Robots to Revolutionize Military Operations

By Craig R. McKinley

The Duke of Wellington, the British victor over Napoleon at Waterloo, once commented that he spent most of his military career wondering what was happening on the other side of the hill.

A retired German general who had been in the Africa Corps in World War II once offered the observation that on any given day, “A third of the Africa Corps was sick, and another third was lost.” And an infantry veteran of the Vietnam War once confessed that, “If the artillery doesn’t land where you want it, that probably means that you don’t know where you are.”

In a sense, many of these age-old military problems are now being solved by electronics combined with robotics. With the contemporary ability we now have to send out unmanned air vehicles, commanders can see in real-time what is happening on the other side of the hill. Some of the technology that guides these reconnaissance drones also allows units, and even individual vehicles and aircraft, to precisely locate themselves. And in the arena of Army artillery, today’s modernized cannons have essentially been turned into large robots. What do I mean by that? The new M-109 series howitzer can unlock its tube, locate itself, compute its own firing data and aim the cannon. The crew loads the projectile and then mostly observes. Similarly, military aircraft can be programmed to launch, fly to designated targets, deliver ordnance and return to base with little human engagement other than the need to insert the mission data.

It is amazing to reflect on the path we are on, and the ultimate societal implications. Consider that 200 years ago, 70 percent of American workers lived on farms and produced the food that sustained the other 30 percent in pursuing other endeavors. Today, automation and machinery have eliminated all but one percent of farming jobs. During this remarkable change, those who migrated from the farms slowly assumed new positions and engaged in new pursuits, including making the farm equipment that had displaced them, and providing other goods and services that farmers in the 1800s could hardly have imagined.

This trend is certain to continue. By some estimates, by the end of this century 70 percent of today’s occupations will be replaced by robots or other forms of automation.

By most accounts this migration toward greater automation and robotics is inevitable and expansive. It will certainly impact how wars are fought as the abilities of sophisticated equipment are increasingly able to address all the elements of military strategist John Boyd’s famous “OODA loop,” the sequence necessary to “Observe, Orient, Decide and Act” quicker than a potential opponent. Since Boyd formulated this concept, we have slowly seen robotics assist and then execute the effort to “observe and orient.” But, with the advent of artificial intelligence, we are now entering the realm where software-enabled robotics can dominate the entire process and potentially “decide and act.”

This evolution creates a very uncomfortable dynamic for many, and in no small way it should. Are future wars to be fought by machines? To what extent will we allow — should we allow — decisions to be made by computers and other devices that have an increasingly distant connection, in both time and geographical location, with human operators? This truly presents us with one of those issues where serious thought is required on the policy front to determine the precise point where the technology allows us to do things that, for reasons of control and emotional consideration, we simply don’t want it to do. There have been examples in the past, most notably in the advent of tactical nuclear weapons, where our technological capabilities were well ahead of our operational concepts.

We are faced with a challenge, but it is clearly one that must be confronted. The adoption of the all-volunteer force in the early 1970s implicitly meant that we were transitioning from a military model that had been labor-intensive to one that would be capital-intensive. The manpower of today’s force is a fraction of that of the past — a tenth that of World War II, less than half that of Vietnam, and seventy-five percent that at the end of the Cold War. Yet our military has, especially since the end of the Cold War, successfully faced enemies that are different in composition and much more widely dispersed across the globe than ever before. How has this been accomplished? Simply put, by substituting on an enormous scale technology for manpower.

So this substitution is not only inevitable, it is also essential. In the not so distant future we will see aircraft that are fully autonomous — capable of all types of missions. Ground combat, which presents the most complex operational environment, will see battles between robotic systems, and logistics delivered by convoys of robotic trucks and robotic aerial systems — of the type Amazon is experimenting with today. Command decisions will be facilitated by information mined and fused from enormous databases, and then presented for decision in the most basic form, attached to detailed steps that must be taken for successful execution. It will be a very different sort of combat, but it may regrettably be no less deadly.

There are many who remain uneasy about this evolution, and for many good reasons. As we move to a more automated and robotic force, many questions will have to be addressed — some practical, some philosophical, some even ethical. But we will have to have these discussions for I see no possibility for going back. Our manpower has become more expensive and dear over the past half century, while our technology has become less expensive and more pervasive.

This, of course, means that the industries producing these technologies changing our world in so many ways will play an even greater role in our lives. Our defense industrial base will play a leading role in the evolution as it always has.

Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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