Small Wars Journal

Our New Model Robot Armies

Tue, 08/07/2018 - 9:56am

Our New Model Robot Armies


Peter Layton


Robotic technologies seem set to disrupt warfare in at least two big ways: firstly, in improving productivity making armies equipment-centric; and secondly, in making defence dominant on the battlefield.  In this revolution, the character of war will change and somewhat unexpectedly, possibly its nature.


We seem on the cusp of a robotic revolution. Automated systems appear about to quickly proliferate across the battlespace in many different forms and performing multiple dissimilar functions. There is no single technology driving this transformation, more a mix of narrow artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems, low cost sensors, big data, cloud computing and many more.[1]  This automation of the battlefield will change the character of war bringing new opportunities while simultaneously constraining what is possible.  Most startlingly, the new technologies may potentially change the nature of war.  There seem two big trends worth examining.


Firstly, as always, automation will sharply improve productivity. A small number of personnel will be able to control and direct numerous robotic devices, ranging from large area sensor fields, to unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, to semi-autonomous land vehicles for logistic support tasks and squad equipment transport. The revolution might indeed be epitomized in the image of small electric vehicles following individual soldiers around the battlefield carrying their packs, extra ammunition and (crucially!) spare batteries.[2]


The technology now available and emerging indicates that the armies of developed nations will be able to shift - if they choose - from being mechanized to being robotic within about a decade. By the late-2020s such armies would be able to field large numbers of remotely controlled and semi-autonomous robots optimized for particular dull, dirty and dangerous tasks. Major General Mick Ryan writes that whereas today’s battlegroup might have 1200 soldiers: “A highly capable and sustainable land combat battlegroup in 2030 may consist of as few as 250–300 human soldiers and several thousand robotic systems of various sizes and functions.”[3]


Mass would return to the battlefield. From today having small numbers of exquisite high-cost systems, future force structures could change to fielding very large numbers of dramatically lower cost, unmanned systems optimized for specific tasks. Attrition would become of much less concern than currently. High payoff but high-risk operations could become both more practical and appealing.


Moreover, in a force of many automated and robotic systems, combat capabilities would be highly dispersed and accordingly much harder for an adversary to target significant fractions of. Such a force structure would gracefully degrade during combat operations not potentially catastrophically fail if a critical system is destroyed. Furthermore, unmanned systems should be able to be replaced reasonably quickly; in sharp contrast to today’s manned systems, some of which can take years to build. The new emerging mass-robot force structure should overall be much more robust and resilient than today’s.


Away from the battlefield, at the grand strategy level, there may be another significant change. A country’s population base has traditionally been seen as a significant indicator of a nation’s potential military power. Quantity in terms of numbers of people is seen to have a strategic quality all of its own but robots may overturn this. Small wealthy countries may now be able to generate greater combat mass than much larger poor ones.  Moreover, countries with unfavorable demographics - more old people than young - may no longer be at a disadvantage.  Developing a robotic force structure might allow a small number of personnel to wield disproportionately large combat power.


This vision however comes with a sting in the tail – literally. In terms of personnel the ‘tooth to tail’ ratio may become very tail heavy. The envisaged robot forces based on contemporary technology will be technically complicated placing a premium on high quality maintenance and logistic support. Keeping the robots operating will be a crucial ‘warfighting’ function, requiring armies to invest in large numbers of highly skilled human technicians.


Soldiers used to tease airmen and sailors that while air forces and navies man equipment, armies equip the man. In the age of robot armies, this all potentially changes. Armies may join air forces and navies in being equipment-centric. Given personnel have long lead times, in the very near future army recruitment, training and education may all have to radically change. Armies seem set to face big cultural challenges as they become robotized. There is a revolution looming.


The second big trend is that defense looks set to be the dominant form of future war. The complicated mix of AI, robotics, low cost sensors, big data, cloud computing and more will be easier to deploy and use in friendly territory than hostile.


In friendly territory a large number of internet-of-things (IoT) sensors can be emplaced in optimum locations based on a deep knowledge of both the terrain and the environment gained across decades. These IoT sensors can be robustly connected through a cloud-computing network to feed data back into remote command support systems that use AI to rapidly filter out the important from the background clutter. Changes will be able to be quickly responded to using well-positioned artillery, missiles or attack drones. Importantly, such engagement weapon systems are relatively short range; all have distinct limits because of energy constraints whether from propellant design on restricted onboard fuel.


In contrast invading forces will lack many of the home-ground advantages. They will need to be able to under fire quickly deploy large sensor fields cross distant battlefields, almost instantaneously very accurately map these battlefields, rapidly move short range robots forward, set up forward logistic and maintenance support areas and swiftly train the AI command support systems to detect changes.


The last may be particularly problematic in that the attacker compared to the defender will not have the depth or breadth of ‘big data’ necessary for optimum AI support or the best employment of robotic forces. Given they will have had years to prepare, the defender will potentially always have much better information about battlefield conditions than an attacker. The old computer-programming adage of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ then favors the defender.


In addition, the robotic battlefield requires a cloud-computing network that links all involved. In friendly territory clouds can be set up, tested, optimized and hardened against interference. By comparison, an invading force would need to push forward a combat cloud in the face of emplaced hostile electromagnetic countermeasures. This would be technically hard.


The result of all this is that a country’s border zones will be able to be developed into no-man’s lands.  Hostile forces moving into them will be able to be quickly detected, identified, tracked and targeted using precision kinetic and non-kinetic fires. There will be nowhere to hide. In some respects the Donbas battlefield’s trench warfare may be a harbinger of this emerging age of robotic static frontlines.[4]  Small, wealthy Estonia seems already headed down the path of progressively building a robotic-barrier border zone.[5]


Defense looks likely to become dominant. However, this does not mean that offence will disappear. Instead new ways to mount an offensive will be developed and it is here where the nature of war may change.


War has always been violent, chaotic, destructive and murderous. If a nation’s borders cannot be penetrated and its critical centers of gravity attacked using kinetic means perhaps non-kinetic means are the offensive style of the future. Russia’s recent information warfare against the US political system may hint at such new offensive warfighting techniques.[6]  Instead of destroying another’s capabilities and national infrastructures, they might be exploited and used as bearers to spread confusion and dissent. War may no longer be violent and murderous but it may still be as Clausewitz wrote a “true political instrument.”[7]


New model robot armies are inbound. The future of war may then be quite different to our past imaginings. Stand by for a possible reboot.


End Notes


1.  The term narrow AI may be unfamiliar to some. Narrow AI equals or exceeds human intelligence for specific tasks within a particular domain; their utility is context-dependent. In contrast, general AI equals the full range of human performance for any task in any domain. Narrow AI is here today but when general AI might be achieved remains debatable, but seems at least several decades away. The technologies noted in the sentence and their interactions are discussed further in: Peter Layton (2018), Algorithm Warfare: Applying Artificial Intelligence to Warfighting, (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre).


2.  There is a sudden rush of such vehicles being trialled with examples including: Roboteam Probot (Professional Robot), General Dynamics MUTT (Multi-Utility Tactical Transport), HDT Global Hunter WOLF (Wheeled Offload Logistics Follower) and Praesidium Global MAPS (Mission Adaptable Platform System).


3.  Mick Ryan (2018), Human-Machine Teaming For Future Ground Forces, (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments), p. 20.


4.  Nolan Peterson (2017), ‘A Century After the US Entered World War I, Modern-Day Trench Warfare Continues in Ukraine, The Daily Signal, April 5.   Able Squadron (2017), Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook,  (Fort Meade: Asymmetric Warfare Group)


5.  Kelsey Atherton (2018), 'Estonian war robots could have big implications for future NATO plans', C4ISRNET, 3 August.


6.  Renee Diresta (2018), ‘The Information War Is On. Are We Ready For It?’, Wired, 3 August.


7. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War: Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p.87.

About the Author(s)

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. A former RAAF Group Captain, he has extensive defense experience, including in the Pentagon and at National Defense University. He holds a doctorate in grand strategy. He is the author of the book ‘Grand Strategy’.