Enacting Prototype Warfare
Despite some misconceptions, robotic and autonomous systems (RAS) technology is ‘now technology’; it has immediate military utility, which will evolve over time. It offers two key strategic benefits for Land forces: first, it can help mitigate their combat mass (or effect) challenges and, secondly, it can provide a broad range of military capability which can transform how they ‘fight’ and ‘operate’ (below the threshold of conflict). Notwithstanding the difficulties of tight acquisition and modernisation budgets, Western nations need a more comprehensive approach to adopting and exploiting RAS capabilities.
While important, we sense that much of Land forces’ ongoing RAS experimentation remains peripheral activity to hedge some future as-yet undefined capability rather than early bold steps of a deliberate strategy to adopt more sophisticated Human Machine teaming. We observe that current development of RAS technology not only allows these steps to be taken now, but that Land forces need to start taking them now to address some key capability challenges. An understandable temptation to focus solely on the robotic platform as a measure of progress must be tempered with the reality that effective crewed/uncrewed teaming – even at basic levels – will only be enabled by addressing the non-equipment components of capability/lines of development early, particularly information.
For those who cry: “why now?” or advocate a fast follower approach, the RAS train has already left the station. Not only are many potential adversaries developing and fielding RAS capabilities – very publicly in many cases – the proliferation of civil sector RAS-related technology means that Land forces can harness viable military capability solutions now; there is also a unique opportunity to shape the way in which some of that technology is developed. The current opportunity (and risk) is neatly summed up by Australian General Angus Campbell who, when Chief of Army, observed that: “late adopters of technology usually struggle to catch up”.
At the heart of any deliberate strategy to exploit the potential of RAS technology is the need for a vision to drive ambitious but realistic operational concepts. The US Army’s RAS strategy, Australian Army’s RAS strategy and a recently expressed British Army goal for a crewed/uncrewed teamed battle group in 2022 and brigade in 2024 are pivotal first steps which ought to drive a profoundly different view of experimentation, modernisation and acquisition. The operational concepts flowing from this need to describe how unmanned systems can augment crewed capability and the crewed/uncrewed teaming complementarity which creates a combat system rather than a series of one-off robotic platforms or technologies. These concepts will need testing and adjusting through experimentation.
Since November 2019, QinetiQ has run a series of internal and external workshops with scientists, soldiers and other defence industry representatives to explore how RAS technology can improve and accelerate Land forces’ crewed/uncrewed teamed capability to inform comprehensive Land RAS strategy. This work has led to this report which is designed to to stimulate early dialogue and debate of its key conclusions. At its heart is an exploration of the implications of RAS technologies for Land capability, and how to embrace them in a coherent way within a strategy, delivered through an experimentation and acquisition portfolio.
It demonstrates that RAS implementation is not simply a process of platform acquisition: it is a digital transformation which needs to be tackled as such. Without enabling information architecture and due consideration of other components of capability/lines of development, it will be near impossible to create coherent crewed/uncrewed teams to exploit the full potential of RAS for Land operations. A portfolio-based approach to spiral RAS acquisition, combined with concerted multi-year experimentation, would provide the necessary focus, coherence and integration to achieve the right capability outcomes in a flexible and agile way.
The report is broken up into the following topics
- Strategic logic for the military use of RAS
- Ethics and regulation
- Technology overview: The ‘art of the possible’
- Use case scenarios
- The implications of RAS