The proliferation of advanced conventional weaponry to the Asia-Pacific region has been momentous, and perhaps even alarming. Since the 1990s, Asia-Pacific militaries have greatly expanded their war-fighting capacities beyond the mere modernization of their armed forces, that is, simply replacing older fighter aircraft with more sophisticated versions, or buying new tanks and artillery pieces.

In fact, many militaries in the region have over the past 20 years added capabilities that they did not possess earlier, such as new capacities for force projection and stand-off attack, low observability (stealth), and greatly improved command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) networks.

Complicating this predicament of advanced conventional-weapons proliferation, we live in a time when “militarily relevant technologies” are becoming harder and harder to identify and classify. In particular, many advanced technologies – most of which are embedded in commercial, rather than military industrial sectors –  offer new and potentially significant opportunities for defense applications and, in turn, for increasing one’s military edge over potential rivals.

Enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The First Industrial Revolution began in the late 18th century, and it was an age of steam and iron, exemplified by the first mechanized industry – textiles – and the birth of the railroads. This was superseded in the late 19th century by the Second Industrial Revolution, the age of steel, oil, electricity, the internal combustion engine, and heavier-than-air flight.

The Third Industrial Revolution – the digital revolution in which we exist and operate today – began in the 1950s with the invention of the transistor and integrated circuits, which led to the ubiquity of computers and the Internet.

Now we supposedly stand on the cusp of a Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR): automation and robotics, quantum computing, the Internet of Things, and above all, artificial intelligence (AI). And if we are indeed in such a transition, we must be prepared to identify and harness the promise and power of these emerging critical technologies.

A new RMA?

In many ways, warfare under the 4IR is not much different from the “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) of the 1990s and 2000s. It is still about achieving longer, stand-back ranges of attack, coupled with improved precision-strike (and still with relatively small amounts of ordnance, say, 500 kilograms of high explosive per package). It about information superiority, networking, and jointness, all familiar refrains from the “last” RMA.

In addition, innovation and application of 4IR technologies, such as AI, is likely to be much slower and more narrowly applied than some might think. Despite their ubiquity in the commercial sector, the military usage of 4IR technologies could be much less than anticipated. There still exist high barriers to spin-on, especially in countries with weak military research and development infrastructures. When it comes to their domestic defense industrial bases, most countries are still stuck in the “metal-bashing” Second Industrial Revolution; even the digital revolution of the 3IR eludes them.

Finally, one should not expect the 4IR to create “game-changing” weaponry or military systems that will quickly affect regional or strategic military balances. The 4IR does promise some dramatic new platforms and systems, and developments in AI could eventually constitute mind-boggling breakthroughs, but these will likely take decades for their impacts to be felt. Some militaries will adapt more thoroughly than others, while others may remain 2IR-dominant forces. In terms of military applications, therefore the 4IR will continue to be the domain of the few.

Where we should worry

All this aside, there are still many areas where a 4IR may affect military innovation to the point where it does become a significant concern, and the most critical of these is in the increasingly tense Sino-American strategic rivalry. At the moment, this competition is still being fought out in the realm of the 2IR (that is, platforms like combat aircraft, missiles, and naval combatants) or a nascent 3IR (such as reconnaissance-strike systems that rely heavily on real-time intelligence).

However, the potential for a 4IR-based military contest between China and the United States is increasingly possible, and, therefore, increasingly worrisome. Both countries are keen to exploit the 4IR for military gain, and as their strategic interests increasingly clash, so too could the growing capacities of two 4IR-driven militaries increasingly ratchet up the consequences of conflict.

Moreover, we must be cognizant of the fact that smaller states in Asia, such as Singapore or South Korea, may still be able to cherry-pick the 4IR in order to gain specific new capacities and, therefore, possible new areas of military benefit and leverage. In particular, the growing ubiquity of unmanned systems – especially armed aerial drones or long-endurance underwater systems – coupled with unique deployment patterns (for example, swarming) could create asymmetric advantages for smaller or less developed militaries.

Finally, technologies like AI and their resulting new capabilities rarely spread themselves evenly across geopolitical lines. In the case of the Asia-Pacific, for example, the diffusion of new and potentially powerful militarily relevant technologies – as well as the ability of militaries to exploit potential – varies widely across the region. This unequal distribution will, in turn, naturally affect how these technologies and capabilities may impact regional security and stability.

Consequently, it is critical to assess the relative abilities of regional militaries (particularly China) to access and leverage new and emerging critical technologies, their likely progress in doing so, and the impediments they may face, ultimately with an eye toward how it will affect relative gains and losses in regional military capabilities.

In conclusion, the 4IR promises to create a new set of complications and challenges when it comes to identifying what are new and significant military technologies, how these capabilities will create military advantage and therefore political leverage in the decades to come. Many so-called 4IR technologies – and particularly AI – have the potential to affect drastically the character and conduct of future war-fighting, and that is the very definition of a “revolution in military affairs.” To be continued.