A MQ-9 Reaper taxis in at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., April 24, 2013.

A MQ-9 Reaper taxis in at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., April 24, 2013. U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee

Time to Get Ready for War in the Robotic Age

The U.S. must prepare now for a world of widely proliferated military robotics. By Shawn Brimley and Paul Scharre

The United States military’s dominance in conventional warfare is virtually unparalleled in history. But defense planners are now confronted by a rapidly approaching future in which the technologies behind that superiority – guided munitions, sensors and networks – have proliferated widely and are employed by both state and none-state actors. However, that shift is just a predicate challenge to a potentially deeper revolution afoot -- an entirely new war-fighting regime in which unmanned and autonomous systems will play a central role. The U.S. must begin preparing now for this not-so-distant future. The U.S. must prepare for war in the robotic age.

Unmanned systems are familiar to the U.S. military, which has employed them in extensive and sometimes dramatic fashion during the last decade. But these largely remotely piloted air and ground vehicles will soon be replaced by increasingly autonomous systems operating in all domains and across the full range of military operations. These systems will offer tremendous operational advantages and, because they can be built to take greater risk than manned systems, can be made cheap, expendable and numerous.

Unlike the technological advances of the Cold War, like stealth, advanced sensors and the global positioning system, the movement toward the robotic age is not being led by America’s military-industrial complex. While defense companies are developing advanced, stealthy drones and protected communications, commercial companies producing consumer goods and business-to-business services are driving the information revolution. Advanced computing, “big data,” autonomy, artificial intelligence, neural networks, miniaturization, additive manufacturing and high-density power storage are all being driven by the commercial sector. These technologies and the advanced robotic systems they enable will therefore be available to potential adversaries, state and non-state alike. From Hezbollah’s use of rudimentary drones to enter Israeli airspace, to China’s use of unmanned aircraft near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands, the strategic and operational value of robotic systems virtually ensures their wide proliferation.

The robotics revolution will happen. Whether U.S. defense policymakers choose to invest in it and compete for leadership in the emerging regime is an open question.  

We must begin now preparing for a world of widely proliferated military robotics and the operational, strategy and policy challenges they will bring. While many drones today are remotely operated, future systems will be largely autonomous, allowing human operators to control several drones or perhaps even large swarms of them at a time. In that fully-realized, robotic environment, mass once again becomes dominant. Cost-exchange ratios and salvo density will become more important than expensive, “baroque” multi-mission platforms. With military power decoupling from traditional drivers of power – like gross domestic product or population size – small technologically-advanced states or even non-state actors could eventually field robotic systems at a size and scale that could radically reshape military competitions in key regions.

Networked autonomous systems will be capable of faster, more coordinated maneuver than possible with manned systems, raising challenging issues about the balance of autonomy and human control. Unmanned systems may reduce the threshold for use of force, with attendant challenges in crisis stability, war powers and civil-military relations. Autonomous weapons could have profound advantages on the battlefield, but could spark an accidental war.

The U.S. defense community needs to begin exploring new concepts of operation, red and blue approaches, cost-imposing strategies and countermeasures. Advances in materials science, cyber, electric weapons and other technologies will have profound consequences for how this new regime emerges, but the most important factors will be the doctrine, training, and organizational structures needed to exploit these new capabilities.

These technological innovations will not make war cheap, easy or bloodless. Indeed, a world of widely proliferated unmanned and autonomous systems will be extremely dangerous for U.S. forces. Information age warfare will not ensure we can peer through the fog of war. Rather, networks and human controllers will be overwhelmed with the deluge of data from unmanned systems and sensors, and sorting the signal from the noise will be increasingly difficult. Units will have to fight for information without information. Commanders will need to be adaptable and flexible enough to operate with massive bandwidth or no connectivity at all. Command-and-control networks will need to be resilient against cyber intrusion and able to continue operation in the face of uncertainty and false data. Future conflicts may begin and accelerate quickly, but they may not end so quickly, and nothing about them is likely to be easy.

The Center for a New American Security has launched a new, multi-year initiative to explore these and other issues about how emerging technologies will shape the future of warfare. Dubbed “20YY” to avoid needless debates about when this regime will come to fruition, we aim to build a community of interest that will deliver actionable, practical recommendations to stakeholders today. U.S. and allied defense leaders will need to begin planning now if we are to succeed in meeting the challenges to come.

Shawn Brimley is executive vice president & director of studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Paul Scharre is a fellow and director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative, at CNAS.