Dave Blair and Jason Hughes
This essay is part of the #WarBots series, which asked a group of academics and national security professionals to provide their thoughts on the confluence of automation and unmanned technologies and their impact in the conduct of war. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.
There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than ever be heard… In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack: the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers. - Sun Tzu
The Theory: From Blockbuster to Netflix
The information age, a phrase famously coined by Berkeley Professor Manuel Castells in the 1990s, described a tectonic shift in our culture and economy which we generally take for granted at present. From our current vantage point, replete with ubiquitous pocket-sized personal computing and communications devices, it is hard to imagine a world we cannot convert our data or social networks into physical resources and access. We keep our data in the cloud and call upon it when we need it, regardless of where we are. We log into AirBnB, and somehow money we have never seen transfers to someone else who will never see the money, and that becomes a room for an evening. The idea of a brick-and-mortar video store, such as the 1990s-staple Blockbuster Video, is hopelessly anachronistic in the era of Netflix. Though much of the industrial age lives on, and is likely to endure in some form, this information revolution in economic affairs changed our views on what was permanent and what was ephemeral. After globalization opened the world’s manufacturing resources and labor supply, the need for production capacity gave way to the need for intellectual property. Whether this was a computer aided design (CAD) drawing, a corporate graphic, or a creative work, the key was getting the right concepts together in the right relationships. The physical manifestation of these products was straightforward from there.
Businesses that could not make this leap were quickly left by the wayside, replaced by upstarts which better understood the new fluidity of physical resources and power of intellectual property. These competitive forces work differently in a military context, though — the Navy cannot enter into Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, sell its assets to the Marine Corps, and give the CNO a golden parachute to go try again as an Air Force executive. A military is a nation’s war insurance, and if it fails, the nation goes into strategic bankruptcy and must accept the terms given by its competitors. In the absence of war, we must rely on the rigors of training as a proxy for the stresses of combat in order to generate and learn from these pressures — ink is far less precious than blood. But since these pressures to change are hard, and institutions desire stability, militaries miss these major changes from time to time. When this happens, these changes catch up with interest in the form of a major defeat and perhaps a shift in global power.
the Navy cannot enter into Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, sell its assets to the Marine Corps, and give the CNO [Chief of Naval Operations] a golden parachute to go try again as an Air Force executive.
The Russians missed one of these changes prior to their catastrophic defeat at the Tsushima Straits — communications technologies paired with fire control and logistics in novel ways, and dealt the Russian fleet a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the supposedly-second-rate Japanese Navy. This event contributed to the decline in the Czar’s fortunes on the road to the Russian Revolution, and cemented a deep fear in the Russian psyche of missing another revolution in military affairs, to borrow a later phrase. We might see their project as less about perfecting a model of warfare, and more about avoiding strategic technological surprise, and see a picture of ourselves in it. We might then do well to borrow a bit of their caution. For all the hyperventilating about a Cyber Pearl Harbor, we hold that it is more concerning that our fighting forces will endure a long decline as a military stuck on being an aerospace-and-automotive company, to be eventually undone by a military that made the leap into the tech sector, perhaps without ever fighting at all. So we must make that leap ourselves.
The Blueprint: From Heisman to Lombardi
In industrial war, humans optimize physical or mechanical performance in accordance with a coordinated plan. As AI grows increasingly capable of performing these repetitive technical tasks, humans must increasingly divest themselves of math tasks in order to focus on judgment. This is the leap from running plays to calling plays — our information-age warrior spends their brain bytes crafting and deploying mathematical configurations for AI-enabled craft to execute, rather than training their hands to execute these maneuvers themselves. Football is our preferred analogy here: in technological-industrial war, warriors were running backs and linemen, optimizing performance for their role in the play. We increasingly need quarterbacks, who can manage and optimize plays on the field.
We often think of players on the battlefield the same way we look at players on the football field. In this case, we see the maturation of warfighters from individual player doing their singular job on a singular play to that of an offensive coordinator or a field general like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. We must prepare our leaders for a future in which they can see the entire field, understand the play call based on the defense being presented to them, potential feints, and attack the weakness with the best matchup.
Future combatants must train themselves to be player, play developer, and play caller under extreme stress with minimal reaction time. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have a remarkable ability to process the complex situation around them, make a decision and execute in less than four seconds. We believe that AI will help the player with choices of plays, but only the player, through years of training, play development and execution of those plays can have full understanding of the battlefield. AI can not only accelerate play-calling, but it can also help humans place those plays in their larger context — to continue the analogy, a tactically effective play might exhaust a player who will be needed later in the game or later in the season. Human judgment is well suited to weigh these contextual factors, but that judgment is far more focused when assisted by AI actuaries.
A military is a nation’s war insurance, and if it fails, the nation goes into strategic bankruptcy and must accept the terms given by its competitors.
This is a vision not only of AI enabling battlefield automation, but it is a vision of AI enabling human cognition, and therefore a vision that celebrates the role of the human without diminishing the value of technology. It’s the translation of Napoleon’s coup d’oeil to the future, but at the individual level. With the possibility of tens of thousands of small swarming robotic combatants, corporals may be leading forces whose numbers would rival the commands of Second World War colonels. There is no room for “theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why” in this sort of fight — rightly-named drones have a strong comparative advantage in the do and die category — and so the humans must think.
Consider Peyton Manning as a template for the future combatant. Going into his last Super Bowl, there was no starting quarterback that had so much experience — experience through victory and defeat, exposure to myriad situations, the continued evolution of the sport into one more aerial-centric than ever before. Through years of playing the game he understood it better than anyone else at the time. Coaches, players and fans marveled at his intellectual grasp of the game. He was a coach playing the position of quarterback. With free rein to change plays and maneuver players to create the best combinations, he won games with his mind as well as his skills on the field. This is a picture of who our future warfighters need to become, captains and corporals alike.
Making this leap would require changes in culture and information technology. The IT part is probably the easy part — we would need AI-enabled computers to curate these tactical plays during battle, rapidly presenting valid options to human commanders in a cognitively available format. Since an enemy would presumably have counter-plays to these plays, the side that had the largest number of effective plays would hold a key advantage in warfare by complicating an enemy’s counters. Therefore, we would need to capture all creative content — whether from a senior weapons officer building a niche play for a new threat, a line instructor tweaking a bread-and-butter page from the playbook, or even a new student accidentally inventing a revolutionary approach to a tactical problem a la Ender Wiggins — and we would need to capture, vet, categorize, and curate this content.
The culture piece is as hard as we choose to make it. All the ways where we excel in mission command should translate into battlefield success in this play-calling fight — the commander who devotes herself to learning her troops strengths and weaknesses, and instinctively knows how to explain intent and delegate, will do well with advanced AI. All the ways where we fail at mission command will should also carry over — the manager who cannot restrain themselves from micromanaging human troops will spend too much time in manual override modes micromanaging their robotic subordinates, while losing situational awareness of the overall fight. Humans lead well, and leadership and creativity are the key traits of human warriors in this fight. Organizations may take on some of the best traits of their leaders, but they will take on all of their worst traits. Our skill with mission command will be evident in our ability to command this form of warfare, as robots will do less than humans to mitigate our flaws as our intent moves down the chain of command, and we should expect automation to be a referendum of sorts on who we are as leaders.
It will also be a referendum on who we are as warriors. Some prognosticators have downplayed the need for bravery in this form of warfare, but these authors believe that it will actually be much to the contrary — bravery and integrity are absolutely essential to calling the right plays for the mission, especially when those plays come at some personal cost. This is a strong-minded bravery, the sort of bravery that, when out of ammunition, calls, “Fix bayonets!” Why? Because you know that you are the extreme flank of the line, and you know what will happen if you fold. Where many forms of bravery require the mind to support the actions of the body, this is a form of bravery where the body supports the actions of the mind — bravery without mastery is a noble waste, and the body provides both the physiological support and intestinal fortitude to allow a razor-sharp mind to make the most of even the worst position. In this, it is a bravery that pairs well with brilliance — a mentally agile bravery that quickly re-writes the play for a bayonet defense into left-wing right-wheel charge, swinging like a door into the advancing enemy, breaking their advance, and winning the day. This uniquely-human coup d’oeil is the difference between the Charge of the Light Brigade and Little Round Top, and one that is essential to victory in this form of techno-social contest.
Where many forms of bravery require the mind to support the actions of the body, this is a form of bravery where the body supports the actions of the mind...
Our military still can draw on these strengths. We still have an early lead in these technologies, and could make the leap ourselves into an intellectual property military. However, sloth and reticence in acquisitions and talent management reform are giving away that lead rapidly. If the United States loses that lead entirely, we will have to hope that our competitors’ demographic mistakes or foundational flaws prevent them realizing this vision before we catch up. Fortunately, the Department of Defense are now making up for lost time, as each service pursues revolutions in how we develop talent and how we buy hardware, but unfortunately, there’s a lot of lost time to make up for, and a lot of ways by which we still get in our own way. The future is very much in the balance at present, but declines have become golden ages; renaissance is born in times of crisis and change. The difference between a decline and a renaissance is the willingness to address the deeper issues creating crisis. While the services are all starting to address these issues, any revolution in robotics will foreground them further.
Story Teaser: The Charge of the Centaurs
Modern warfighters are currently wrestling with the first ridge line of automation and democratized violence — terrorist-owned quadcopters dropping unguided weapons very precisely, small drones being produced in large numbers by competitors, and so on. P.W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet describes the second ridge line of emerging technologies well, along with the necessity of getting them right. But something even beyond that vision is beginning to take form, a neo-Napoleonic sort of fighting foreshadowed by Captain Jules Hurst’s recent article on swarms and maneuver warfare. To describe what is at stake, it is easier to show than to tell. The teaser vignette below is piece of a larger attempt to paint a third ridge line picture of a decades-out battle based on this theory of forms.
We believe that the same supporting technologies and cultural traits that would enable this future would serve well in any of a number of possible futures and play well in shaping the character of conflict towards our enduring strengths. The five key facets of this future are:
- Distributed lethality, where combatants demand effects from a network rather than commanding inputs into a platform;
- Ubiquitous cyber, where network attack and defense is as essential as artillery was to 19th Century warfare;
- An intellectual property ecology, where all creative work in training and exercises is harvested to produce new tactical options;
- Moral courage, where cultivating a noble warrior ethos enables warfighters to instinctively make the right choices, even if those choices are expressed in abstract terms; and
- Fuzzy domain distinctions, where capabilities can easily slide between the conceptual boundaries between ground, air, and spectrum warfare.
In five follow-on Strategy Bridge pieces, we will explore these facets through the vehicle of fiction, in hopes of anticipating the sorts of technical warfighting culture we will need in order to master this form of war. We will following the story of several aircrews as they conduct a future airstrike, interspersed with ‘future history’ backstory about how their capabilities and culture came about. With that said, imagine the fiercely contested airspace of a mid-21st Century conflict, and a strike force of four bombers tasked to destroy a key enemy air defense nexus.
Preparing to cross the FENCE. Just as the crews briefed, the four batwing-shaped motherships of LONGSWORD 21 flight spread out line abreast as they approached the FENCE-line demarcating the end of permissive airspace. Several hundred triangle-shaped craft came into view on their scopes, darting to-and-fro across that front line in a chaotic cloud of a CAP (combat air patrol), pouncing on the occasional enemy skirmisher that dared to test their lines. The Battle Managers commanding this combat cloud prepared to detach several dozen craft with a mix of capabilities to support LONGSWORD on their journey east, in accordance with the support request filed by the crews during last night’s planning.
Four small flocks entered into a holding pattern in anticipation of the larger craft, and each crew’s Pilot prepared to receive them by setting their initial flocking algorithm. Meanwhile, the four Aircraft Commanders (ACs) ensured their craft were ready to link with their awaiting swarms by verifying security and connectivity settings on their respective Local Area Networks (LANs). The motherships’ datalinks reached out to the waiting craft, which upon receiving initial flocking instructions detached from the Battle Manager’s Wide Area Network and maneuvered to take their positions in LONGSWORD’s formation.
Across the intercom in each of the craft, the crews recited their well-practiced combat liturgies, ensuring that their key settings were set: “FENCE IN — Ping is good, point-zero-five. Standard spread algorithm, local swarm is hot, no stragglers, Pilot’s good. Payload’s green, SEAD counter-swarm set, master arm hot, Bombardier’s good. Grid link green, ICE active, Hacker’s good. Weapons free, onboard and off-board. Checklist Complete.” The formation proceeded east...
Dave Blair is a U.S. Air Force officer at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He he holds a Master’s from Harvard in Security Policy and a Doctorate from Georgetown in International Relations, and is a member of the first class of the CSAF's PhD Program. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Jason Hughes is a Medical Service Corps officer on The Joint Staff. He is a 2002 graduate of Washington State University and holds a Master’s from the University of Kansas. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the Medical Service Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government
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Header Image: The Drones Are Coming: Take Cover (IOTI)