Small Wars Journal

Winning the Real War: Designing Virtual Armies

Tue, 04/09/2019 - 10:00am

Winning the Real War:  Designing Virtual Armies

Scott Padgett and Steve Banach

Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1989, and over the past thirty years it has served as the catalyst for a world-wide virtual revolution in human affairs. This phenomenon is propagated daily using a global technology structure.  Emergent high-tech heuristics, and a constant ungoverned flow of transnational mega-data has forever changed how mankind learns, communicates, and makes decisions.  Tech Giants, primarily in the U.S. and China, have become the new world Super Powers.  Their data collection and processing powers have significantly altered geo-political activity and the behavior of the global commons.  The collective activities of these entities are tantamount to virtual colonialization of the world.  Additionally, empowered criminal non-nation state actors are indirectly outmaneuvering all of us through the democratization of fraud and deep fakes, by stealing and profiting from the personal information of millions of people around the world who are connected to the Internet.

Designing Virtual Armies

The goal of this paper is to present learning concepts, and virtual maneuver schemata that can help the US Army win the real war that it is confronted with, vice the ideal war that it is currently designed to fight.  Winning the real war will guarantee freedom and the preservation of our way of life for the foreseeable future.  The operational definition of Virtual War is defined as: using the power of invisible efficacy to direct human behavior for profit or positional advantage.  This is exactly what technology companies and adversary nations states have been engaged in over the past three decades.  There is a growing virtual arms race that is raging among nation states and the largest technology companies in the world, where weapons of mass deception prevail.  Virtual armies are being developed throughout the world in nation-state militaries.  They have also emerged through the growth of massive civilian technology enterprises in the US and abroad.  The biggest tech companies in the US and in China, possess more virtual combat power than any military in the world. 

These realities are producing profound global economic, social, governance and security negative externalities.  For example, China is digitally grading its citizens and is using biometric scanning to gain state social control.  The Middle Kingdom is exercising an informal means of state control through the digital enforcement of acceptable cultural norms and values. The communist government of the Republic of China determines what the domestically tolerable standards are for each individual citizen, and rewards or administers punishment accordingly.  China is exporting its social grading system to eventually achieve global social control, through the enforcement of its centralized digital societal parameters.  This will become a more pressing global issue in a few years when the use of national paper currency is eliminated, and the world writ large transitions to digital currency, as the norm.  China could easily hack these financial networks to indirectly achieve the global social control end game they desire.  This potential future is within tactical reach for China.

The Nature and Character of War

The nature of warfare today is consistent with what mankind has experienced for millennia, and will always consist of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, as described by Clausewitz.  In contrast, the character of warfare constantly evolves.  The difference today is that character of warfare has changed so quickly and indirectly, that it is opaque to western military practitioners.  The western military culture has historically taken a direct approach to the application of military power. Adversaries to the United States and its Allies, are using an indirect approach for the application of many forms of power.  Cultural bias is blinding the minds of western military professionals who get paid to accurately see the changing topography of war over time.  This froward propensity ensures that armies do not see the real war that is in plain sight.  Moreover, militaries must prepare themselves for war that does not employ doctrine.  The plodding doctrinal industrial-age mental model is too slow to compete now, let alone in future war.  Leaders and Soldiers will make decisions and taken action in seconds, at the direction of their Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) assistant.  The quality and security of the AI/ML information will determine which army survives and wins in future wars.

Heretofore, warfare was constrained to Soldiers who fought on traditional battlefields where a combatant could see and target adversaries in physical battle space. The reality is that every American is now a virtual combatant today whether they want to be or not.  Anyone who connects to the Internet is tethered to a Virtual Battle Space Weapon System.  An individual’s location, identity, finances, and intellectual property could potentially be under attack the moment they connect to the Internet.  Modern battlefields now include American homes, offices, commercial data centers and all points in between.  This short preamble demonstrates that Westphalian nation-states have entered into a state of entropy relative to emerging threats such as China and the world’s largest tech companies.  It further highlights the lack of mastery while conducting contemporary warfare.  Seventeen years of global attrition warfare is the undeniable evidence that supports this statement. 

Ideal War and Real War

Clausewitz explains, in “On War”, “that ideal war is a philosophical abstraction—a "logical fantasy.”  Modern ideal war is best represented by tank battles on the plains of Europe, or in the deserts of the Middle East.  In short, ideal wars are what western armies are traditionally designed to fight.  Conversely, Clausewitz goes on to describe real war in terms of:  being constrained by moderating real-world influences, such as political motives and the practical limitations of time, space, and human nature.  Real wars are the types of wars that armies are loathe to fight.  Real wars today require a different learning system and a completely new army that is equipped with radically new weapon systems. 

The US Army has a binary force at the moment.  The majority of the force is proficient at conducting large scale kinetic combat operations.  There is another portion of the US Army that is capable of applying information related capabilities.  Neither of these two groups is capable of performing each other’s competency at a level that is capable of winning a “real war”.  The United States cannot afford a binary army that cannot win its wars.  Leadership must recruit, educate and train a new hybrid army that possesses warriors who are capable of simultaneously firing both conventional kinetic and virtual munitions down range, as they maneuver in physical and virtual battle space, to win the real war that is confronting the United States. 

Virtual Warfare is a US Army maneuver commander problem, and should be not be consigned to others, given the devasting effects which await our formations on the next physical battlefield.   Virtual Warfare strategies set successful conditions for physical war.  Virtual War is the more strategic, enduring and powerful form of conflict as it is capable of creating affective overmatch, which enables the exploitation of human cognitive behavior, instantaneously across the globe.  These variables then create the conditions to achieve strategic psycho-motor effects such as the “Arab Spring” or terrorist attacks like those the world has seen in Boston, London, Paris, Brussels, and over 20,000 times elsewhere since 9/11.  How maneuver forces are strategically positioned in virtual battle space is far more important than their physical positioning on a tactical battlefield.  Physical war is far less powerful as it is produces temporal tactical effects episodically in various sub-regions of the world, that have no enduring strategic value.  Yet, physical war still maintains primacy over virtual war in the US Army. 

The Art of Learning

System fitness at the human cellular-level and within armies, begins and ends, with the quality and competitiveness of learning systems.  How western armies and nations structure and dynamically adjust learning systems, vis-à-vis the competition, is the only thing that they can control, and it is their only competitive advantage.  Reconceptualizing the art of learning in the face of our adversaries is critical to winning wars.  The US Army is applying the kinetic theory of warfare for physical battle space to virtual battle space, and is realizing the predictable negative outcomes.  The US Army and its Allies must re-imagine how they are learning about the changing form, functions, and logic of warfare in the 21st Century.

Legacy power leadership, hierarchical silos of excellence, recognition-primed decision making, and process-centric planning archetypes are components of a learning system that has collapsed under the weight of technological advancements in both the military and industry.  Rigid military authority models are struggling to remain viable, where decentralized activities and decision-making are increasingly the norm. Traditional governing institutions have proven to be incapable of legislating at the speed of change and are not providing the timely oversight that is required for the emergent global technological revolution.   Current stove-piped learning systems are slow and far too costly in the long run to remain relevant in a world that is increasingly more distributed and agile. 

Triple Loop Learning Solutions

Western militaries are single loop and double loop learning entities that reside in a triple loop learning ecosystem.  Single loop learning describes the type of activities that take place when the objective is to fix technical problems within the existing paradigm. Single loop learning ensures organizations are doing things right relative to prescribed tasks, conditions and standards.  The theory behind single loop learning is to create maximum efficiencies, and not transformational organizational change.  Double loop learning ensures organizations are doing the right things and involves changing direction in the existing paradigm.  Double loop learning drives reframing in the existing paradigm and contrasts with single loop learning by questioning the relevance of the work that is being done within an organization.  Triple loop learning creates a new paradigm, outside the exiting paradigm, through the creation of new governing principles to ensure system fitness and sustainability.  Triple loop learning is designed to solve complex adaptive problem situations and to create revolutionary organizational change.

Figure #1 shown below, describes where the US Army is situated relative to learning theory since 2003.  The US Army employed Airland Battle Doctrine in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq.   Airland Battle Doctrine consists of a clearly defined set of single loop learning tasks, conditions, and standards to solve the technical problems that are inherent in destroying a modern tank army.  This single loop learning approach failed in short order, as the US Army was not fighting a tank army in Iraq – it was engaged in a counter-insurgency fight from the outset.  The US Army reframed their logic for the conduct of warfare in Iraq between 2006-2007 as they engaged in “The Surge” and applied COIN Doctrine.  This is an example of double loop learning where the US Army changed direction within the existing paradigm at the time.   The US Army also began to deploy cyber operations within the existing warfare paradigm, as shown below, to protect it interests.  Triple loop learning is the key to winning the “Real War” that the US Army is confronted with today.  This will require the creation of new governing principles and a completely new paradigm for warfare, outside the existing warfare paradigm, to solve the complex adaptive system of problems inherent in Virtual War.  The culture, ideas, tools and capabilities to create new governing principles and a completely new paradigm for warfare do not exist in the military ecosystem; they exist in the US tech sector. 



Figure #1

The Virtual Arms Room

The US Army is experiencing a forced paradigm shift across the spectrum of warfare domains towards a greater reliance on information technology as weapons.  This article introduces the concept of the "Virtual Arms Room" (VAR) to address this new US Army learning challenge.  The VAR is the center piece of a Virtual Army and is a new learning system that will assist in ensuring Soldier survivability in physical battle space.  The VAR is a secure, cloud-based software code hosting service that supports the access, learning requirements and management of US Army virtual weapons stockpiles.  It provides the required foundational infrastructure services (i.e., elastic compute power, AI/ML, data storage, networking, security, management, analytics, developer tools, and applications) required to build, scale and employ virtual weapons across the Army enterprise.  The VAR, as a learning system, provides secure, distributed version control, and source code management functionality powered by AI on cloud infrastructure.  VAR capabilities, many of which exist today, will help to ensure that the US Army is positioned to win the real war it is confronted with.  

Software code and big data are the new weapons and ammunition that virtual warriors must employ on battlefields.  The amount of software and data created by the US Army enterprise is immense and complex, but insufficient to win wars.  It is impractical to expect our warfighters to manually search through and learn about the vast stockpiles of computer code, applications and data to perform their missions effectively.  The US Army should develop the requisite on demand learning protocols and virtual weapon systems that our warriors require, to gain synthetic immunity on modern battlefields.  US Army software developer communities should increase collaboration and produce new accredited software code to be containerized and uploaded into the VAR.  Containerization combines speed and density with the mobility of traditional virtual machines (VMs) while requiring far fewer components to remain portable and operational anywhere in the world.  Virtual warriors will securely access the VAR and perform discovery searches through digital assistants powered by AI to find the latest and best digital weapons to employ. 

VAR concepts offer virtual weapons to commanders at the corps level and below which allow them to integrate capabilities to the tactical edge where they can effectively influence both the virtual and physical battlespace.  Configuring an array of machines to perform higher order complex computer functions contribute to a unit's successful accomplishment of its Virtual Mission Essential Task Lists.  Conducting smaller routine computer functions, using VAR weapons packages, will enable our Soldiers to execute a new array of Virtual Battle Drills. 

The VAR provides the training tools and infrastructure to prepare our virtual warriors for battle.  Each Service Component must determine how warfighters will operate in cross-domain environments using virtual weaponry in the future.  Today it takes two-and-a-half years to get an “Interactive On-Net Operator" (ION) thoroughly trained and ready to conduct real-world operations, which is non-competitive and unsustainable.   Providing realistic virtual warfare training requires the right faculty and participants who have access to the latest and best computer code and tradecraft to create realistic training environments. 

Digital Weapon Racks are an essential component of the VAR's automated discovery service enabled by AI/ML.  The Digital Weapon Rack services use AI/ML to automatically discover software code and data so it can be found quickly to support virtual warrior requirements.  Each activity is accomplished by AI assistants that are powered by deep learning and natural language processing algorithms.  These VAR machine services learn dynamically by digitally interrogating, indexing and categorizing new and available virtual weapons, tools and services, as they emerge.  Warfighters access the managed services through voice, keyboard, chatbot, or wearable computer devices to receive machine generated recommendations for the best digital weapons to employ.  Conversely, the VAR automatically manages virtual weapons that become obsolete.  On average, most digital weapons are outdated in a matter of weeks or less. 

Digital Weapon Racks use a machine to machine application interface to automatically learn and categorize virtual weapons packages in the VAR.  This mimics the commercial best practices of online retail stores like Amazon, eBay, and Walmart.  Successful armed forces on future battlefields will leverage existing AI/ML, and eventually Quantum AI, to accelerate decision-making with no human in the loop.  There is an ongoing competition to develop better machine assisted capabilities to compete with the Russians and the Chinese.  Army software factories are experimenting and producing vast amounts of new AI code to support this race – more must be done. 

Unclassified and Classified VAR networks will support future Virtual Armies.  Authorized users access the VAR to upload, exchange or download software code and data, as needed.  Secure sharing of computer code and data across these security networks is essential.  Accredited cloud-based tools exist today that facilitate the secure exchange of software code from lower classification security networks to higher classified security networks.  The intent is to maximize reuse and availability of digital assets across all networks without the need to rebuild or re-accredit assets repeatedly.  Automating and accelerating security accreditation of software code and enterprise infrastructure services through AI is foundational.  This concept uses machine learning and cloud computing infrastructure to automate and expedite the security accreditation process of software code from years and months, down to minutes and seconds.  This is a strategic imperative that future Virtual Armies must consider to maneuver effectively on virtual battlefields.   

The scenario listed below animates key concepts which are described in this paper. 

The year is 2022.  A US commander needs to conduct a virtual human terrain reconnaissance of Krasnovian personnel operating fixed missile sites in the northern region of the country. Engaging the VAR’s digital assistant named “Colossus,” the virtual warrior is automatically directed to three digital weapons packages that will support the virtual reconnaissance mission.    

 The first VAR digital weapons package is an open source data collection suite.  It consists of millions of data records collected from popular Krasnovian social media and news sites over the past years.  The second package is a natural language processing engine.  It automatically reads, understands and extracts important content from millions of data records in seconds.  The last digital weapons package is a set of visualization-models that allows virtual warfighters to see the Krasnovian human network relationships within the data - in four dimensions.  Our virtual warrior downloads and configures these digital weapons and gains new perspectives on the Krasnovian military units operating the missile sites.  Each of these digital weapons packages informs future actions and targeting in physical battle space.  While conducting the operation, automated monitoring software tools provide software developers feedback on how well the weapons performed to ensure Soldier Synthetic Immunity.  The brigade commander is provided an instantaneous, and complete intelligence picture of the Krasnovian region through the weapons packages offered by the VAR, on her heads-up display.   

Synthetic Soldier Immunity (SSI)

The VAR is essential to achieving Synthetic Soldier Immunity (SSI).  The SSI concept is derived from the biological immune system of humans and is extrapolated into the Virtual Warfare construct in an attempt to protect Soldiers.  SSI conceptually consists of three layers of protection that will help ensure combatant survivability on modern and future battlefields.  SSI begins with the creation of Innate Immunity, a type of general base-line synthetic protection.  Innate immunity requires the development of enduring robust synthetic external barriers which are the first line of defense against multispectral threats that are used to find and target a Soldier.  Adaptive (or active) Immunity is the second layer of protection.  It is developed through AI/ML and provides cloaking, spoofing, cloning, Bot warfare, electronic and signal intelligence diversionary signatures, and virtual avatars - with physical footprints, to prevent Soldier detection.  Adaptive Immunity constantly exposes threats and administers patches that protect Soldiers; and delivers viruses that disable threat detection and blind targeting systems.  Passive Immunity is a capability that is "borrowed" from an external source and intentionally lasts for a short period of time.  Passive Immunity results from the introduction of synthetic code and malware from external entities around the world, to combat a specific new short duration threat to a Soldier.  The development of the SSI concept, equipment fielding, and training is an acute US Army capability requirement given what threat actors are doing on regional battlefields today.

Training Virtual Armies

US Army leaders can leverage programs like the National Security Agency’s “Remote Interactive Operator Training” program or cyber hackfests like “NetWars,” to enable leaders to inject the latest and most realistic software code to drive training scenario realism for our warfighters.  The VAR's elastic cloud infrastructure allows trainers to create virtual maneuver training ranges quickly anywhere in the world.  Commanders can issue their warfighters virtual machines that spin up in seconds to compete in these training engagements.  Servers are shut down after virtual training exercises are complete to save on costs by using elastic cloud computing models.  As new digital capabilities are invented in these virtual training exercises, they are uploaded and categorized in the VAR, as they emerge. 

US Army software developers have a choice in terms of the commercial AI Software Development Platforms they want to use for training and deployment in their VARs.  Google developed "Google AI," Amazon Web Services employs “Sagemaker," Microsoft has the "Microsoft AI Platform," and International Business Machines has "Bluemix."  US Army leaders would do well to use the best in class AI capabilities that exist from all the vendors as they weaponize their respective VAR; and not be constrained to the capabilities of a single vendor.  The list of AI software development platforms will continue to grow as AI continues to gain momentum in the commercial IT market.  Regardless of what combination AI software development platforms are used by the software factories, the VAR provides a virtual army the greatest flexibility to discover the best assets to use in its stockpiles. 

In conclusion, technology is rapidly changing the quality of life for all of humanity and the character of warfare.  Everything which is seen is empowered by that which is not seen.  It is the unseen indirect combined arms virtual battle space maneuver capabilities of US adversaries that is increasing the risk to our way of life on a daily basis.  To maintain our freedom and military superiority, we must learn and adapt faster than our adversaries. The US Army and its Allies must re-imagine how they are learning about the changing form, functions, and logic of warfare in the 21st Century. 

Virtual Warfare is a US Army maneuver commander problem set.  The US Army is applying the kinetic theory of warfare for physical battle space to virtual battle space, and is realizing the predictable negative outcomes.  Reconceptualizing the art of learning in the face of our adversaries, and the full potential of AI/ML paradigm that is upon us, is critical to winning wars.  Leadership must recruit, educate and train a new hybrid army that possesses warriors capable of simultaneously firing both conventional kinetic and virtual munitions down range, as they maneuver in both the physical and virtual battle space, to win the real war that is confronting the United States.

The VAR introduces innovative concepts, technologies, and commercial best practices to accelerate the Army's capabilities to win on the battlefields of the future.  We envision the VAR to consist of thousands of weaponized software assets that fall into several categories to include: computer vision, virtual agents, quantum computing, quantum entanglement encryption, natural language processing, deep learning, machine learning, virtual reality, modeling and simulation, and data mining.  Triple loop learning is the key to winning the “Real War” that the US Army is confronted with.  This will require the creation of new governing principles, outside the existing warfare paradigm, to solve the complex adaptive system of problems inherent in Virtual War.  The culture, ideas, tools and capabilities to create new governing principles and a completely new paradigm for warfare do not exist in the military ecosystem; they exist in the US tech sector.     

The viewpoints, comments, and opinions provided in this article are strictly those of the authors.  None of the content contained in this document is in any way an endorsement or representation of the US Federal Government, any Government agency, former employer, or any commercial company, product or service(s).


Categories: US Army - Virtual War

About the Author(s)

Colonel (Retired) Steve Banach demonstrated impeccable leadership during his 27 years in the US Army – a period of service that included deployments to six combat zones.  His last assignment in the U. Army from 2007-2010, was as the 11th Director of the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS).  He is a Distinguished Member of the 75th Ranger Regiment and served in that organization for nine years, culminating with command of the 3rd Ranger Battalion from 2001-2003.  He led US Army Rangers during a historic night combat parachute assault into Afghanistan on October 19, 2001, as the “spearhead” for the Global War on Terror for the United States of America.  Steve subsequently led US Army Rangers in a second combat parachute assault into Al Anbar Province in western Iraq in 2003.  He earned a Bronze Star Medal for valor in combat and a Bronze Star Medal for service to the nation.  He also earned two Bronze Combat Jumps Stars during his military career.  He is now a virtual warfare strategy consultant.

Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Scott Padgett has been an information technology executive supporting Federal Government customers for over twenty years.  He retired from the IBM Corporation as the Director of Artificial Intelligence and Cloud Computing supporting the US Intelligence Community and the DoD in 2018.  He retired from the US Army in 2007, with twenty-four years of service having served in distinguished to include the 101st Air Assault Division, 75th Ranger Regiment, Joint Staff and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).  He is a Soldier for life!  Sua Sponte.