Adriana Gibson, Andrew J. Merchant, and Brandon D. Vigneron
Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our fourth annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.
Now, we are pleased to present one of the essays tied for third place, from Adriana Gibson, Andrew J. Merchant, and Brandon D. Vigneron, students at the U.S. Joint Forces Staff College.
MILITARY’S FUTURE OF WARFARE
“Every progress made in the methods of war brings them more within the domain of science… yet the elements of the problem which war presents for solutions are vastly more complex and difficult of exact measurements than those with which any other branch of science has had to deal.”
—Lieutenant General John. M. Schofield
Lieutenant General John M. Schofield, American Civil War commander, reflected in 1880 on a fundamental paradox he observed during the war and what it meant for the future of warfare. Schofield learned firsthand through his experiences during the first industrialized war of the modern era that regardless of how far warfare moved into the technological advancements of science, applying technological innovations would not make warfare more simple. In fact, since modern improvements in warfare’s ways and means have evolved in number, variety, and influence, the labor of the military commander has increased instead of diminished. This could not be truer than in the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI), and particularly autonomous systems in warfare. As both artificial intelligence and autonomous systems advance at an astonishing rate, scientists and military leaders alike are working through the complexities to determine the best ways of implementing them on the modern battlefield. The complexity of warfare, especially considering inclusion of technology, forces us to ask the question: How does the U.S. military safely and effectively incorporate artificial intelligence and autonomous systems into combat operations given an adversary’s desire to incorporate them quicker in order to gain a worldwide advantage? This article will provide insight into how the U.S. military is answering this question and whether a suitable solution exists in this field of continuous evolution and controversy.
Artificial intelligence is a rapidly growing field of technology capturing the attention of international competitors, commercial venture capitalists, military defense experts, and policymakers. On 20 July 2017, the Chinese government released a strategy detailing its plan to take the world lead in artificial intelligence by 2030. Just a few months later, Russian president Vladimir Putin publicly announced Russia’s intent to pursue artificial intelligence technologies, stating, “[W]hoever becomes the leader in this field will rule the world.” Similarly, the U.S. National Defense Strategy, released in January 2018, identified artificial intelligence as one of the key technologies that will “ensure [the United States] will be able to fight and win the wars of the future.”
The technological race for a competitive edge in artificial intelligence and autonomous systems began long before the Department of Defense (DoD) shifted to a great power competition strategy in 2018. Almost all academic studies in artificial intelligence acknowledge that no commonly accepted definition of the concept exists, in part because of the diverse approaches to research in the field. However, Section 238 of the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), P.L. 115-232, provides a definition of artificial intelligence for the purposes of Section 238 as:
Any artificial system that performs tasks under varying and unpredictable circumstances without significant human oversight, or that can learn from experience and improve performance when exposed to data sets and/or an artificial system developed in computer software, physical hardware, or other context that solves tasks requiring human-like perception, cognition, planning, learning, communication, or physical action.
Additionally, for purposes of this article, the term autonomous systems refers to “any particular machine or system capable of performing an automated function and potentially learning from its experiences to enhance its performance.” Most great powers of the world have accepted the arrival of autonomous systems in warfare and are now working to outpace one another by gaining faster situational awareness, swifter decision-making, and by executing more precise battlefield effects that can outlast and/or outdo the competition.
THE UNITED STATES
In 2018, the U.S. Congress mandated that a human being occupy a place in the targeting cycle of all lethal U.S. military automated systems. The Department of Defense clarifies this in DoD Directive (DoDD) 3000.09 Autonomy in Weapons Systems. In it, the Department of Defense defines semi-autonomous weapons systems as weapons systems that, once activated, are intended to engage individual targets or target groups a human operator has selected. According to the directive, since people rather than machines apply the Laws of War, people should have the final decision for target engagement. While this limitation minimizes the risk of harming noncombatants and inflicting collateral damage, neither China nor Russia adhere to such policies. This has raised concerns amongst some proponents of autonomous systems that the U.S. may be at a long-term disadvantage since U.S. adversaries, free from such policies, may adopt an operational tempo for artificial intelligence that could one day outmatch the U.S. military. The fear of an adversary gaining technological advantages through artificial intelligence and autonomous systems arises when it comes to the processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) of data. Civilian scientists often refer to this process as “the algorithm of warfare,” where systems gather large amounts of data, process it, and disseminate it for various purposes, such as intelligence assessments and command and control decisions. The fear that one’s adversary is able to execute this algorithmic aspect of warfare to achieve speedy situational awareness and unrivaled command and control is a realistic fear that each world power is working to address in their own specific way. It is important to note that, to date, no world power has figured out how to completely remove human analysis or human decision-making—the art of warfare—from this data cycle. Intelligence support to ground operations, especially for targeting, still requires vital human judgment to understand the human dimensions of combat operations. While the struggle continues amongst the world powers for how, when, and if fully autonomous systems should assume full control of this aspect of warfare, the U.S. military has made significant progress in leveraging semi-autonomous systems for their warfighting functions.
The U.S. military is currently implementing a variety of semi-autonomous systems into the battlefield environment from various intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) collection platforms, such as Predator and Reaper, to unattended ground systems (UGS) and various types of battlefield drones. While each of these systems are classified as semi-autonomous systems—with humans controlling their actions and analyzing their collected data—they are becoming force multipliers that may reduce troop numbers on the battlefield while extending the U.S. military’s operational reach in scope and duration.
With the inherent shortfalls of autonomous technology, paired with the limitations of DoDD 3000.09, the U.S. military’s implementation of offensive oriented autonomous systems will likely be slower and more deliberate in comparison with defensive autonomous systems due to the lengthy approval process they have to undergo. Those warfighting functions of ground combat where U.S. ground forces employ direct and indirect firepower upon an enemy target, such as fires and maneuver, require human judgment to validate the selected target. However, development of autonomous vehicles supporting just the movement aspect of maneuver and sustainment and force protection is one area where the U.S. military can maximize the non-lethal advantages of autonomous systems in the near-term. The U.S. military is leaning as far forward as possible in the areas of non-lethal unattended ground systems unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
The 2017 U.S. Army Robotics and Autonomous Systems Strategy outlined five major objectives for unattended ground systems and unmanned aircraft:
Increase situational awareness,
Lighten soldier’s physical and cognitive workloads,
Sustain the force with increased distribution throughput and efficiency,
Facilitate movement and maneuver, and
Protect the force.
The unattended ground systems the U.S. Army is currently testing can support all five of these objectives. In terms of movement and maneuver, many of the platforms being tested, such as Lockheed Martin’s Autonomous Mobility Applique System (AMAS), autonomous fueling trucks, and Joint Precision Airdrop Systems (JPADs), have the capability to lighten soldiers’ physical loads and increase their mobility and effectiveness. This is especially important for soldiers in light infantry units and soldiers executing dismounted operations for an extended number of days without resupply. For mounted and dismounted reconnaissance operations, unattended ground systems will help minimize the number of reconnaissance troops positioned forward of the front-line trace of the main ground forces. Furthermore, unattended ground systems can remain forward deployed in positions for longer durations and reconnoiter more ground. In terms of sustainment, unattended ground systems will likely have the capability to reduce the human risks to combat logistics, moving supplies to the most forward supply points with minimum human oversight required. Unattended ground systems will likely provide commanders additional options for logistics distribution along with additional planning options for casualty evaluation and medical evacuation planning. The U.S. Army is prioritizing off-road autonomous technology so much for its mid-term and long-term goals that as off-road technology matures, it will not wait for perfection in off-road navigation and tactical informational decision-making software before fielding autonomous prototypes for testing.
Regarding the implementation of unmanned aircraft systems, the U.S. Army is driving the development of lighter and easy-to-assemble systems that can provide better overhead coverage for dismounted soldiers for longer durations. U.S. Army units can pair unattended ground systems and unmanned aircraft systems to execute a technique often called swarming, where a unit can send enough autonomous systems into an area, working together and communicating with one another to accomplish an objective. Swarming is a way for a U.S. Army unit to mass effects on the battlefield. In terms of reconnaissance for ground forces, the Army’s long-term goal for autonomous systems is to maximize the swarming effects of unattended ground systems and unmanned aircraft systems for faster situational awareness development with minimized risk to reconnaissance troops. These types of autonomous systems outlined in the 2017 U.S. Army Robotics and Autonomous Systems Strategy will significantly enhance ground combat units’ actions without dehumanizing warfare or lowering the threshold for initiating armed conflict as some opponents of offensive autonomous systems argue. Other service components within the U.S. military have adopted a similar strategy of leveraging the opportunities for non-lethal autonomous systems on the battlefield.
In late 2019, the Air Force released an Artificial Intelligence Annex to the Department of Defense Artificial Intelligence Strategy, intended to highlight the importance of artificial intelligence capabilities to future missions. This annex outlines five focus areas for the Air Force:
Drive down technological barriers to entry,
Recognize and treat data as a strategic asset,
Democratize access to artificial intelligence solutions,
Recruit, develop, upskill, and cultivate our workforce, and
Increase transparency and cooperation with international, government, industry, and academic partners.
These five focus areas highlight the Air Force’s recognition of the importance of artificial intelligence and will pave the way for the implementation of systems enabled by it. One concept that the Air Force is pursuing is autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs). While aerial platforms like the Predator and Reaper have a human operator in the loop, the Air Force Research Laboratories’ Skyborg project envisions a non-lethal unmanned combat air vehicle that will provide wingmen in autonomous drones controlled by artificial intelligence to train and fly alongside actual pilots, learn and anticipate their needs, and assist them in identifying and responding to threats in combat. A prototype unmanned combat air vehicle is expected to be available for testing and training as early as 2023.
The U.S. military’s efforts in aggressive but careful implementation of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems into the force allows time for military and political leaders to understand limitations while mitigating the risks to the operators and civilians on the battlefield. While military and political leaders can potentially view the U.S. approach to artificial intelligence and autonomous systems approach as one that takes into account the greatest good for humanity, it is an approach quite different from either China’s or Russia’s.
Although artificial intelligence first emerged in America, giving the U.S. a head start over the rest of the world, China’s government has recently set ambitious goals for artificial intelligence. With the world’s largest population and a rapidly expanding economy, China is attempting to become the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. Artificial intelligence is a national priority in China, whose government has established an Artificial Intelligence Innovative Platform. Although China and the U.S. are in an overall race for artificial intelligence, as each country races to develop technologies before the other, there may be an even more significant race underway between the two…artificial intelligence in national defense and autonomous military weapons systems. China’s military is already using some artificial intelligence technology, including the use of drones and military robotics that feature extensive autonomous capabilities.
China’s leadership sees increased military use of artificial intelligence as inevitable and confirms China will continue to pursue artificial intelligence aggressively. Military leaders have a clear expectation that artificial intelligence is inevitable in future global warfare. China’s strategy document states that China will “Promote all kinds of [AI] technology to become quickly embedded in the field of national defense innovation.” A senior executive at China’s third largest defense company gave a speech in which he described his company’s (and China’s) expectations for the future implementation of artificial intelligence weapons: “In future battlegrounds, there will be no people fighting.” He predicted that by 2025 lethal autonomous weapons would be commonplace and said that his company believes ever-increasing military use of artificial intelligence is inevitable.
China is well into the process of automating military vehicles and employing unmanned military systems that can be used on the battlefield. For example, their new Blowfish A2 drone can fly individually or as a swarm group without human operators, can carry a machine gun, and can engage almost any target autonomously. On land, China has created Norinco’s Cavalry, an unmanned ground vehicle with near-autonomous features that carries both machine guns and rocket launchers.  At sea, Chinese military researchers are building unmanned submarines called HSU-001s that can hover, move vertically and/or horizontally, and will likely be used for long range patrols. A Chinese classified program, known as the “912 Project,” is working to develop new-generation military underwater robots by 2021. The robots are intended to supplement the manned submarines of the People’s Liberation Army Navy by relying on artificial intelligence to adjust to changing conditions while handling tasks such as surveillance, mine-laying, and attacks on enemy vessels. What may be even more disturbing than the fact that China is already using these autonomous systems is that China is also exporting many of its most advanced military aerial drones to Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Despite the fact that Chinese officials fully expect to manufacture ever-more capable automated products and weapons, China’s government has stated it will continue to export its next generation stealth drones as they become available.
China’s President, Xi Jinping, believes artificial intelligence is critical to the future of global military defense and will have a major impact on China’s economic growth and power. Total Chinese government spending on artificial intelligence is estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars. At least two Chinese regional governments have each committed to investing approximately $14.7 billion USD, reinforcing that artificial intelligence is a major Chinese strategy. Recent estimates from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), however, show that most of China’s investment in artificial intelligence seems to be going towards non-military-related research. Comparatively, Russia’s private sector currently spends less than $15 million on artificial intelligence but plans to increase that level to $500 million. Russia’s equivalent of the U.S. Department of Defense expects to spend almost nine times that amount on activities related to artificial intelligence. Although the U.S. and China outspend Russia in developing systems based on artificial intelligence, underestimating Russia’s ability to leverage advances in artificial intelligence would be a mistake. In contrast to both, the U.S. planned spending for fiscal year 2020 allocates the majority of its artificial intelligence budget specifically to defense, which means the U.S. will likely outspend both Russia and China in artificial intelligence and automated systems for national defense, confirming the U.S. Department of Defense is prioritizing artificial intelligence more than ever before.
Many would not consider Russia to be on the cutting edge of technology but overlooking their planned capabilities to apply artificial intelligence to combat situations would be a mistake. In recent years, the Russian military has achieved major breakthroughs in the development of unmanned systems. Russian investments in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will help their soldiers counter the physical, cognitive, and operational challenges of urban warfare and perform better in future conflicts. In fact, Russia’s Military Industrial Committee has approved plans to derive 30% of Russia’s combat power from remote-controlled systems and platforms enabled by artificial intelligence by 2030.
Russia currently views AI as an enabler in its automated control and decision-support systems. However, in the future, the Defense Ministry experts hope to develop artificial intelligence capable of operations approximating human brain function; if successful, this would allow Russia to remove the human component from a weapon system altogether. To this end, Russia is currently working on two tank-like combat systems referred to as Shturm (Storm) and Soratnik (Ally). According to the Russian defense manufacturer Kalashnikov, “Robot tanks do not need crews. Robots without human intervention will detect enemy weapons, destroy them, and issue target designations.”  This certainly indicates Russia’s intent to develop unmanned combat systems without need for a human in the decision loop.
Shturm is based on a T-72 tank chassis and employs both offensive and defensive systems designed for an urban fight. While the Shturm is not a fully automated system, it is designed to employ artificial intelligence for movement and maneuverability. The plans are to equip the tank with means for navigation and self-orientation, along with the ability to interpret and report friendly force disposition. The Soratnik is a smaller, autonomous tracked vehicle with a compact turret that supports weapons-carrying, armed reconnaissance, and infantry fire support.
In addition to the Shturm and Soratnik systems, Russia is developing missiles guided by artificial intelligence to be used in their next-generation Tupolev PAK DA strategic stealth bomber. These missiles will have a range of 4,350 miles and will be designed with built-in artificial intelligence that can analyze adversary radar capabilities and dynamically switch targets mid-flight to avoid detection. Russia’s official Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper quoted the Russian Air Force Commander-in-Chief, General Viktor Bondarev, as saying, "Such a missile can analyze the aerial and radio-radar situation and determine its direction, altitude and speed. We're already working on such missiles."
Great power competition participants believe artificial intelligence will have a revolutionary impact on warfare. The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy identified artificial intelligence as an emerging technology that will change the character of war considerably. Chinese military members believe improvement in artificial intelligence capabilities will create a military revolution. Russians have launched a major effort to develop and exploit artificial intelligence systems for military use, believing that whoever leads in artificial intelligence will rule the world. Many believe the world has changed from the Industrial Era, moving into a new Information Era where automated information-processing could be the most consequential and beneficial aspect of combat operations. Many believe the impact of artificial intelligence is so significant that it can challenge and change established foundational warfighting principles. In confirmation, it can be said that artificial intelligence and advanced automated systems will impact information superiority and could be a significant wartime advantage.
The U.S. military has already begun to incorporate artificial intelligence into its operations. However, the use of autonomous machines in the U.S. could be said to be quite conservative in comparison to its adversaries. Although artificial intelligence assists in providing risk predictions and improving time available to react to events, some believe artificial intelligence and autonomous systems will drastically distance humans from a direct combat role. Observations regarding the complexity of warfare, regardless of the technology, force scientists and military leaders to question the potential consequences of implementing artificial intelligence and autonomous systems in the next military conflict.
Although artificial intelligence promises to provide a significant advantage, there is also a range of potential negative consequences that can result from its impact on warfighting. One concern is that automated systems could accelerate the pace of combat at a rate that significantly surpasses the rate of human decision-making and potentially result in the loss of human control during combat operations. The probability of artificial intelligence producing miscalculated actions is also a concern. The miscalculation of an automated system’s response towards an adversary’s show of military force could unnecessarily escalate a situation into armed conflict. Correctly assessing future impacts of artificial intelligence is challenging, however. Given the positive advantages of artificial intelligence, it is incumbent on Congress and military leaders to properly assess and evaluate the implications of artificial intelligence and automated systems for military use. Historians often confirm that revolutions are apparent only in hindsight, and the true success of any new application may not be apparent until it has been tested in combat. Congressional actions that affect funding, acquisitions, norms/standards, and international competition associated with artificial intelligence have the potential to significantly shape the trajectory development and may be critical to ensuring that advanced technologies are in place to support U.S. national security objectives and the continued efficacy of the U.S. military.
The most important action U.S. military leaders can take for effective implementation of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems on the battlefield is to build the trust U.S. service members have in them. Historically, U.S. service members are initially hesitant to trust new technology when it first arrives on scene, either because of a personal experience where the new technology failed them or from hearing of a situation where new technology failed their comrades. Such was the case when automobiles first arrived in the U.S. military to replace horses for cavalrymen in the early twentieth century, when tanks came into service during the First World War, and when the M16A1 rifle replaced the M14 rifle in the U.S. military in the early 1960s. Through training and familiarization, though, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines gained valuable experiences with their new equipment and built the trust required to confidently carry it into combat. For the future of automated systems, the more the U.S. military provides service members with frequent and diverse opportunities to familiarize themselves with artificial intelligence, the greater the likelihood service members will gain trust and confidence in new automated systems. It is training and experience that make U.S. service members unique amongst the militaries of the world. Therefore, their training and experiences with new and evolving artificial intelligence and autonomous systems could be the distinct advantage the U.S. military really needs. Maybe this is what the fictional weapons engineer and visionary inventor Tony Stark meant when he said that perhaps building the technology around the human and not taking the human out of the technology is where our key to success lies.
Adriana Gibson is an officer in the U.S. Navy. She earned a BS in Computer Science from Columbia College in 2003, and her MBA in 2011.
Andrew J. Merchant is an officer in the U.S. Army. He earned a BA in History and Political Science from Cedarville University and an MA in Military History from Norwich University.
Brandon D. Vigneron is an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He earned a BA in Computer Science from the University of North Texas in 2000 and an MBA in Information Technology from Touro University in 2007.
The views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Army, the U.S Navy, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Drone Swarm (MercatorNet)
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