Paper: DOD Should Prepare for Unmanned, 'Robotic' Warfare

 - January 27, 2014, 8:06 AM
The U.S. Navy tested autonomous flight controls on the X-47B unmanned combat air system, which completed its first carrier-based arrested landing last July. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The military dominance the U.S. has maintained since the end of the Cold War is declining as more opponents become capable of employing guided weapons and low-cost unmanned systems, say the authors of a new paper issued by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in January. The authors argue that defense planners should shift their focus to a coming war-fighting regime in which unmanned and autonomous systems proliferate.

Unlike the Cold War period, when the U.S. government drove research and development of advanced technologies such as missiles, guided munitions and GPS, the commercial sector is driving some of the key enabling technologies of the “robotics age,” among them advanced computing, artificial intelligence, autonomy, miniaturization, additive manufacturing and small, high-density power systems, advises the CNAS paper, “20YY, Preparing for War in the Robotic Age.” Robert Work, CEO of the nonprofit, non-partisan defense think tank and a former U.S. Navy undersecretary; and Shawn Brimley, the organization’s director of studies, are the authors.

The paper predicts a shift in the way wars are fought from the current regime centered on guided munitions and integrated battle networks. The U.S. dominated this regime from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. But it is losing the edge in sensors, guided weapons, battle networking, space, cyberspace and stealth systems as the associated technologies proliferate to both state and non-state opponents. Technologies the commercial computing and robotics industries are advancing could be exploited to build increasingly sophisticated unmanned and autonomous military systems. Autonomous systems are not remotely controlled by a human operator.

In order to maintain its technological edge in the transition to the robotics age, the Department of Defense (DOD) should begin preparations now, the authors say. However, the DOD “is in danger of making poor decisions” during the coming defense drawdown, a time in which it needs to make “disciplined, prioritized programmatic choices,” about the future of warfare.

“Planning for a world of widely proliferated anti-access weapons would be challenging under any circumstances. The challenge is compounded by the need to account for an emerging set of new, potentially disruptive technologies that may create sharp discontinuities in the conduct of warfare. Chief among them is the rise and rapid proliferation of unmanned systems,” the paper states. With steady advances in associated technologies, future unmanned systems “will likely be capable of acting with increasing autonomy and replicating the performance of humans in many situations. These future advanced systems will also be able to take on roles humans simply cannot, such as undertaking more dangerous missions or reacting with greater speed, precision and coordination than humans are capable of.”

Smaller, more numerous unmanned systems “can be built to be lost in combat,” meaning that survivability would not depend on any individual platform, but on a “swarm” of systems, operating together. “Intelligent” swarms could overwhelm adversaries by autonomously jamming, spoofing and disrupting their defenses. Human controllers would provide mission-level control over the swarm, “but the leading edge of the battlefront across all domains would be unmanned, networked, intelligent and autonomous. The resulting reconnaissance-strike swarm could achieve speed, synchronization and coordination of maneuver far surpassing that possible with manned platforms, rendering previous methods of warfare obsolete.”

Other emerging technologies that could disrupt the global military balance include cyber warfare tools, advanced computing, artificial intelligence, “densely interconnected, multi phenomenology sensors,” electric weapons, additive manufacturing and synthetic biology, the paper adds.