The Coming Swarm: Robotics on the Battlefield

The Coming Swarm: Robotics on the Battlefield
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The unfolding robotics revolution is transforming a range of industries, from manufacturing to transportation, warehouse management, household appliances, toys, elder care and more. Similarly, it will lead to significant and perhaps surprising changes in warfare.

Uninhabited vehicles, like the Predator aircraft or the Packbot ground robot, have already proven invaluable in today’s conflicts. As uninhabited vehicles incorporate increasing automation and become true robotic systems, they will have tremendous value in future military operations.

Individually, they will allow military forces to extend their reach into the battlespace, operating with greater range and persistence than would be possible with human-inhabited systems. With no human on board they can be sent into dangerous or even suicidal missions, allowing more daring concepts of operation. Individually, robotic systems can provide warfighters significant advantages in a range of missions.

Collectively, swarms of robotic systems have the potential for even more dramatic, disruptive change to military operations. Swarms of robotic systems can bring greater mass, coordination, intelligence and speed to the battlefield, enhancing the ability of warfighters to gain a decisive advantage over their adversaries.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has called for a renewed effort to sustain American military technological dominance, and uninhabited and autonomous systems are an important component of such a strategy. Today the U.S. military faces a pernicious cycle of ever rising platform costs and shrinking quantities. As a result, the number of combat ships and aircraft in the U.S. inventory has steadily declined, even during periods of significant growth in defense spending. Today’s acute fiscal pressures only exacerbate these trends, forcing a crisis not only in military modernization and readiness, but also in the ability to field sufficient quantities to be relevant in future fights. As precision-guided munitions proliferate to other adversaries – both state and non-state actors – the shrinking numbers of U.S. combat assets becomes a major strategic liability. Adversaries can concentrate their weapons, which are becoming increasingly accurate and capable at ever-longer ranges, on the relatively small number of U.S. ships and bases, overwhelming their defenses.

The current trend of attempting to compensate for ever-shrinking numbers of capital assets through increasingly exquisite systems is not sustainable. Clinging to greater quantities by eschewing modernization, however, is not a recipe for success either. A new paradigm is needed, one that sustains the qualitative superiority of U.S. forces in aggregate, but that disperses combat power among a greater number of platforms, increasing resiliency and diversity and imposing costs on adversaries. 

Uninhabited systems can help bring mass back to the fight by augmenting human-inhabited combat systems with large numbers of lower cost uninhabited systems to expand the number of sensors and shooters in the fight. Because they can take more risk without a human onboard, uninhabited systems can balance survivability against cost, affording the ability to procure larger numbers of systems. Greater numbers of systems complicates an adversary’s targeting problem and allows graceful degradation of combat power as assets are attrited.

The disaggregation of combat power into a larger number of less exquisite systems also allows the ability to field a family-of-systems approach, increasing diversity and reducing technology risk, driving down cost. Uninhabited systems need not be exquisite multi-mission systems, but rather can be purpose-built for specific missions at lower cost. For example, uninhabited missile barges, undersea payload modules, airborne “missile trucks” and robotic appliqué kits for ground vehicles can supplement the striking power of existing manned platforms at relatively low cost. The result can be greater combat power on the battlefield, at the same cost.

By embracing uninhabited and autonomous systems, the United States can disperse its combat capabilities, increasing resiliency, and expand its offensive striking capacity, all within realistic budget constraints.

The power of swarming lies in more than just greater numbers, however. Today’s modern military forces fight as a network, with interconnected human-inhabited platforms passing surveillance and targeting data across great distances. Future military forces will fight as a swarm, with greater coordination, intelligence and speed. Autonomous and uninhabited systems will be networked and cooperative with the ability to autonomously coordinate their actions in response to events on the ground. Swarming, coordinated action can enable synchronized attack or defense, more efficient allocation of assets over an area, self-healing networks that respond to enemy actions or widely distributed assets that cooperate for sensing, deception and attack.

Harnessing the power of swarming will require new command-and-control models for human supervision of large swarms. This will mean moving beyond existing paradigms where humans directly control a vehicle’s movements to one where human controllers supervise the mission at the command level and uninhabited systems maneuver and perform various tasks on their own.

Increased automation also has the potential to speed up the pace of warfare by helping to shorten decision cycles and, in some cases, remove humans from them entirely. Increased automation can allow humans to process large amounts of data quickly, allowing warfighters to react to changing events on the ground faster than the enemy. In some cases, the fastest reactions might come from removing humans from some tasks entirely, as is already done for some defensive actions like dispensing flares or other countermeasures.

While increased automation may have tactical benefits in allowing faster reaction times to enemy actions, it could also have strategic consequences if the speed of action on the battlefield eclipses the speed of decision-making for policymakers. Increased autonomy in the use of force raises the dangerous specter of “flash wars” initiated by autonomous systems interacting on the battlefield in ways that may be unpredictable. While militaries will need to embrace automation for some purposes, humans must also be kept in the loop on the most critical decisions, particularly those that involve the use of force or movements and actions that could potentially be escalatory in a crisis.

Increasingly sophisticated autonomous systems will still fall short of human intelligence in many respects, and uninhabited systems will not be useful or appropriate for all missions. A human-machine teaming approach will be needed to find the optimal mix of human-inhabited and uninhabited platforms and human and machine cognition for various tasks. As one example, the Army has adopted an approach of teaming human-inhabited Apache helicopters with uninhabited Gray Eagle aircraft to perform armed aerial reconnaissance. Developing the doctrine, training, concepts of operation and organization to enable effective human-machine teaming will be critical to leveraging the unique advantages of uninhabited and autonomous systems in a wide range of mission areas.

The introduction of greater numbers of uninhabited and autonomous systems on the battlefield will not lead to bloodless wars of robots fighting robots, but could make more warfare more deadly and dangerous for human combatants. Humans will still fight wars, but new technology will give combatants, as it always has, greater standoff from the enemy, survivability or lethality. Exploiting those advantages will depend principally on the ability to uncover the most innovative applications of robotic swarms, which will require not only increased resources but also an aggressive campaign of experimentation and technology development. Many of the underlying technologies behind increased autonomy are driven by commercial sector innovation, and as a result will be available to a wide range of state and non-state actors. In a world where some of the most-game changing technologies will be available to everyone, uncovering the best uses of that technology – and doing so urgently – will be vital to sustaining American military dominance.

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