Own the hybrid war
The armed forces must set the tone for tech-based warfare and create a roadmap so that they can reach ‘Military 4.5’ quickly and guide the industry rather than be dictated by it
The modern military is increasingly becoming technology-reliant and, therefore, industry- dependent. Hybrid warfare — the current flavour of war-fighting — is fast transforming into a technology-based, non-contact, ambiguous and transitory model. The rapidity of change comes from exponential growth in every facet of human life, largely fuelled by computers, generating competition between man and machine as well as combined man-machine teams. Bursts of concentrated technology innovation periods like these — so productive, so game-changing — move into an entirely new category: Industrial revolution.
The military has been constrained to follow and adapt to what technology and the industry provide through these cycles. Throughout revolutions historically, the industry has been just a level ahead of the military. Today we are deep into Industrial Revolution 4.0, marked by data and machine learning (ML). For the military, that means moving our industrial platforms and war machines to be run by Artificial Intelligence (AI) engines. The current security dynamics dictate that the military must do that, albeit with caution, to finally pull a half-level ahead of the industry.
The armed forces must set the tone for technology-based warfare and create the roadmap so that they can reach ‘Military 4.5’ as quickly as possible and guide the industry rather than be dictated by it. This is a call for the military fraternity and their counterparts in the industry. If a country is inferior in technology, by inference, it would be inferior in national security.
Facing an adversary with better technology, you are that much weaker, more porous and behind the curve. If you are vulnerable, you are also exploitable by nations that are high on research and development and innovation. That advantage extends well beyond military might to the negotiating table, to diplomatic efforts, to trade and financial markets. Overall, security is driven by accelerating technological prowess. For example, China feels comfortable, as it projects and flexes its muscles, leveraging technology and military power in tandem.
Moving the military to 4.5 will represent a major hurdling of significant obstacles i.e. our cultural aversion to swift change. Right now, we have yet to fully subsume the elements of Industrial Revolution 4.0. We’re frankly closer to 3.5. But who better to determine what is needed and put forth to the industry than the armed forces, the tip of the spear. We need the industry to deliver today on the most promising technologies of tomorrow.
Neo-Nanotechnology: Light, small and fast, nanotechnology and miniaturised components offer the military some obvious benefits in terms of portability, protection and connection. But it needs to go further. We need the military version — neo-nanotech — that’s even smaller, refined for reliable performance, and rugged and hardened enough to withstand the rigorous demands of field operations.
Human augmentation to match the machine: As systems become more networked and the machines get smarter, the sheer speed and connectivity will challenge the human beings they are meant to serve. They will need to keep up. Fast and capable, these systems will easily outstrip their operators unless some augmentation technology pairs with the person to prevent fatigue, circumvent relatively slower thinking and fuels a better decision-making cycle. This intelligent augmentation is crucial to controllable autonomous applications. For context, consider the modern-day flight deck, which relies on human input to set up a flight plan. But the execution of that flight is now undertaken by the onboard flight computer, a machine. Why? Humans are now the weakest link in the chain, vulnerable to lapses in attention, fatigue, even informational, psychological, biological and chemical warfare. Autonomous systems are much more impervious to such influences.
True network-centric operations: When target acquisition and robotics are brought together, we will have nearly achieved the Industrial Revolution for Military 4.5. Call it C5ISR-STAR2 (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence and Information — Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance and Robotics). It is a substantial name for a substantial capability, a networked battlefield where decentralised, robotic-initiated decision-making would be the norm. The Command, Control and Surveillance would largely be linked through space. These assets in space would need protection. How that is achieved is another race.
Imagine, for example, that humans pre-programme a satellite to identify targets in a certain area. AI can enable them to set the parameters by which the target would be eliminated autonomously — the system would designate the weapon for doing so and take action if the criteria fits. In another situation, humans might serve as the final confirmation before the autonomous system locks on to a target for action. Another step forward would be to designate pre-sanctioned targets, to be engaged on appearance.
The Internet of Military Things (IoMT): Network-centric operations won’t happen without the fusion of smaller, smarter sensors, network connectivity, signal intelligence devices, aircraft, UAVs and so on. A secure, private network is the core layer to communicating this data. That will require scalable satellite connectivity for narrowband applications plus fibre and microwave links to support broadband applications. These would ultimately connect millions of devices and sensors operating ubiquitously and support data transfer. AI would play a critical role, enabling the IoMT to transition from mostly telemetry and sensing to complete autonomous action guided by rules defined by individual countries.
Computer networks are efficient, desirable tools as they can move massive machine data simultaneously to multiple subscribers. This can also turn disastrous if disruption is caused through technology limitations, an incident driven by adversarial action or a simple human error. The military has this challenge — it needs its machines and networks secured and protected against these possibilities. High assurances and strong protection tools will need to be delivered by the industry. Call it military-grade secrecy; security protocols would need to be well-defined.
Secure Chips, Quantum Technology and IP concealment (ie, no IP Address) would essentially form this baseline. None of the above will be possible if the industry cannot pin down the fundamental, base-layer PME (Power, Materials, and Electronics) capabilities. Military superiority will come from innovations that can deliver lighter, more sustainable power, perhaps delivered through nuclear, renewables or rechargeable through motion.
It will come from lighter, stronger, self-healing materials designed to maximise survivability for the war-fighter and bear up under temperatures that span the extremes of heat and cold.
It will come from next generation electronics that are tiny, light and programmable. It will come from developing the technological mechanisms that make it possible for humans and machines to partner in powerful new ways. PME would expand the possibilities for a single fighting machine to perform operations in all three spheres — air, ground and water — with almost equal efficiency and sustainability. The AI engines would enable them to be networked as swarms and self-assign targets between machines. Networks will make it possible to build H-M2M-H (Human-Machine to Machine Human) interfaces to bring battles to be planned, regulated and controlled from manned war rooms, yet fought by machines in the field. The groundwork has clearly been laid. We have data, advanced computing, new materials and engineering methods that are translating into the fastest evolution of physical systems in human history.
We can process data in seconds and run experiment after experiment based on the evolving results. Even small companies can better innovate at scale because it’s cheaper and faster to do so. There are simply no excuses for failure.
If the industry can deliver on this considerable potential, the military can deliver and fulfil its prime directive: Ensuring national security that underpins all else. We can do it while preserving human life and outsourcing the truly dangerous jobs to robotics and autonomous systems. Military 4.5 is not a holistic war-fighting solution but a concept to guide the industry to push the envelope beyond 4.0.
For all actors, elements of war-fighting (ethical, unethical and ambiguous) are coming together in a new technology-enabled paradigm — hybrid war — that will challenge us to be more thoughtful. The Grey Zone is expanding, stitching non-State and State actors as legitimate participants of the hybrid war. The conventional battles are subsuming the sub-conventional. Technology is the common denominator but it needs ethical military guidance along the way.
(The writer is a military veteran and former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff of India. He raised the Defence Space Agency, Defence Cyber Agency and Special Operations Division.)