Europe | September 21, 2014 at 10:56 am

Swarm Robotics and the Future of the Military


Fighting men have always sought to maximize the amount of violence they can exert relative to the risk they take on. This instinct inspires the continuous advancement of our weapons’ range, striking precision, power, and speed of action. The next stage in the evolution of weapons technology is now arriving: swarm robotics. Swarm robots will disrupt the way humans engage in combat by introducing new concepts of operation. This disruption will have strategic impact, most notably by dismantling the conventional deterrence wielded by the United States to secure its allies and interests at the periphery of our nuclear umbrella. To prevent this strategic defeat in the coming decades, America must invest seriously in swarm robotics today.


The Swarm Evolution

Today we are beginning to develop robots that can coordinate autonomously—that is, with no human input—in order to complete team objectives. Just last August, Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences invented a robotic swarm consisting of 1,000 small robots that worked to form shapes. Though this is a basic application of swarm technology, according to the Center for a New American Security, it portends an impending “military-technical revolution” (MTR), or coincidence of technological, tactical, and organizational changes that will drastically improve combat potential.

The swarm MTR is a culmination of the unmanned weapons evolution that has already yielded self-navigating cruise missiles, bomb disposal robots, and unmanned aerial vehicles. This evolution is premised on two expectations: first, that robots will be able to complete harder physical tasks with greater power and precision than humans; and second, that artificial intelligence will be able to complete cognitive tasks—like identifying trends, learning from mistakes, and coordinating actions between numerous units—better than the human mind.

Military analysts identify several advantages that robotic swarms, particularly those deployed in the air and sea, will possess over manned weapons systems. First, they are unmanned and cheaper than manned systems. Second, the robots could be designed to operate longer than manned systems, and endure harsher physical stresses like high G-forces or the pressure of deeper ocean depths. Third, when given tactical autonomy, the swarm can process situations and coordinate among multiple units far faster than the human brain can.

Disrupting Combat

The technical advantages promised by swarm robotics will disrupt the way humans engage in combat by introducing new concepts of operation. Defensive systems will be forced to adapt to aerial and nautical swarms’ innovative tactics. For example, our newest anti-air defenses like the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System are designed to engage numerous fast, incoming missiles before they hit. Other anti-air systems are designed to destroy manned aircraft. But these defenses, and any successors designed to fight missiles or manned craft, will be hard-pressed to beat robots that can perform evasive actions for which missiles are not designed and human physical limits prevent manned craft from completing. Additionally, as swarm robots are unmanned, they will be programmed to use new tactics that involve sacrificing a number of robots in order to saturate and defeat anti-air systems, another entirely new challenge for defensive systems and planners to combat.

Swarms will also pressure military planners by attacking in unexpected places. For instance, when allocating air defenses to cover a territory, planners calculate the expected paths of attack by different incoming threats. A planner would allocate anti-aircraft defenses away from paths that manned aircraft are unlikely to take given their limited range, preparing these paths against missiles that can operate across a greater range. In this situation, by leveraging their stealth and extended range, robotic swarms could effectively sneak up on and defeat anti-missile defenses ill-designed to counter swarms deploying innovative evasive actions or saturation tactics.

What does this impending tactical disruption and the new pressures it will impose on the defense mean for American national security strategy? It means that, unless the United States acquires swarm robotics, we will be on the strategic defensive against any state that acquires them first. This will not affect our homeland security. Barring a major disruption to our nuclear deterrent, no rational state actor will directly attack American soil for fear of triggering mutually-assured destruction.

But there is a contradiction in the logic of nuclear deterrence. It is called the “stability-instability paradox,” and it says that while nuclear weapons will prevent massive blowouts between nuclear powers, they actually enable conflict so long as it does not present an existential threat to a nuclear power. Former Under-Secretary of Defense William Perry’s “Offset Strategy” in the 1970s reflected this reality: knowing that the United States’ nuclear deterrent was non-credible when applied to Eastern Europe—Moscow knew that Washington would not risk mutually-assured destruction just to save the Baltics or Balkans—Perry saw that America needed a credible conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) deterrent in the contested area. In the 1970s, the Soviets had a numerical advantage in conventional assets in Eastern Europe. Perry sought to offset that advantage by investing in new information technology, which would allow U.S. troops, though lesser in number, to hit above their weight and defeat the Russians in a conventional war.

The stability-instability paradox will become acute when swarm robotics arrive on the battlefield. Just as the Soviets’ numerical advantage in the 1970s could have prevented America from beating them conventionally, a future opponent having swarm technology while the United States does not will prevent an American victory unless it has offset that advantage.

Let us superimpose this tactical prediction on a battlefield of today to better understand its potential strategic impact. In Ukraine, Moscow is expanding its zone of control through the use of covert force. But, why has President Putin not pushed harder to take Kiev—or indeed, territory in the Baltics or Balkans—despite stating openly that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he wanted to? The simple answer is that he cannot do so. NATO’s conventional deterrent in these areas is credible and potent, and Putin has no desire to get locked into a nasty land war. But what if Russia had access to swarm robotics today, and were faced by NATO defenses equipped only to eliminate missile and manned aerial threats? Political and economic sanctions might halter a decision for military conquest. But if Russia thought it would survive economic sanctions and reap domestic political benefits from expansion, and it knew that its swarm technology offered a significant enough offensive advantage to soundly defeat Western forces, then Moscow’s strategic calculus would surely favor conquest.

Investing in America’s Future Global Military Superiority

Though the above example is hypothetical, the chance of it or a similar scenario in another contested region coming to pass is real. If the United States wants to conventionally deter swarm possessors once the technology arrives, it must acquire the technology, and preferably be the first nation to do so.

Unfortunately, the Department of Defense’s current investment outlook does not show an appreciation for the role that swarm robotics will play in the future of warfare. Today, we are investing more than $35 billion in the Littoral Combat Ship program, and expect to spend more than $25 billion in the next several years to make the new, manned Long-Range Strike Bomber deployable by the mid-2020s. Such manned systems will be necessary complements to unmanned systems for the foreseeable future. However, their development cannot come at the expense of the robotic technology that will actually disrupt combat, which is exactly what is happening today. The DoD still sees drones as being fit only for the “dirty, dull, or dangerous” jobs, and in reflection of that misguided notion, the budget for drone research and development “is expected to fall to $1.03 billion in fiscal 2017, nearly half of the $1.99 billion requested in fiscal 2013”—a miniscule amount compared to other programs.

If the United States does not invest soon in developing swarm robotics for war, we will find ourselves on the strategic defensive. America will be unable to defeat conventional adversaries in the field. This will leave our allies and interests around the world in grave danger, waiting to be swallowed up by whatever state can acquire swarm robotics first and use it to defeat our increasingly fragile conventional deterrent. Now is the time for America to look to the future, and invest proactively to avoid suffering a strategic defeat when swarm robotics arrives on the battlefield.

Image source: Forbes

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