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The New Revolution in Military Affairs War’s Sci-Fi Future


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The New Revolution in Military Affairs
War’s Sci-Fi Future

By Christian Brose

CHRISTIAN BROSE is Head of Strategy at Anduril Industries, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of a forthcoming book on the future of warfare. He was formerly Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. This article is adapted from a paper presented to the Aspen Strategy Group in August 2018.

In 1898, a Polish banker and self-taught military expert named Jan Bloch published The Future of War, the culmination of his long obsession with the impact of modern technology on warfare. Bloch foresaw with stunning prescience how smokeless gunpowder, improved rifles, and other emerging technologies would overturn contemporary thinking about the character and conduct of war. (Bloch also got one major thing wrong: he thought the sheer carnage of modern combat would be so horrific that war would “become impossible.”)

What Bloch anticipated has come to be known as a “revolution in military affairs”—the emergence of technologies so disruptive that they overtake existing military concepts and capabilities and necessitate a rethinking of how, with what, and by whom war is waged. Such a revolution is unfolding today. Artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, ubiquitous sensors, advanced manufacturing, and quantum science will transform warfare as radically as the technologies that consumed Bloch. And yet the U.S. government’s thinking about how to employ these new technologies is not keeping pace with their development.

This is especially troubling because Washington has been voicing the same need for change, and failing to deliver it, ever since officials at the U.S. Department of Defense first warned of a coming “military-technical revolution,” in 1992. That purported revolution had its origins in what Soviet military planners termed “the reconnaissance-strike complex” in the 1980s, and since then, it has been called “network-centric warfare” during the 1990s, “transformation” by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in these pages in 2002, and “the third offset strategy” by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work in 2014. But the basic idea has remained the same: emerging technologies will enable new battle networks of sensors and shooters to rapidly accelerate the process of detecting, targeting, and striking threats, what the military calls the “kill chain.”

The idea of a future military revolution became discredited amid nearly two decades of war after 2001 and has been further damaged by reductions in defense spending since 2011. But along the way, the United States has also squandered hundreds of billions of dollars trying to modernize in the wrong ways. Instead of thinking systematically about buying faster, more effective kill chains that could be built now, Washington poured money into newer versions of old military platforms and prayed for technological miracles to come (which often became acquisition debacles when those miracles did not materialize). The result is that U.S. battle networks are not nearly as fast or effective as they have appeared while the United States has been fighting lesser opponents for almost three decades.

Yet if ever there were a time to get serious about the coming revolution in military affairs, it is now. There is an emerging consensus that the United States’ top defense-planning priority should be contending with great powers with advanced militaries, primarily China, and that new technologies, once intriguing but speculative, are now both real and essential to future military advantage. Senior military leaders and defense experts are also starting to agree, albeit belatedly, that when it comes to these threats, the United States is falling dangerously behind.

This reality demands more than a revolution in technology; it requires a revolution in thinking. And that thinking must focus more on how the U.S. military fights than with what it fights. The problem is not insufficient spending on defense; it is that the U.S. military is being countered by rivals with superior strategies. The United States, in other words, is playing a losing game. The question, accordingly, is not how new technologies can improve the U.S. military’s ability to do what it already does but how they can enable it to operate in new ways. If American defense officials do not answer that question, there will still be a revolution in military affairs. But it will primarily benefit others.

It is still possible for the United States to adapt and succeed, but the scale of change required is enormous. The traditional model of U.S. military power is being disrupted, the way Blockbuster’s business model was amid the rise of Amazon and Netflix. A military made up of small numbers of large, expensive, heavily manned, and hard-to-replace systems will not survive on future battlefields, where swarms of intelligent machines will deliver violence at a greater volume and higher velocity than ever before. Success will require a different kind of military, one built around large numbers of small, inexpensive, expendable, and highly autonomous systems. The United States has the money, human capital, and technology to assemble that kind of military. The question is whether it has the imagination and the resolve.

Artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will change the way war is fought, but they will not change its nature. Whether it involves longbows or source code, war will always be violent, politically motivated, and composed of the same three elemental functions that new recruits learn in basic training: move, shoot, and communicate.

Movement in warfare entails hiding and seeking (attackers try to evade detection; defenders try to detect them) and penetrating and repelling (attackers try to enter opponents’ space; defenders try to deny them access). But in a world that is becoming one giant sensor, hiding and penetrating—never easy in warfare—will be far more difficult, if not impossible. The amount of data generated by networked devices, the so-called Internet of Things, is on pace to triple between 2016 and 2021. More significant, the proliferation of low-cost, commercial sensors that can detect more things more clearly over greater distances is already providing more real-time global surveillance than has existed at any time in history. This is especially true in space. In the past, the high costs of launching satellites required them to be large, expensive, and designed to orbit for decades. But as access to space gets cheaper, satellites are becoming more like mobile phones—mass-produced devices that are used for a few years and then replaced. Commercial space companies are already fielding hundreds of small, cheap satellites. Soon, there will be thousands of such satellites, providing an unblinking eye over the entire world. Stealth technology is living on borrowed time.

On top of all of that, quantum sensors—which use the bizarre properties of subatomic particles, such as their ability to be in two different places at once—will eventually be able detect disruptions in the environment, such as the displacement of air around aircraft or water around submarines. Quantum sensors will likely be the first usable application of quantum science, and this technology is still many years off. But once quantum sensors are fielded, there will be nowhere to hide.

The future of movement will also be characterized by a return of mass to the battlefield, after many decades in which the trend was moving in the opposite direction—toward an emphasis on quality over quantity—as technology is enabling more systems to get in motion and stay in motion in more places. Ubiquitous sensors will generate exponentially greater quantities of data, which in turn will drive both the development and the deployment of artificial intelligence. As machines become more autonomous, militaries will be able to field more of them in smaller sizes and at lower costs. New developments in power generation and storage and in hypersonic propulsion will allow these smaller systems to travel farther and faster than ever. Where once there was one destroyer, for example, the near future could see dozens of autonomous vessels that are similar to missile barges, ready to strike as targets emerge.
Technology will also transform how those systems remain in motion. Logistics—the ability to supply forces with food, fuel, and replacements—has traditionally been the limiting factor in war. But autonomous militaries will need less fuel and no food. Advanced manufacturing methods, such as 3-D printing, will reduce the need for vast, risky, and expensive military logistics networks by enabling the production of complicated goods at the point of demand quickly, cheaply, and easily.

In an even more profound change, space will emerge as its own domain of maneuver warfare. So far, the near impossibility of refueling spacecraft has largely limited them to orbiting the earth. But as it becomes feasible to not just refuel spacecraft midflight but also build and service satellites in space, process data in orbit, and capture resources and energy in space for use in space (for example, by using vast solar arrays or mining asteroids), space operations will become less dependent on earth. Spacecraft will be able to maneuver and fight, and the first orbital weapons could enter the battlefield. The technology to do much of this exists already.

Technology will also radically alter how militaries shoot, both literally and figuratively. Cyberattacks, communication jamming, electronic warfare, and other attacks on a system’s software will become as important as those that target a system’s hardware, if not more so. The rate of fire, or how fast weapons can shoot, will accelerate rapidly thanks to new technologies such as lasers, high-powered microwaves, and other directed-energy weapons. But what will really increase the rate of fire are intelligent systems that will radically reduce the time between when targets can be identified and when they can be attacked. A harbinger of this much nastier future battlefield has played out in Ukraine since 2014, where Russia has shortened to mere minutes the time between when their spotter drones first detect Ukrainian forces and when their precision rocket artillery wipes those forces off the map.

The militaries of the future will also be able to shoot farther than those of today. Eventually, hypersonic munitions (weapons that travel at more than five times the speed of sound) and space-based weapons will be able to strike targets anywhere in the world nearly instantly. Militaries will be able to attack domains once assumed to be sanctuaries, such as space and logistics networks. There will be no rear areas or safe havens anymore. Swarms of autonomous systems will not only be able to find targets everywhere; they will also be able to shoot them accurately. The ability to have both quantity and quality in military systems will have devastating effects, especially as technology makes lethal payloads smaller.

Finally, the way militaries communicate will change drastically. Traditional communications networks—hub-and-spoke structures with vulnerable single points of failure—will not survive. Instead, technology will push vital communications functions to the edge of the network. Every autonomous system will be able to process and make sense of the information it gathers on its own, without relying on a command hub. This will enable the creation of radically distributed networks that are resilient and reconfigurable.

Technology is also inverting the current paradigm of command and control. Today, even a supposedly unmanned system requires dozens of people to operate it remotely, maintain it, and process the data it collects. But as systems become more autonomous, one person will be able to operate larger numbers of them single-handedly. The opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics, in South Korea, offered a preview of this technology when 1,218 autonomous drones equipped with lights collaborated to form intricate pictures in the night sky over Pyeongchang. Now imagine similar autonomous systems being used, for example, to overwhelm an aircraft carrier and render it inoperable.

Further afield, other technologies will change military communications. Information networks based on 5G technology will be capable of moving vastly larger amounts of data at significantly faster speeds. Similarly, the same quantum science that will improve military sensors will transform communications and computing. Quantum computing—the ability to use the abnormal properties of subatomic particles to exponentially increase processing power—will make possible encryption methods that could be unbreakable, as well as give militaries the power to process volumes of data and solve classes of problems that exceed the capacity of classical computers. More incredible still, so-called brain-computer interface technology is already enabling human beings to control complicated systems, such as robotic prosthetics and even unmanned aircraft, with their neural signals. Put simply, it is becoming possible for a human operator to control multiple drones simply by thinking of what they want those systems to do.
Put together, all these technologies will displace decades-old, even centuries-old, assumptions about how militaries operate. The militaries that embrace and adapt to these technologies will dominate those that do not. In that regard, the U.S. military is in big trouble.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States’ approach to projecting military force against regional powers has rested on a series of assumptions about how conflicts will unfold. The U.S. military assumes that its forces will be able to move unimpeded into forward positions and that it will be able to commence hostilities at a time of its choosing. It assumes that its forces will operate in permissive environments—that adversaries will be unable to contest its freedom of movement in any domain. It assumes that any quantitative advantage that an adversary may possess will be overcome by its own superior ability to evade detection, penetrate enemy defenses, and strike targets. And it assumes that U.S. forces will suffer few losses in combat.

These assumptions have led to a force built around relatively small numbers of large, expensive, and hard-to-replace systems that are optimized for moving undetected close to their targets, shooting a limited number of times but with extreme precision, and communicating with impunity. Think stealth aircraft flying right into downtown Belgrade or Baghdad. What’s more, systems such as these depend on communications, logistics, and satellite networks that are almost entirely defenseless, because they were designed under the premise that no adversary would ever be able to attack them.

This points to a broader problem: a fundamental lack of imagination. U.S. leaders simply do not believe that the United States could be displaced as the world’s preeminent military power, not in the distant future but very soon. They do not have the vision or the sense of urgency needed to alter the status quo. If that attitude prevails, change could come not from a concerted plan but as a result of a catastrophic failure, such as an American defeat in a major war. By then, however, it will probably be too late to alter course. The revolution in military affairs will have been not a trend that the United States used to deter war and buttress peace but a cause of the United States’ destruction.



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Drone and counter drone warfare is becoming a big issue among multiple military forces:


Arms race underway as U.S. scrambles to defeat rivals' drones
Pentagon pushing plan as China, others refine threats

The U.S. military radically changed warfare over the past two decades with its pioneering use of armed drones on the battlefield.
That revolution in conflict, however, has sparked an urgent new mission for the Pentagon: to defend against the other guy’s drones.
As “unmanned aerial vehicles” become exponentially faster, cheaper, more deadly and more widespread around the globe, U.S. military planners are racing to develop a viable defense for suddenly vulnerable troops, tanks and ships.


Defeating swarms is a central piece of a high-priority initiative deep inside the Pentagon, where planners with an Army-led joint counter small unmanned aerial systems office early next month will release the first militarywide blueprint to fight back. The counter-unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS) strategy is expected to offer a smorgasbord of solutions, including traditional anti-aircraft tactics and electronic attacks that can disrupt the links between drones and their operators. They will also give a nod to even more cutting-edge ideas such as the use of artificial intelligence to help predict how a single attack drone or swarm is likely to behave and develop a counterattack plan.
But analysts say the U.S. military and its allies can’t solve the challenge with one stand-alone strategy and that the Pentagon and its private-industry partners must prepare for a long, grueling transition period as drones remake the face of modern warfare.

“I think we have been in, and will be in, an arms race for some time. As C-UAS improves, drone operators — at least the bad actors — will find ways to defeat current technologies,” said Michael Blades, vice president of aerospace, defense and security at the leading research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

“At this point, speed kills. A lot of the C-UAS solutions out there are limited on detection range, so a fast drone, by the time it gets detected, may already be too close to mitigate,” he said.

Hitting the target

Indeed, the speed of modern drones has proved difficult to counter with most traditional anti-aircraft methods. The ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has offered a window into the effectiveness of small armed drones. Each side has sustained huge losses to armored vehicle formations from attacks using relatively inexpensive drones.
Small drones also became favorite tools of the Islamic State group during fighting in Syria and Iraq, where they often confounded fighters who tried to hit the aircraft with guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other familiar weapons.

In some cases, militaries have resorted to using major systems such as Patriot surface-to-air missiles. In July 2018, the Israeli military launched a Patriot missile to take out a Syrian drone that had crossed into its airspace.

Although the Patriot successfully took out the drone, specialists warn that such tactics simply won’t work against swarms of small drones. In addition to the frustrating logistical difficulty of trying to hit relatively tiny drones with huge missiles, employing Patriots also means a military could spend millions of dollars to take out aircraft that can be assembled for, at most, a few thousand dollars.
Analysts say many militaries have failed to invest in the numerous layers of defensive capability that could allow for counterstrikes against new tools such as small drones, which over time will become even more critical in attacks against tanks, troop formations and other land forces.

“Because we have not been facing enemies that can field those layers of capability, we have not invested in a lot of those layers,” said Jack Watling, research fellow in land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London. “We’ve said, ‘Well, against the threats we currently face we can prioritize our investment in the bit that gives us maximum utility today.’”


“China also appears to be betting that swarms of low-tech drones, linked with high-tech artificial intelligence, will become the weapon of choice in future conflicts and capable of countering any military force, including that of the United States,” military researchers wrote in a recent counterdrone study published by the National Defense University. “China’s level of effort in developing UAS suggests the importance and relevance it perceives the technology holds for potential future conflict.”

“Russia’s operational employment of drones in Ukraine, Iran’s proliferation of drone technologies, China’s emphasis on developing full-spectrum drone capabilities, and the evolution of drone use by nonstate actors show that Army planners must anticipate extensive UAS employment in future conflicts,” they wrote.

Indeed, Iran used drones last year as part of its strike on key Saudi oil facilities. Those drones, while highly effective, were of the more traditional variety.

The use of AI in conjunction with small drones will result in even scarier, more dangerous scenarios. Among other capabilities, AI could allow drone swarms to fly in a way that avoids radar and to organize themselves to fit through small chokepoints, meaning they will be able to defeat at least some traditional military strategies.

So "we" need to invest in a multi layer system capable of identifying and defeating swarms of drones. It will probably be capable of working as a layer of GBAD and C-RAM, and the detection system can be an important part of the ISTAR capability as well, so thinking of it as a stand alone system isn't a real reflection of what such a system should be able to offer.


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I think the time is long overdue to convert the PYs from the bulk of one of our infantry battalions, a recce squadron, an artillery battery, a signals squadron, an engineer squadron, a tiny brigade headquarters and a sustainment element into an experimental battle group+ whose sole task would be to trial and evaluate developing weapon systems and doctrine.

Better yet. Rather than converting existing combat forces, lets take 6,000 PYs out of Ottawa and build a whole new experimental brigade, air squadron and Navy task group.

I'm a firm believer that we still need the equivalent of at least one heavy brigade (but with a seriously enhanced "shield" capability) for the purpose of ground gaining. No matter how you cut it drones, long range artillery, EW systems etc, while they can degrade enemy forces, cannot force them off their hill. Heavy systems, highly enhanced perhaps with autonomous vehicles, will continue to be needed. You can bet your bottom dollar that our opponents will have them.


Colin Parkinson

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I have to wonder if perhaps our heavy role could be AD heavy, have short, medium and long range AD system and drone hunting drones. A semi-autonomous drone that orbits over your lines and scans for enemy drones and launches lightweight weapons at them. this would force them to keep their drone further back, degrading their effectiveness. Combined with a layered AD system and fighters, you could deny your battlespace to them.

If there is even a minor conflict in space, whole swathes of orbits could be denied to everyone due to the debris fields. 

One other point, many of the authors of these pieces have a view that the EM spectrum is limitless, it is not by any means


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FJAG said:
I think the time is long overdue to convert the PYs from the bulk of one of our infantry battalions, a recce squadron, an artillery batteries, a signals squadrons, an engineer squadron, a tiny brigade headquarters and a sustainment element into an experimental battle group+ whose sole task would be to trial and evaluate developing weapon systems and doctrine.

Better yet. Rather than converting existing combat forces, lets take 6,000 PYs out of Ottawa and build a whole new experimental brigade, air squadron and Navy task group.

Wasn't something similar done at 2 RCR a decade or so back to test the OBG concept? I think there might be a few on here that were part of that. It might be useful to have some preparing to be the "BG of the future", especially if it can be done by getting rid of some bloat elsewhere as you suggest. You could even bring the local PRes units, and have them work towards similar goals with the aim of showing what a properly resourced and trained reserve could deliver on the modern battlefield.