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The Fog of War and Clouds of Battle-Bots

A few days ago I posted about my own personal early exposure to missile defense, and how that technology is now on the verge of bringing about a truly revolutionary change at almost every level of tactics, strategy and foreign policy.  Thinking about that has led me again to some on-going musings about the impact that other, related technologies may well have on military and foreign policy over the next few years and decades.

The military use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), called “drones” in the popular press, has become a commonplace in the news.  By and large, what reporters are covering is the use of the General Atomics (I just love that name) Predator and Reaper UAVs.  Occasionally a reporter will take note of the larger Global Hawk intelligence platform.  Every once in a while, you’ll come across a report that seems to be aware that these specific systems are part of a larger trend.  On rare occasions, you see a reporter or commentator make the point that the use of UAVs seems to represent a qualitative change in military and foreign affairs.

But you may have to be a regular reader of publicly-available mil-tech geek material to realize that work proceeds at a furious pace on a pervasive suite of technologies that go beyond the Predator.  And you have to squint just a little bit to see out to a horizon where warfare and conflict among states and others with access to these new technologies may create a military, diplomatic and geopolitical world that would look very, very different from the one we’ve known since the birth of “industrial warfare” in the US Civil War and World War I.

Looking back, the primitive liquid fuel rockets developed by civilian German and American pioneers in the inter-war years gave rise to Hitler’s V-2 “wonder-weapon.”  Work with gyroscopes and analog electronics provided the guidance for that rocket.  But the V-2 was merely prologue to the nuclear-tipped ICBM that completely changed the global military balance and, likewise, the Predator is only a foreshadowing of what lies not far ahead.  Now, digital micro-electronics, and early artificial intelligence and robotics technology have given birth to the aerial “drones” that are making appearances over battlefields (declared and otherwise) and in popular news media.  Beyond that is something that will seem very different from today’s battlefields.

Here is the promise of what is currently in development: As military robots become smaller, more capable and more autonomous, the kinds of “sensor fusion” being developed for the F-35 and other command, control, communication and intelligence applications (again, the “3CI” acronym) point toward unprecedented and qualitatively more acute penetration of the “fog of war.”  Smaller, far more capable military robots will exist pervasively throughout the “battle space,” the information they collect will be of much greater quality, and that information will be made available to other robots, commanders and other humans on the battlefield and beyond in a more usable fashion.  These military robots will shift seamlessly along a spectrum from 3CI at one end to actual attack and defense at the other; i.e. many of the very same robotic platforms that collect and share intelligence will also carry or be weapons of extreme precision.  The evolution of the Predator from pure intelligence-gathering to the Reaper weapons platform presages the kind of  highly flexible military robots that lie just over the horizon.

With these trends in mind, it isn’t hard to imagine a battlefield that is dominated by pervasive robots — a “bot cloud” that identifies and tracks threats, and then can respond and become a “bot swarm” in the blink of an eye aimed at destroying those threats.  One reaction to this vision that I see from time to time is a fear that this robotic battlefield threatens some kind of “Terminator” nightmare.  There is one such piece in the Washington Post just this last weekend.  For some reason — perhaps because I’ve been steeped in military technology my whole life — I don’t harbor these kinds of fears.  Every new kind of weapon presents novel threats and ethical challenges to those who would wield them.  I actually think that the possibility of warfare with more precise and more intelligent weapons promises a more humane, not a less humane future: one with less collateral damage to civilians, and one in which the aims of warfare can be achieved with the application of less, not more, violence.

Instead, I’m concerned about the headlong rush into the promised future of robotic warfare for a different reason: the potential fragility of the command and control of the “battlefield bot cloud.”  All of the wonderful sensor fusion we are promised, and the processing taking place within the individual elements of this battle bot cloud depend on electromagnetic radiation and electronic processes.  And therein lies the problem.  High-energy radiation can cause computer chips to go gaga, and the streams of communicated bits the robots must share over radio waves are subject to increasingly sophisticated jamming and spoofing.  (The ignominious end of a stealthy RQ-170 intelligence UAV in Iran last year may have been due to jamming and spoofing.)

Jamming and spoofing are as old as warfare.  Going back to the days of Sun-Tzu, combatants have laid down smoke screens and sent out false signals to confuse their enemies.  Someday, robotic combatants may have the autonomy and ingenuity that have always served as countermeasures to overcome these things.  But even that, as impressive as it will be, isn’t the best “solution” to the problem.  Creating military robots that can act on their own when confused by enemy jamming and spoofing only gets you back to where you were before — admittedly with a saving of human life, but still without the coordination that makes the battle-bot cloud such a formidable concept.

In many ways, my concerns about the fragility of the battle-bot cloud are the same as the concerns I have about the civilian cloud and the Internet itself: These wonderful technologies depend on a connectivity that is easier to disrupt than many want to believe.  The constant struggle between security systems  and the assaults on our computers, smart phones and networks that have become a part of our daily life are a pale shadow of what all-out cyber-war would look like.  The simple fact is that the Internet could be basically wiped out in any real cyber-war.  Even short of a total Internet melt-down, the operation of big chunks of our civilian infrastructure could be brought to a grinding halt, both in the ethereal world of communication and data, and in the “real” world of actual machines with which we interact all the time.  Basic industrial processes, banking, retail sales, inventory and logistics … all are now utterly dependent on reliable flow through the Internet.  All are at great risk.

While the networks of communication upon which the military battle-bot cloud depends are already (mainly) much more robust than the civilian Internet, weapons designed to attack those networks and the processors and sensors they connect will also be more capable than the ones that could bring the civilian Internet to a halt.  The mother of all network and processor disruptors, of course, is the EMP-inducing nuke blast.  But you can be sure that America’s potential adversaries are hard at work on creating such havoc for military systems on a more focused and less catastrophic level.  As are we.

We already deploy “hardened” chips and fiber optic networks that are more or less impervious to electromagnetic jamming.  But the benefits of a truly pervasive battle-bot cloud can only be achieved if those robots can range freely, untethered by fiber optic cables.  Is there a solution to the fragility of the battle-bot cloud?

I can imagine some directions that will have to be explored.  Laser communication has to be one.  But this solution is limited to line-of-sight.  By itself, this isn’t as much of a limitation as it might seem.  An advanced battle-bot cloud could create and maintain laser networks on the fly.  When it is finally fully implemented, the F-35 points the way toward how this would work: Each aircraft is designed to act as a network node for all others, sharing the communication load on a flexible basis.  It isn’t hard to imagine just a few steps beyond this, where each sensing and weapon node is festooned with laser transmitters and receivers.

But if such a counter-countermeasure is implemented, then we will come around in a full, ironic circle: The Fog of War will once again be a real thing.  Not only will adversaries blanket the battlefield with beams and broadcast waves of shrieking radio-frequency jamming, but they will also literally seek to impose a shroud of real fog — clouds of smoke and dust to interrupt the flickering network of laser light by which military robots communicate with each other and their human commanders.  If this happens, somewhere, Sun-Tzu will be smiling.

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