presentation on these stories and what they have strived to achieve. This year’s event was held on 21st/22nd November at London’s Institute of Engineering and Technology.
“Defence can be fixated on technology causing you to lose the larger picture,” said the RAF delegate presenting the project. The effort was launched to get the RAF “to think about what the future might be.” Fiction can present concepts and arguments in an arguably less anodyne fashion than a white paper. A goal of the volumes was to “provoke a reaction” and hence a discussion, the delegate continued. He used the analogy of Marmite, a savoury spread enlivening hot buttered toast. The spread divides those who taste it. Some people hate Marmite, others adore it. The speaker mentioned he is in the former camp at odds with your correspondent in the latter. Whatever the reaction, discussions are triggered on the concepts and ideas the stories articulate.
The world envisaged in the three volumes is turbulent. The Amazon rainforest is convulsed in conflict. Those seeking to protect the “lungs of the Earth” battle those bent on destroying this irreplaceable resource. Climate change forces millions of refugees from their homes in search of safety. The ‘Big Melt’ of 2023 puts the now-landlocked city Peterborough, eastern England, on the North Sea coast. Misinformation, ‘fake news’ and subversion of democracy are standard accompaniments to conflict. Insect protein snack bars are grabbed as sustenance throughout the day. Some service personnel transition gender during their career. A cryptocurrency collapse causes civil disobedience. The works are interactive with questions asked throughout: “What are the implications of climate change and carbon neutral initiatives on the roles of the RAF (and) the United Kingdom?” “Does a fragmented or multipolar world affect those roles or responsibilities?”
“The only certainty in these scenarios is change” the books wisely advise. They open with two thought provoking questions: “Could an RAF recruit in 1990 at the collapse of the Soviet Union have foreseen operating a UAV (Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle) from RAF Waddington airbase over Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, in 2014?” “Could a recruit in 2000 have anticipated being able to check their pay statement on the MyRAF app in 2020?”
War in the Spectrum
What do the stories tell us about electronic warfare and the electromagnetic spectrum in general? The tales are mind-boggling. Personnel interact with three-dimensional avatars harnessing Artificial Intelligence (AI) acting as their personal assistants throughout their day. One avatar “is a far cry from the basic Siri” of the character’s childhood. New tailored uniforms based on recent three-dimensional body scans are delivered to people’s homes by drone. Biorecognition improves security at bases while easing movements of people around secure facilities. Remote surgery using satellite links saves lives.
Unsurprisingly, technological advance is not confined to people’s everyday lives. It makes its presence felt on and off the battlefield. For aircrew, AI helps mission briefings. UAVs play a major role in RAF operations. Data moves seamlessly between inhabited and uninhabited platforms at light speed. This does not just occur between RAF platforms, but also between those and capabilities used by other services. Meanwhile the questions continue: “How will we ensure resilience for our future space capabilities?”, “What considerations are there to respond to a cyber or information attack with a kinetic option?” being two notable examples.
The bad folks have technology too. The stories show UAVs and their pilots suffering cyber and electronic attacks, although redundancy in the form of laser communications ameliorates these. Likewise, quantum compasses make good a hostile Global Navigation Satellite Signal (GNSS) attack. Hypersonic missiles, used by Russia in Ukraine, are now a regular feature of contemporary warfare. In one story an insurgent uses sophisticated communications intelligence systems to discover a covert urban RAF UAV team.
One occasional failing of military science-fiction is that sophisticated technology is sometimes depicted as flawless. That reality is quite different is recognised by this series of narratives. In one story RAF personnel must maintain strict emissions control state to enhance electronic protection. This acknowledges that belligerents will compete for Electromagnetic Superiority and Supremacy.
In some ways, these studies ask more questions than they answer. They show that our spectrum reliance will only increase. This has implications for international security and warfare, and for our daily lives with all three realities tightly intertwined. In some ways, the future is already here. Stories from the Future extrapolates trends already afoot. We would do well to heed their lessons.
by Dr. Thomas Withington