Unmanned Warfare and the Elephant in the Room


By The Gunship Blogger    

I doubt I can find one politician or general officer who unequivocally say that robots will not participate in future conflicts.  Having commanded a company of UAS predators, I know the automated systems and remote controlled devices are here to stay.  Of course there are left and right of the debate: Skynet versus the eloi in the time machine.  Unfortunately, no one tends to look at the 10 year or 20 year mark with this technology.  The observations are always immediate or long term: MQ-1 drones to T-1000’s.

My concern with this lack of intelligent discussion is the nature of that intermediate warfare.  In the current state, technologically superior adversaries face off against technologically inferior actors.  An individual burying a homemade bomb faces a robotic assassin at 15k feet and an AGM-114 series missile.  But what happens when the adversary is no longer from a regressive culture, but a peer technologically saavy culture?  Who targets what?  What targets who?  What targets what?

The current paradigm applies robots against manned targets.  While the UAS platforms do attack infrastructure, they are best known for surgical strikes against human targets.  In this paradigm, a lengthy kill chain ensures the target meets certain criteria for destruction (euphamism for 5 million psi of tantalum coated steel punching through an individual’s thoracic cavity).  The current targeting process is very slow, necessitating the use of automated systems which can persist longer than the Reconaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition (RSTA) functions take to complete a full cycle.  Manned aircraft require multiple ‘battle handovers’ to outlast the targeting cycle and engage the target.  Thus, unmanned systems allow for manned systems to be applied to more complex target sets or faster targeting cycles.  But this has to change as UAS becomes more prevalent.

As UAS numbers increase, manned systems will decrease unless demand for an aerial fires and reconnaissance platform expands commensurately.  Assuming that such a demand cannot continue forever, there will be a point where UAS eclipses manned platforms.  Ground based systems have yet to experience the unmanned platform revolution, but it is only a matter of time.  Following the same methodology as UAS, ground based platforms will fill rolls which use up manpower for tasks which do not require complex reasoning.  This is primarily a logistics function, such as cargo trucks  that follow the manned leader or ammunition re-supply bots such as the Boston Dynamics Big Dog series of quadrapedal devices.

Technologically matched adversaries will then have logistics based operations fulfilled by unmanned systems with higher level decision making missions given to manned systems .  At this stage, it will be a combination of man against robot and robot against robot.  Attacking logistical support functions is a basic fundamental in warfare.  If the logistics functions are primarily unmanned, then the targets are primarily robotic in composition.  This signals the start of the troubling paradigm shift.

Engaging such enemy targets lends itself to automation.  Unlike a boy who picks up an AK-47 and points it in the general direction of a soldier, there is little ethical debate or reasoning needed to engage an enemy unmanned supply convoy.  In fact, the lack of human life might actually encourage a destructive approach.  Using humans for those targets will become a waste just as in the Predator drone hunting a bomb maker.  This is the beginning of the paradigm shift.  As systems become more and more intelligent, humans will be needed for less and less missions as automated processes readily replace human decision making as there is a lack of ethics when engaging enemy machines versus lives.  At this point, warfare has transformed completely.

Tactics that we take for granted today will no longer apply.  For instance, suppressive fire triggers animal instincts in humans to remain behind cover as long as the fire persists.  Robotic systems need not have that animal programming.  Priorities of work in a patrol base are no longer applicable as automated systems don’t need to eat or sleep.  Having been on the bleeding edge of the MQ-1C integration into the military, I know for a fact that these tactical dilemmas are not and will not be addressed.  Manufacturer General Atomics advertises the capabilities of their Avenger swarm, with a ‘suicidal protection’ protocol which places less useful aircraft between ground fire and more useful aircraft.  This turns the less useful aircraft into a robotic human shield of sorts.  In no tactics published in Army doctrine have I seen a battle drill where a PFC must orient himself to the enemy and keep his body between the enemy and commander at all times.  The notion is ludicrous in a human context.  But in a robotic context, it makes perfect sense.

While stale tactics may endanger lives and mission success, a more pressing concern arises from the overall shift.  What constitutes a target for a largely robotic army facing a peer adversary?  Will it be similar to a scene from braveheart as armies line up and march towards each other with the side having the most remaining robots declared the victor?  Likely no.  Additionally, are weapons designed for killing humans effective against other unmanned systems?  Again, no.  And more importantly, what constitutes victory?

So, how does one win in an unmanned systems war?  Will the populace accept defeat when their robotic champion is defeated in the field of battle?  How do we accommodate the difference required in weaponry for fighting an automated threat versus manned threat?  How do we nest our manned tactics with unmanned capabilities to prevent legacy tactics from hindering operations?  These are all the questions and thought exercises leaders need to address.



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