Swarms of autonomous drones patrol the skies and waters near contested spaces. Human warfighters accompanied by support robots, supply chains of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, and directly aided by cheap ISR drones. High endurance drones crisscrossing the oceans and skies in a global network of autonomous coverage.
The above represents one fairly common image of what autonomous warfare is expected to look like. In such an image, the central expectation is that machine automation’s most important manifestation is what we see flowing into and operating in the battlespace. In essence, the most compelling images commonly shared relate to the human tip of the spear. It’s about the weapon systems and the tactical importance of automation.
This is an understandable first step in trying to anticipate the importance of machine automation in the future of conflict. As much as we exhort each other to “think strategically,” each of us really lives our lives tactically, and it’s always easier to first imagine some new technology as a gadget or device that we self-consciously use in everyday life. And when it comes to conflict and warfare, the idea of combat is so psychologically powerful that we naturally want to see how new technologies will either make soldiers more dangerous to the enemy or make them less vulnerable to the enemy.
As much as the tactical level is both important and psychologically compelling for all of us to imagine, in the longer term it is likely more important for us to critically consider the potential strategic implications of new technologies. We want to first ask, will these technologies only have tactical importance, or will they also have strategic importance. Second, we want to begin to explore how new technologies like machine autonomy might have strategic importance and why they might trigger a transition or transformation of some sort in human conflict.
To begin to do that just for traditional state militaries, we need to pull back the lens, widening our view beyond the expected battlespaces and start to ask, what role for machine autonomy in areas such as:
- Logistics planning and scheduling
- Global supply chain management/optimization
- Design and testing of future materiel innovations
- Intelligence and counterintelligence
- General research and analysis
- War planning
- Cyber, both offensive and defensive
Pulling back even further, we want to think about things like the self-evolution and co-evolution of algorithms, bots, and AI. We want to play with the intersection of AI, robotics, IoT, and cyber. And we want to pay close attention to the world’s burgeoning population of tech innovators and all the crazy and radical things they are trying to invent with these technologies.
The tactical application of new technologies like machine automation will always be important and compelling, but the deep transformations in warfare and conflict are likely to emerge from broader changes in the military’s operating environment. To explore that, we have to pull back away from the contemporary battlespace and ask questions about the deeper structures in life.