Saturday 3 November 2007

Review: War in 2080 by David Langford

This book, which was published in 1979, was an attempt to look forwards to the likely technological changes in warfare over the next century. The author (now a well-known SF author, critic and commentator) makes two working assumptions from the start: that the predicted exhaustion of energy reserves would not take place until after an alternative – possibly fusion power – was in place; and that a nuclear Armageddon would be avoided.

The book provides a good summary of the development of weapons up to that point. As a specialist in weapons technology myself I didn't see much to quibble over, except that the author repeatedly confuses warhead or bomb weight with the high explosive content. The RAF's Grand Slam bomb did not contain ten tons of the bangstuff: that was the total bomb weight including the steel casing, fuzing system and the aerodynamic surfaces, and the actual weight of HE was about half of that.

Of closer interest to SF fans is the analysis of how different types of conventional weapons would work in space. Again, a good summary, with some useful tips for SF writers to note (you do not want to turn off readers by making some simple error in the basic physics of this).

Next comes consideration of nuclear weapons; again, a very good and useful summary of the different types, how they work and their effects. And again, a small quibble: MIRV is said to mean "Multiple Independently Retargetable Vehicles", which implies that the targets could be changed en route. In fact it stands for "Multiple Independently-targetable Re-entry Vehicles" which has a slightly different meaning.

The potential of more recent weapon systems is considered next, such as fuel-air explosives and lasers (the options for the latter being examined in some detail). Even less-lethal weapons for crowd dispersal are described, although a couple of the technologies now being tested (an extremely loud sonic system, and a millimetre-wave skin-heating weapon) are not included. Chemical and biological warfare are covered also, as are some more exotic possibilities such as artificially triggering tsunamis, earthquakes, or other "natural" disasters.

The author then moves off-planet to examine warfare in near space, before turning to the issues around interstellar warfare (in fact, he goes way beyond what could conceivably be achieved in his 100-year timescale). As well as the use of nuclear and beam weapons in space and possible countermeasures to them, he examines the potential for anti-matter weapons and considers the theoretical techniques and energy levels involved in various means of destroying a planet, or life on it. In passing, some advanced physics is explained (in this section there is some overlap with Michio Kaku's "Parallel Worlds" reviewed on this blog on 13 October).

Considering the age of this book, it stands up very well. The science has changed hardly at all, and for non-scientific readers I can't think of any better discussion of advanced weaponry. I can happily recommended it as a good read and a useful reference. However, there are omissions. Although conscious of the future energy supply problem, he does not extend this to include the impact of the shortage of other essentials (even though at least one SF novel of the period I can recall dealt with conflicts around a future shortage of fresh water). There is also no reference to the potential consequences of climate change, beyond pondering how this might be artificially induced (but, to be fair, no-one else was worrying about that at the time).

On the technical side, the notable deficiencies are a lack of any reference to stealth technologies (again, a subsequent development), and an assumption that warfare will become increasingly high-tech. The author stated, "high technology limits you to fighting large-scale technological war: it's very difficult to go back". Current events in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate otherwise. Compared with their counterparts in the Second World War, our infantry now benefit from some advanced technologies – much improved radio communications, night-sights for their guns, and support from precision-guided weapons – but they are still kicking down doors and shooting people at close range with chemically-propelled projectile weapons. Not at all the kind of warfare which the author envisaged, yet there is no indication that this won't still be going on into the foreseeable future.

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