Rodney Brooks

Robots, AI, and other stuff

Is War Now Post Kinetic?

When the world around us changes, often due to technology, we need to change how we interact with it, or we will not do well.

Kodak was well aware of the digital photography tsunami it faced but was not able to transform itself from a film photography company until too late, and is no more. On the other hand, Pitney Bowes started its transformation early from a provider of mail stamping machines to an eCommerce solutions company and remains in the S&P 500.

Governments and politicians are not immune from the challenges that technological change produces on the ground, and former policies and vote getting proclamations may lag current realities^{\big 1}.

I do wonder if war is transforming itself around us to being fought in a non-kinetic way, and which nations are aware of that, and how that will change the world going forward. And, importantly for the United States, what does that say about what its Federal budget priorities should be?

A Brief History of Kinetic War

The technology of war has always been about delivering more kinetic energy, faster, more accurately and with more remote standoff from the recipient of the energy, first to human bodies, and then to infrastructure and supply chains.

New technologies caused changes in tactics and strategies, and many of them eventually made old technologies obsolete, but often a new technology would co-exist with one that it would eventually supplant for long periods, even centuries.

One imagines that the earliest weapons used in conflicts between groups of people were clubs and axes of various sorts. These early wars were fought in close proximity, delivering kinetic blows directly to another’s body.

By about 4,400 years ago the first copper daggers appeared, and by 3,600 years ago, bronze swords appeared, allowing for an attack at a slightly longer distance, perhaps out of direct reach of the victim. Even today our infantries are equipped with bayonets on the ends of guns to deliver direct kinetic violence to another’s body through the use of human muscles. With daggers and swords the kinetic blows could be much more deadly as they needed less human energy to cause bleeding.

Simultaneously the first “stand off” weapons were developed; bows and arrows 12,000 years ago, most likely with a very limited range. The Egyptians had bows with a range of 100 meters a little less than 4,000 years ago. A bow stores the energy from human muscle in a single drawing motion, and then delivers it all in a fraction of a second. These weapons did not eliminate hand to hand combat, but they did allow engagement from a distance. With the introduction of horses and later chariots, there was added the element of speed of closing from too far away to engage to being in engagement range very quickly. These developments were all aimed at getting bleed-producing kinetic impacts on humans from a distance.

A little less than 3,000 years ago war saw a new way to use kinetic energy; thermally. No longer was it just the energy of human muscles that rained down on the enemy, but that from fire. First from burning crops, but soon by delivering  burning objects via catapults and other throwing devices. Those throwing devices started out just delivering heavy weights, though the muscle energy of many people stored over many minutes of effort. But once burning objects were being thrown they could deliver the thermal energy stored in the projectile, as well as unleash more thermal energy by setting things on fire in the landing area.

During the 8th to 16th century, hurled anti-personnel weapons, those aimed at individual people, were developed where projectiles full of hot pitch, oil, or resin, were thrown by mechanical devices, again with stored human energy, intended to maim and disable an individual human that they might hit.

The arrival of chemical explosives ultimately changed most things about warfare, but there was a surprisingly long coexistence with older weapons. The earliest form of gunpowder was developed in 9th century China, and it reached Europe courtesy of the Mongols in 1241. The cannon, which provided a way of harnessing that explosive power to deliver high amounts of kinetic energy in the form of metal or stone balls provided both more distant standoff and more destructive kinetics, and was well developed by the 14th century, with the first man portable versions coming of age in the 15th century.

But meanwhile the bow and arrow made a come back, with the English longbow, traditionally made from yew (and prompting a European wide trade network in that wood), having a range of 300 meters in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was contemporary with the cannon, but the agility of it being carried by a single bowman led to it being the major reason for victory in a large scale battle as late as the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

The cannon changed the nature of naval warfare, and naval warfare itself was about logistics and supply lines, and later being a mobile platform to pound installations on the coast from the safety of the sea. Ships also changed over time due to new technologies for their propulsion, from oars, to sails, to steam, and ultimately to nuclear power, making them faster and more reliable. Meanwhile the mobile cannon was developed into more useful sorts of weapons, and with the invention of bullets (which combined the powder and projectile into a compact pre-manufactured expendable device), guns and then machine guns became the preferred weapon of the ground soldier.

Each of these technological developments improved upon the delivery of kinetic energy to the enemy, over time, in fits and starts making that delivery faster, more accurate, more energetic, and with more distant standoff.

Rarely were the new technologies adopted quickly and universally, but over time they often made older technologies completely obsolete. One wonders how quickly people noticed the new technologies, how they were going to change war completely, and how they responded to those changes.

Latter Day WAR

In the last one hundred or so years, from the beginning of the Great War, also known as World War I, we have seen continued technological change in how kinetic energy is delivered during conflict. In the Great War we saw both the introduction of airplanes, originally as intelligence gathering machine conveyances, but later as deliverers of bullets and bombs, and the introduction of tanks. Even with mechanization, the United Army still had twelve horse regiments, each of 790 horses, at the beginning of World War II. They were no match for tanks, and hard to integrate with tank units, so eventually they were abolished.

By the end of World War II we had seen both the deployment of missiles (the V1 and V2 by Germany), and nuclear weapons (by the United States). Later married together, nuclear tipped missiles became the defining, but unused, technology that redefined the nature of war between superpowers. Largely that notion is obsolete, but North Korea, a small poor country, is actively flirting with it again these very days.

Another innovation in World War II, practiced by both sides, was massive direct kinetic hits on the civilian populations of the enemy, delivered through the air. For the first time kinetic energy could be delivered far inside territory still held by the enemy, and damage to infrastructure and morale could be wrought without the need to invade on the ground. Kinetically destroying large numbers of civilians was also part of the logic of MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction, of the United States and the USSR pointing massive numbers of nuclear tipped missiles at each other during the cold war.

Essentially now war is either local engagements between smaller countries, or asymmetric battles between large powers and smaller countries or non-state actors. The dominant approach for the United States is to launch massive ship and air based volleys of Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, with conventional kinetic war heads, to degrade the war fighting infrastructure in the target territory, and then boots on the ground. The other side deploys harassing explosives both as booby traps, and to target both the enemy and local civilians through using human suicide bombers as a stand off mechanism for those directing the fight. As part of this asymmetry the non-state actors continually look for new ways to deliver kinetic explosions on board civilian aircraft which has had the effect of making air travel worldwide more and more unpleasant for the last 16 years.

In slow motion each class of combatant changes their behavior to respond to new, and past, technologies deployed or threatened by the other side.

But over the whole history of war, rulers and governments have had to face the issue of what war to prepare for and where to place their resources. When should a country stop concentrating on sources of yew and instead invest more heavily in portable cannons? When should a country give up on supporting regiments of horses? When should a country turn away from the ruinous expense of yet higher performance fighter planes whose performance is only needed to engage other fighter planes and instead invest more heavily in cruise missiles and drones with targeted kinetic capabilities?

How should a country balance its portfolio of spending on the old technologies of war, and putting enough muscle behind the new technologies so that it can ride up the curve of the new technology, defending against it adequately, and perhaps deploying it itself.


In the late nineteenth century fortunes were made in chemistry for materials and explosives. In the early part of the twentieth century extraordinary wealth for a few individuals came from coal, oil, automobiles, and airplanes. In the last thirty years that extraordinary wealth has come to the masters of information technology through companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, Google, and Facebook. Information technology is the cutting edge. And so, based on history, one should expect that technology to be where warfare will change.

Indeed, we saw in WW II the importance of cryptography and the breaking of cryptography, and the machines built at Bletchley Park in service of that gave rise to digital computers.

In the last few years we have seen how our information infrastructure has been attacked again and again for criminal reasons, with great amounts of real money being stolen, solely in cyberspace. Pacifists^{\big 2} might say that war is just crime on an international scale, so one should expect that technologies that start out as part of criminal enterprises will be adopted for purposes of war.

We have seen over the last half dozen years how non-state actors have used social media on the Internet to recruit young fighters from across the world to come and partake in their kinetic wars where those recruiters reside, or to wage kinetic violence inside countries far removed physically from where the recruiters reside. The Internet has been a wonderful new stand off tool, allowing distant ring-masters to burrow in to distant homelands and detonate kinetic weapons constructed locally by people the ring-masters have never met in person. This has been an unexpected and frightening evolution of kinetic warfare.

In the early parts of this decade a malicious computer worm named Stuxnet, most probably developed by the US and Israel, was deployed widely though the Internet. It infected Microsoft operating systems, and sniffed out whether they were talking to Siemens PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers), and whether they were controlling nuclear centrifuges. Then it slowly degraded those centrifuges while simulating reports that said all was well with them. It is believed that this attack destroyed one fifth of Iran’s centrifuges. Here a completely cyber attack, with standoff all the way back to an office PC, was able to introduce a kinetic (slow though it may have been) attack in the core of an adversary’s secret facilities. And it was aimed at the production of the ultimate kinetic weapon, nuclear bombs. War is indeed evolving rapidly.

But now in the 2016 US presidential election, and again in the 2017 French presidential election we have seen, and all the details are not yet out, a glimpse of a future warfare where kinetic warfare is not used at all. Nevertheless it has been acts of war. US intelligence services announced in 2016 that there had been Russian interference in the US election.  The whole story is still to come out, but in both the US and French elections there were massive dumps of cyber-stolen internal emails from one candidate’s organization, timed exquisitely in both cases down to just a few minutes’ window of maximum impact. This was immediately, minutes later, followed by seemingly unrelated thousands of people looking through those emails claiming clues to often ridiculous malevolence. In both elections the mail dumps included faked emails which had sinister interpretations, uncovered by the armies of people looking through the emails for a smoking gun. These attacks most probably changed the outcome of the US election, but failed in France. This is post kinetic war waged in a murky world where the citizens of the attacked country can never know what to believe.

Let us be clear about the cleverness and monumental nature of these attacks. An adversary stands off, thousands of miles away, with no physical intrusion, and changes the government of its target to be more sympathetic to it than the people of the target country wanted. There are no kinetic weapons. There are layers of deception and layers of deniability. The political system of the attacked country has no way to counteract the outcome desired and produced by the enemy. The target country is dominated by the attacking adversary. That is a successful post kinetic war.

Technology changes how others act and how we need to act. Perhaps the second amendment to the US Constitution, allowing for an armed civilian militia to fight those who would destroy our Republic, is truly obsolete. Perhaps the real need is to equip the general population of the United States with tools of privacy and cyber security, both at a personal level, and in the organizations where they work. Just as WW II showed the obsolescence of physical borders to protect against kinetic devices raining from the sky, so too now we have seen that physical borders no longer protect our fundamental institutions of civil society and of democracy.

We need to learn how to protect ourselves in a new era of post kinetic war.

We see a proposed 2018 US Federal budget building up the weapons of kinetic war way beyond their current levels. Kinetic war will continue to be something we must protect against–it will remain an avenue of attack for a long time. We saw above how the English long bow was still a credible weapon, coexisting with cannon and other uses of gun powder for centuries, though now its utility is well gone.

However, we must not give up worrying about kinetic war, but we must start investing in strength and protection against a new sort of post kinetic war that has really only started in the last twelve months. With $639B slated for defense in the proposed 2018 budget, and even $2.6B for a border fence, surely we can spend a few little billions, maybe even just one or two, on figuring out how to protect the general population from this newly experienced form of post kinetic war. I have recommendations^{\big 3}.

We don’t want the United States to have its own Kodak moment.

^{\big 1}For instance, in just six months from this last October to April, more jobs were lost in retail in the US than the total number of US coal jobs. Not only did natural gas, wind, and solar technology decimate coal mining, jobs never to return, but information technology has enabled fulfillment centers, online ordering, and delivery to the home, completely decimating the US retail sector, a sector that is many times bigger than coal.

^{\big 2}I do not count myself as a pacifist.

^{\big 3}Where in the Federal Government should such money be spent? The NSA (National Security Agency) has perhaps the most sophisticated group of computer scientists and mathematicians working on algorithms to wage and protect against cyber war. But it is not an agency that shares that protection with the general population and businesses, just as the US Army does not protect individual citizens or even recommend how they should protect themselves. No, the agency that does this is NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, part of the Department of Commerce.  It provides metrology standards which enable businesses to have a standard connection to the SI units of measurement.  But it also has (with four Nobel prizes under its belt) advanced fundamental physics so that we can measure time accurately (and hence have working GPS), it has been a key contributor, through its measurements of radio wave propagation. to the 3G, 4G, and coming 5G standards for our smart phones, and it is contributing more and more to biological measurements necessary for modern drug making.  But for the purpose of this note its role in cybersecurity is omni important. NIST has provided a Cybersecurity Framework for businesses, now followed by half of US companies, giving them a set of tools and assessments to know whether they are making their IT operations secure. And, NIST is now the standards generator and certifier for cryptography methods.  The current Federal budget proposal makes big cuts to NIST’s budget (in the past its total budget has been around $1B per year).  Full disclosure: I am a member of NIST’s Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT). That means I see it up close. It is vitally important to the US and to our future. Now is not the time to cut its budget but to support it as we find our way in our future of war that is post kinetic.

7 comments on “Is War Now Post Kinetic?”

  1. Perhaps today, governments and companies exaggerate wars or threats to justify greater military spending and unnecessary technologies, this statement
    “We do not want the United States to have its own Kodak moment”, it may not be applicable in this case, because companies shut down or go bankrupt because it is natural of any organization created by humans, in relation to governments , Perhaps the best defense is to ensure the well-being of its citizens, making them aware and participatory in society, wars are lost even making technological innovations, since technology also has limitations. A good case study is Xerox.

  2. Rodney, great post! The recent statewide blackout here in South Australia reminded me of our immense vulnerability to the loss of utilities. Not only did we lose electricity across the entire region, causing the usual layer of chaos but a few hours into the incident we lost internet and mobile communications. That’s when things got a bit tricky. Post kinetic war strategies would clearly target the disabling of utilities, exploiting their internet based vulnerabilities. The push for renewables
    to be used in autonomous distributed power systems not only makes sense from a carbon footprint stance but from a utilities security perspective they are becoming essential.

  3. TL;DR

    Yes, War is now Post Kinetic.


    From the viewpoint of an old Vietnam War Veteran I have been thinking about war for many years and have come to two conclusions. This article supports my conclusions and gives a very good look at modern war.


    – That the Cold-War did not actually end with the dissolution of The Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR).

    What actually occurred was the end of one battle. That battle was fought using game-theory the particular game was “A Dollar Auction” which the USSR lost and the USA won.

    Now we are in the heat of the next battle. This is a cyber-battle and we see that the Russia (the old heart of the USSR) has posted a major victory with the outcome of the 2016 Election Cycle in the USA.

    The battle continues and to the extent that we ignore it we will lose it.


    – Additional State and Non-State Actors are currently waging an Asymmetric against the 1st World Countries.

    There is a fundamental rule of Asymmetric Warfare and that is the low-side of the Asymmetric battle will always win.

    In this case winning is to successfully terrorize the high-side of the Asymmetric battle and perhaps even destroy that side’s form of government and reducing it to a police state or worse.

    We saw this in a crystal clear manner with our response to 911 and our current responses to the events of the day. Our country is going down a dark path, with some dark events ahead of us.

  4. Of course while there may be many more ways to wage war nowadays, non-kinetic methods of war have existed ever since the first well was poisoned…

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