Rise of the Machines: Pentagon Preparing for Robotic Battlefields

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Move over R2-D2, Star Wars is about to get real.

The intelligent and fully autonomous robots that captured America’s imagination on the big screen now play an increasingly important role in modern life. From manufacturing, self-driving cars, 3-D printing, and voice recognition systems to robo-financial analysts on Wall Street, the robotic world is here to stay. In fact, recent studies suggest the rise of intelligent machines will define the next industrial revolution.

But those machines will also give rise to new forms of warfare—battlefields filled with humans and intelligent machines operating in close cooperation with one another and independently. And while there are some who remain unconvinced that such a dystopian future awaits the profession of arms, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work is not among them. The intelligence that Work and other senior Pentagon leaders receive each day about the ongoing Russian military action in Eastern Ukraine or the research and development activities of the Chinese military tells a very different story.

Russian activities in Eastern Ukraine have presented a laboratory of future 21st-century warfare, Work said Monday, speaking at the Center for a New American Security Inaugural National Security Forum. “Russian units employed advanced sensors and imaging, enabled by a liberal use of small unmanned aerial systems backed up by very highly capable collection platforms. And they introduced new levels of battlefield transparency and lethality,” Work said. “The operations in Ukraine highlighted the new speed of war, driven by automated battle networks boosted by advances in computing power.”

The Russian example from Ukraine, however, is but the beginning of the journey toward the integration of intelligent machines into military operations. What some have in mind is truly unsettling, according to Work. “Now our adversaries, quite frankly, are pursuing enhanced human operations,” said Work, referring to enhancing human capability with artificial intelligence and robotics. “And it scares the **** out of us, really. We’re going to have to have a big, big decision on whether or not we are comfortable going that way.”

alt“We know that China is investing heavily in robotics and autonomy. And the Russian chief of the General Staff…recently said that the Russian military is preparing to fight on a roboticized battlefield,” said Work, referring to Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

In fact, in an article published in 2013, Gerasimov laid out his vision of the future battlefield. “While today we have flying drones, tomorrow’s battlefields will be filled with walking, crawling, jumping, and flying robots. In the near future it is possible a fully robotized unit will be created, capable of independently conducting military operations,” he said.

“We’re already in this competition whether we like it or not,” said Work.

Third Offset Strategy

The Pentagon is now pushing forward on what it refers to as the third offset strategy—an effort to awaken a new level of modernization throughout the military to ensure U.S. military superiority in an era when advanced technologies are making it possible for potential adversaries to develop countermeasures to U.S. systems and capabilities. The first offset strategy occurred during the Cold War, when the U.S. turned to its nuclear deterrent to offset a massive conventional Soviet Union force in Eastern Europe. The second offset strategy was developed in the 1970s to leverage new advances in mirco electronics and sensor technologies to conduct precision strikes anywhere in the world. It, too, was focused on the Soviet Union and its large number of conventional forces around the globe.

Today, however, the spread of advanced information technologies has provided adversaries and potential adversaries the means to counter military capabilities where the U.S. has long enjoyed an overwhelming advantage. The third offset strategy is focused on maintaining that advantage. And, according to Work, there are five broad technologicial building blocks that are fundamental to the success of the third offset strategy—all of which leverage the rise of intelligent, autonomous machines.

  1. Autonomous deep-learning systems. The Pentagon is going to pursue major improvements in indications and warning capabilities through big data analytics, as well as cyber and missile defense systems that require faster-than-human reaction times.
  2. Human-machine collaboration. “The F-35 helmet is very much a human-machine collaboration system. Three hundred and sixty degrees of information is being crunched and portrayed by the machine in an advanced way in the heads-up display on the helmet,” said Work.
  3. Assisted human operations. Think of your car, the lane departure warning or collision detection warning. Using wearable electronics, heads-up displays, perhaps exoskeletons, to assist humans to be better in combat. “It won’t be long, I guarantee you, before our combat infantry men and women are using wearable electronics with uploadable combat apps and heads-up displays of their own,” Work said.
  4. Advanced human-machine combat teaming. Human-machine combat teaming is where a human working with unmanned systems is able to conduct cooperative operations. “We’re actively looking at a large number of very, very advanced things. Right now, we’re looking at large capacity [unmanned underwater vehicles] that cascade out medium-sized UUVs, that cascade out smaller diameter UUVs, and form networks. We’re looking at small surface vessels operating in swarms,” Work said. The eventual goal is to have one mission commander able to direct the swarm itself. “You’re going to see a lot more motherships whose offspring work to execute the mission.”
  5. Autonomous weapons that are hardened against cyberattacks and GPS jamming.

Real Tech = Real Money

A fundamental part of the new robotic battlefield will be the development of a smart learning network. “If we launch seven missiles at a surface action group and one missile goes high…and it sees something new that is not in its library, it will immediately report back on the learning network, which will go into a learning machine, which will create an [action suggestion], it will pass it over to a human-machine collaboration so the mission commander can make an adjustment on the next salvo and then make a command change inside the software of the missile,” Work explained.

The entire networked ecosystem “is designed to make the human more effective in combat,” he said.

And while it may still sound more like Hollywood than reality to some, there is some real money being put behind the planned wargaming, experimentation, and demonstrations that will be required to develop realistic doctrine and plans. The fiscal 2017 budget estimate is $12 billion to $15 billion for wargaming, experimentation, and demonstrations of the five core technology areas.

It won’t all happen in the open, however. “There will be a lot of fast followers. I’m OK with that,” said Work. “We will reveal to deter and conceal for warfighting advantage. I want our competitors to wonder what’s behind the black curtain.”

Dan Verton
About Dan Verton
MeriTalk Executive Editor Dan Verton is a veteran journalist and winner of the First Place Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for Best News Reporting -- the highest award in the nation for business/trade journalism. Dan earned a Master's Degree in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University in Washington, D.C., and has spent the last 20 years in the nation's capital reporting on government, enterprise technology, policy and national cybersecurity. He’s also a former intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps, has authored three books on cybersecurity, and has testified on critical infrastructure protection before both House and Senate committees.
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