Small Wars Journal

Prototype Warfare in the Fourth Industrial Age

Tue, 04/02/2019 - 6:20am

Prototype Warfare in the Fourth Industrial Age


Peter Layton


A new industrial process is rapidly emerging.  This fourth industrial revolution (4IR) based on hyper-connectivity brings with it both continual – indeed relentless – innovation and the possibility of practical large-scale prototype warfare.[i]


The interweaving of the second and third industrial revolutions is creating the fourth. This new deep integration allows a continuous and cyclical flow of information and actions between the physical and digital worlds. Many organizations already have some physical-to-digital and digital-to-digital processes but it’s closing the loop from digital back to physical and then quickly acting upon analysed data and information that marks the big technical advance. This change can move warfighters to the centre of the defence industrial production process.


Warfighters could now directly design one-of-a-kind items on the internet, pass this to the manufacturing plant, negotiate schedules, be part of the testing regime and arrange delivery. With techniques such as additive manufacturing, production batch sizes can now be small or on-demand without significant impact on production efficiency.  Items can accordingly both be produced affordably and through 4IR’s closed loop process have performance improvements introduced quickly. The warfighter will then be able to themselves customise equipment to be optimal for their needs and operating environments. Moreover, warfighters will be able to make regular reliability improvements and plan on-time logistic support.


4IR’s key drivers are “big data” analysed using artificial intelligence; high capacity connectivity; new human-machine interaction modes such as touch interfaces and virtual reality systems; and improvements in transferring digital instructions to the physical world including robotics and 3D printing. These new technologies allow production to be built and controlled around the digital thread and the digital twin.


The digital thread runs from start to finish, connecting the entire design and production process with a seamless strand of data that stretches from the initial design concept to the finished product. Changes to the design are then instantly transmitted across the whole process. The digital twin is a model of the product that gives insights into the inner workings and operation of the product, simulates possible scenarios, and aids understanding the impact of changes. This twin runs from product inception to service allowing operating experience data to be fed back into the model to update it and prompt possible production changes.


These 4IR advances allow manufacturing times to be halved or more; surge production in time of crisis is once again a realistic possibility. Moreover, specialised tooling is no longer always essential, allowing commercial production lines to be quickly switched to military purposes simply by connecting to the internet. Manufacturing may now occur anywhere. Production lines can be widely dispersed within the nation or around the globe to be either near the warfighter, transportation hubs or for protection in case of attack.


All this combines to mean that the 4IR allows devising a future defence force structure able to rapidly evolve to meet emerging operational demands, not the years or even decades it takes under earlier industrial revolutions. The time lag between new challenges arising and technological responses to those challenges could drop dramatically. Continual innovation may become the dominant quality of the future force and bring with it prototype warfare.


The prototype warfare concept has two phases. In the first, a wide array of diverse prototypes are developed under 4IR and evaluated in experimentation programs. In the second, those particular prototypes that have proven successful in the trials are produced in limited numbers and quickly introduced into-service. The intent would be to rapidly field a variety of low-cost, less complex systems and then replace these with improved variants or something totally new on a regular basis. It may seem calling the small number of prototype systems in service ‘short-life cycle capabilities’ might be more accurate than the ‘prototype warfare’ phrase. However, the phrase nicely captures that these limited production items are rather immature and less than fully developed.


Some Special Forces already use such a prototype warfare type concept but only on a tiny scale and for rather restricted purposes. Scaling up the idea for larger defence forces would see the short-life, semi-experimental items produced under the 4IR process being a small part of the overall national military force structure, augmenting the long-life, more complicated, well-proven platforms.


This idea of such a two-tier force is not unknown. Only 10-15% of the German Wehrmacht fielded innovative equipment during the 1940 Battle of France. The remainder relied on horse drawn wagons and equipment reminiscent of World War I but well proven and trusted. This mattered little. The numerically small, technologically advanced mechanised units of the Wehrmacht quickly won the battle for the remainder to fill in behind. Such a stunning success is what the notion of prototype warfare aspires to.


In this though the capabilities produced under 4IR prototype warfare will have some generic shortcomings. To meet the continual innovation objective, the new capabilities will be generally of limited complexity and therefore probably be single role not multi-purpose and perhaps have geographic operating restrictions e.g. work in tropical jungles but not at the Poles. The 4IR innovation process in trying to sharply lower time to introduction to service and aid in-service supportability reinforces the push towards simplicity.


Moreover, affordability is a real constraint. There is not just a single capability being pulled forward from the experimentation program but numerous. Funding needs to be spread across many prototypes. Overspending on one will adversely impact others and the overall force balance. In this it should be remembered that the prototype warfare concept envisages fielding many simple capabilities on a rolling basis not a single exquisite one just once.


Supportability of rapidly evolving equipment is a real issue but here the 4IR’s digital thread and twins come into play.  The digital thread connects all the 4IR production participants across the equipment’s life cycle so new variants can quickly incorporate availability and reliability improvements. The thread further ensures a well-tracked digital manufacturing database of maintenance items and replacement components is available to all and that these can be readily ordered and dispatched, at times electronically to a distant 3D printer.


Similarly the equipment’s digital twin can assist anyone anywhere in understanding how to support and maintain the equipment. Augmented reality could be used to show maintainers who have never before seen the system how to rapidly diagnose and make repairs. Such systems can also help train the equipment’s operators in the field, possibly using tablets or other mobile devices.


The 4IR bids fair to overturn many of our long-held conceptions of defence equipment manufacturing and long-term support. A hyper-connected warfighter-industry-research defence industrial ecosystem can allow continual innovation, bringing in its wake prototype warfare and the ability to have a rapidly evolving force structure. While only a small fraction of a force structure might use prototype warfare equipment, this may be sufficient to decisively win on the battlefield. The 4IR prototype warfare construct might be the silver bullet needed in the unpredictable, constantly shifting military environment of 21st Century.


End Notes


[i].  The issues in this post are considerably expanded upon, including with further references, in Peter Layton (2018), Prototype Warfare, Innovation and the Fourth Industrial Age, Canberra: Air Power Development Centre. 

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’.