It is generally accepted that rather than prepare for the war you know; one should prepare for the war that is to come.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Jack Austin. Jack is a recent graduate from the University of Washington, with a double major in International Studies: Europe and is currently based in London.
There is no doubt that the battlefields of the future will rely heavily on advancements made in AI and robotics. Direct confrontations appear to be becoming a thing of the past. ‘Hybrid’, or ‘greyzone’ warfare is the new strategy, incorporating small scale military operations, proxies, and cyberattacks on both the private and public sectors.
Therefore, a number of new doctrines are being developed in Western militaries in order to adjust to changes in the Cyber Domain.
In essence, these doctrines broadly shift the weight of responsibility from people onto robotics and artificial intelligences. Reluctance to adopt these new operative structures and technologies will effectively render complacent militaries obsolete. Nonetheless, progress is never entirely linear and close scrutiny must be maintained on all of these developments. The goal of this piece is to briefly and generally outline the scope of this change, its strengths and opportunities, its dead ends and futilities.
The first and simplest of these doctrines is the optimization of Size, Weight, Power and Cost, otherwise known as SWaP-C. Partly focussed on reducing the load on infantry, SWaP-C is the driving force behind optimisation on the ground. Weight must be reduced in the infantry domain, meaning new alternatives for providing effective support, increasing mobility and reducing soldier fatigue are falling into the territory of robotics.
Companies are now responding to this demand with innovations in unmanned ground vehicles and remote weapon stations to support them.
Many UGVs are being designed to act with limited autonomy, reducing the need for constant human interaction. As their capabilities grow, UGVs will begin to occupy more battlefield roles and with greater versatility. The land domain is changing, and robotics is set to make a great impact.
However, increased reliance on UGVs to reduce infantry weight opens up new vulnerabilities if assets break down. Faulty UGVs and remote weapon stations will either have to be destroyed or rescued from the battlefield, leaving friendly forces more encumbered. The effective lethality of hunter killer UGVs, whether autonomous or not also stokes the fire in a polarising debate on the ethics of battlefield drones, which continues to be a divisive topic.
While some foresee a future where the modern infantryman won’t even need to carry his gun, the hardware for now will only operate in a supporting role. UGVs still face operational limitations and divided public opinion. Battlefield operations will always require a human element and it is unlikely that drones like these will act with complete autonomy in the near future, even if they adopt more autonomous postures.
Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) is another area that is and will continue to be increasingly reliant on robotics and artificial intelligences. The goal of this doctrine is to provide enhanced flexibility through information gathering, distribution and user interfacing. This will provide a clearer picture of the battlefield, enhanced data analysis and intelligence collecting in an increasingly complex age.
The benefits of this sector are not to be overlooked and as confrontation moves more towards ‘greyzone warfare’, nations will have to rely increasingly on C4ISR in order to utilise effective defence. Information is everything and the more we gather, the more computationally advanced systems we will have to rely on to synthesise, store and disseminate information.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, colloquially known as ‘drones’ already account for the majority of intelligence gathering through surveillance and reconnaissance and new solutions are under constant development. Similarly, programs designed to streamline the end to end C4ISR mission chain are being incorporated to facilitate greater autonomy and flexibility. While innovation in C4ISR presents a huge advantage, it also presents more and more avenues for hostile data exploitation through cyber-attacks. Hence, cyber security is at the forefront of military development. Opportunity for expansion is everywhere, with each new capability having its own threat, and each new threat having its own countermeasure and so on.
There are also inclinations towards incorporating Blockchain technology into C4ISR development in order to reduce the risk of data corruption and tampering, though this is yet to be fully realised. Nevertheless, shifting the weight of operations onto computers also increases the potential avenues of hostile, hybridised cyber-attacks. The cyber domain is moving fast and robotics and artificial intelligence will have a monumental role to play on the virtual battlegrounds of the future.
Multi Domain Operations
Both of these doctrines come under the umbrella of Multi Domain Operations. This is the doctrine of synthesising all avenues of offensive action in order to present the maximum number of dilemmas facing your opponent. Each new dilemma will require its own separate response, and when used in combination with each other, vulnerabilities in the opposing force will begin to appear.
To orchestrate such massive operations and combination of domains, requires communications and intelligence gathering only capable with the use of computers. Similarly, the interfacing of this information to the human element requires simple and easy to digest design, strong durable hardware and flexible software. Success in Multi Domain Operations requires complete synthesis between the forces on the ground, surveillance in the air, assets at sea and in space, cyber networks and all of the linkages in between. The opportunities for development here are exceptional.
New technologies have insisted we rethink our doctrines. The combination of tech and doctrinal developments has led to the creation of the Cyber Domain. Threats are increasing and new approaches must be considered to tackle them. Hybrid warfare has produced a multitude of dilemmas that will demand bolstering cyber security and cyber deterrence. To accomplish this, more and more countries are incorporating robotic and artificially intelligent solutions while companies redirect their efforts to react to growing demand.
Unmanned aerial vehicles already have a proven track record in surveillance and lethality and are likely have increased effective capacity in the future. Similarly, unmanned ground vehicles are making their mark with companies like Germany’s Rheinmetall and Milrem in Estonia all developing their own UGVs to increase mobility, effective support and surveillance. We are also beginning to see the naval domain incorporate unmanned underwater vehicles with companies like Remus working on mine countermeasures and surveillance equipment.
Yet we must maintain a close, vigilant eye on these developments in research. While they offer increased security in some respects, they also act as a Pandora’s Box of increasingly potent capabilities that we are currently all too eager to open. The Russian ‘Poseidon’ system, formerly known as ‘Status Six’ is a frightening example of how drone technology is poised to revolutionise nuclear deterrence and likely ignite a new arms race. Only recently did Mikhail Gorbachev, a key proponent of Russian-American nuclear disarmament warn of the ‘colossal danger’ presented by the current technological and political climate and the possibility of nuclear escalation.
The future of the global confrontation is nearly impossible to predict. We can be certain that robotics will continue to revolutionise the modern battlefield. However, a justified scepticism of complete automation remains. Drones in all domains still require human operators, and this is unlikely to change any time soon. The question must remain in our minds; how far will competition and escalation take us into the complex landscape of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence?