Asymmetric Dialogue

How to Beat Russia and China on the Battlefield: Military Robots


Thinking of robotic systems coupled with artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics as an existential threat to humanity as (for example) Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and other scientists have done recently is at best premature, and at worst that thought process threatens to cede U.S. military advantage to hostile and aggressive state competitors.
Of course, objections by scientists to the militarization of technological advances of all types has a rich—if somewhat misguided—history. But as military professionals, it is incumbent to discount breathless reports of our imminent extinction at the claws of our silicon superiors and understand the concrete reality of robotic systems and AI on the battlefield to solve specific military problems.
It is incumbent we think through the military possibilities of these technologies given that China is racing to field a dominant military largely based on artificial intelligence and Russia is well aware of the potential strategic implications of AI-based military advantage. Avoiding them or prematurely prohibiting military experimentation will not make them go away. As Elsa Kania notes in her recent study on China’s military AI investments, “the PLA may leverage AI in unique and perhaps unexpected ways, likely less constrained by the legal and ethical concerns prominent in U.S. thinking.”

The DOD is also looking at the military uses of AI, embarking on a multiyear plan to both restore the warfighting readiness of the Joint Force and to build a more lethal, decisive conventional force going forward. Secretary Mattis, reflecting on the urgency of military innovation, noted that “it’s an equal obligation for me to make certain that the Secretary of Defense after next has the same competitive edge that I enjoyed growing up.”
Central to a more competitive, lethal, Joint Force will be the technologies of thethird offset strategy—most notably robotic systems, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and human-machine teaming—and the associated joint and service concepts that will bring these technologies to life in wartime.
Robotics and AI at War will Drive Future Force Design in New Directions
In an earlier paper on the future of infantry combat, I noted that “successful armies are able to bring together units that are each distinct in the mix of mobility, protection, firepower, and awareness they provide on the battlefield.” Although this dynamic expresses tradeoffs in unit designs large and small, another set of metrics should be considered as we apply robotic and autonomous systems to the Joint Force and think through the tradeoffs between the traditional joint forces and the parts that will be robotized and “cognitized.”
So what does an “offset” force taking that fully embraces AI and robotic systems actually look like? The answer is not simply more and better technologically advanced systems and capabilities. Military change is always about understanding tradeoffs between many desirable but often incompatible design options. We will need to think through what attributes of robotics and AI are most important for future force design under different and varied conditions. It should set up a discussion about how we might employ a Joint Force that is smaller, connected and more autonomous than it is today.
The implications of the adoption of robotic and AI systems suggest that the component weapons, platforms, and units of the Joint Force must shrink, link, and think in some combination, and that future Joint Force commanders will be responsible for varying these components in response to adversary tactics by orchestrating the behavior of these smaller, connected, and sometimes artificially intelligent forces on the battlefield during operations.

The first attribute in force design that AI and robotics will allow is to reduce the physical size, observable cross section, and overall cost of individual platforms. The incentive to shrink each component of the Joint Force comes from rapidly advancing adversary reconnaissance strike, the advantages available in the miniaturization of integrated circuits but also emerging and potentially dramatic advances in the mass customization of parts and sub-microscopic arrangement of materials leading to better sensors, antennas, communications, and coatings.
The trend toward increased capability per unit of mass (and per dollar) goes up it should also mean more—not fewer systems on the battlefield. However, the Joint Force is not moving quickly enough in this direction. The dramatic difference in combat potential between today’s air wing, armored brigade, or carrier task force compared to those in the pre-digital age dramatically illustrate this trend. For the United States and the West, however, this has been realized through more expensive systems that have dramatically reduced number and variety of systems available to them.
The lethality and combat power of large and expensive platform continues to improve—but commensurate reductions in cost are not being realized. Taken to its logical extreme, the trend toward expensive, multi-mission platforms could (in principle) leave us with future “joint” force consisting of a few very expensive—but very powerful—platforms capable of doing everything, but also risking everything due to accident or a single lucky shot.
To do this, combat platforms will shrink. As robotic systems become cheaper and more capable, they will augment, support and defend expensive ships, aircraft, and land vehicles and augment individual platforms in both offensive and defensive modes. In the near-term future, large capital platforms—such as warships, tanks, submarines and aircraft—may be followed and surrounded by integrated (and often expendable) surface, subsurface, and aerial robots to escort and shield them from attack.
In the longer term, as industrial-scale additive manufacturing takes off, future militaries will further rebalance away from forces built around the few, highly capable, and expensive, and double down on capabilities that are “just capable enough to do the job.” In time, the capital platforms themselves may fade away, with the bulk of the capacity resident in the swarm. Together, the vast number of very small autonomous systems combined will severely complicate the sensor picture and the ability of commanders to make sense of the battlespace as well asoverwhelm projected defenses by their sheer numbers.
However, a mass of systems that cannot work together is not a unit, but a mob. Moreover, the tradeoff in the small and the cheap is that individual units are perhaps more vulnerable to high-, low- and no-tech counters (not to mention sheer accident and chance). For example, high-powered microwave systems or other directed energy systems can damage small components and the miniaturized (and likely unshielded) integrated circuits and controllers that run them. Thus, the small must also be varied, and distributed over many wide areas of the battlefield to reduce risk to operations as a whole.

The implication of being able to mass produce small platforms means that many systems will be able to work together in concert to achieve military objectives. Perhaps the most important military implication of the information revolution has been that capabilities working together can be physically separate over ever increasing distances. This brings us to the second key attribute of future AI and robotic force design—the imperative to link individual nodes in a future combat network widely. Although the individual parts may be less capable than today’s high-end units or platforms linking them together results in robotic formations that are far more than the sum of their individual parts.
The increasing density of links connecting robotic units will further encourage the disaggregation of physical systems (sensors from shooters, jammers from aircraft, protection systems from vehicles, etc.) but to be connected in space and time when required to achieve a particular battlefield condition or effect. This will require them to communicate together. As platforms, units, and systems shrink, they will still have a great deal of ground to cover, and they must continue to work towards common objectives and adapting the formation to conflict conditions as they evolve.