Since 2014, the Pentagon has been developing a new doctrine to combat America’s real and perceived vulnerabilities. It is this policy development, glossed over in major media outlets that will come in the shape and character of America’s armed services for the foreseeable future.
Named the third offset strategy (3OS), this doctrine is similar to the first and second offset strategies that defined US military procurement throughout the Cold War. First, Eisenhower hoped to offset Russian forces with increased nuclear stockpiles, after which the Reagan administration more successfully countered the threat of Soviet numerical superiority with advanced weaponry like precision-guided missiles, stealth aircraft and missile-defence systems.
Now the Pentagon top brass argues the US is once again vulnerable; with the rise of China as a Pacific rival necessitating the greatest action. While the previous strategies were made possible by huge increases in defence spending, the relative thrift of modern times has led to more novel for America to maintain its military edge to be considered.
Above all, artificial intelligence, the swarm doctrine and disaggregation of expensive platforms into smaller, more specialised and affordable systems are key themes in the Pentagon’s early discussions about future force configuration. Such developments could significantly increase lethality, cheapen the cost of military production, and alter the ability of organisations, large and small, to make war.
We are used to hearing of expert systems like IBM’s Watson or Deep Blue beating a human at Chess or Jeopardy. By weight and speed of processing power, computers can best humans in most set tasks.
However, a little-known company called Psibernetix has recently caused a stir by building an artificial intelligence (ALPHA) that can beat experienced USAF pilots in combat simulations.
Even when significantly handicapped, ALPHA has been able to outsmart and out-manoeuvre human pilots with no losses of its own. Former Pilot Gene Lee referred to ALPHA as “the most aggressive, responsive, dynamic and credible AI I’ve seen to date.”
The potential of AI in aerial combat is self-evident. Modern fighters are designed to operate at 40,000 ft. and speeds of over 1,500 mph (Mach 2 +). In such a scenario, speed of action and situational awareness is critical. ALPHA, which runs on novel language-based algorithms, can respond to changes in the environment 250 times faster than a human can blink. Despite this formidable processing power, the cutting edge technology can be run on a low-end PC.
Partially designed to operate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) it’s conceivable to imagine fleets of high-performance aircraft being controlled by algorithms, independent from human control.
This scenario is, however, unlikely. ALPHA and its successor AI’s will instead be incorporated into existing and future aircraft and will make the job of the pilot significantly easier, complimenting humans instead of supplanting them. According to Nicholas Earnest (the creator of ALPHA), AI will begin to act as a digital assistant to pilots, easily processing incoming sensor data at speeds impossible to human cognition. Beyond the improved processing of big data, ALPHA has also demonstrated the capability of remotely controlling up to four aircraft. This allows for one piloted plane to have control of multiple vehicles, acting as something of a pseudo-satellite.
While automation has up till now supplanted human tasks, the future of war will increasingly see human-machine teaming, where a hybridisation of man and machine create a strong and adaptable system.
While ALPHA provides an example of software designed to engage enemy fighters and supplement pilot performance, other systems are being developed. One example, Mayhem, is an AI that can quickly scour vast quantities of code to determine vulnerabilities thus highlighting and mitigating the risks of cyber warfare.
ALPHA and Mayhem serve as milestones in the revolution in military-grade software. As targeting, electronic warfare, data-processing, and situational awareness are all improved and further delegated to onboard systems, the pilot’s role could change drastically. Airmen may stop resembling Tom Cruise’s Maverick from Top Gun, and increasingly consist of ad hoc data scientists instead.
Swarms- Small and Many
While the revolution in AI- and machine learning is a central pillar in the offset strategy, innovation in hardware will be just as vital.
One of the legacies of America’s preference for high-tech solutions has been increasing costs and development time for new military platforms, exemplified by air-superiority aircraft. The F-22 fighter took 25 years to develop, with each costing around $700 million. Of the 750 planned, only 138 were built before Congress shut down production in 2013. The newly introduced F-35 program has cost close to $1 trillion, with myriad setbacks.
The expense of these aircraft systems has had serious repercussions. In 1984, Norman Augustine prophesised that the exponential increase in platform cost with the linear increase in budget would mean that by 2054, America’s entire defence budget could pay for one plane. Though this is not quite the case, between 1996 and 2010, the number of fighter jets at America’s disposal dropped from 3002 to 2,159. [i]
Responding to the ever decreasing number of expensive aircraft, defence think tanks such as CSIS or CNAS have been pushing for the development of ‘small and many’ systems, or swarms. Secretary of Defence Ash Carter stated that swarm technology was a key part of a broader effort to adapt emerging technologies to existing and future war fighting needs.
Already scientists are working on smaller drones whose algorithms allow them to coordinate in large swarms. T. X Hammes, a former US marine, argues that 3D printing already allows for 10 small drones to be produced in a single day, and suggests that as printing technology improves, up to 1000 micro-drones could be produced every 24 hours.
These drones would naturally be small, lacking in range and deficient in payload, making them no match for current air-superiority fighters. However, their sheer numbers have the potential to overwhelm adversaries in a number of ways. Airborne swarms of flying explosives could overwhelm enemy air-defences, while the US Navy has worked on underwater gliding drones that can operate for up to 5 years without refueling. These systems could act as mines or self-propelled torpedoes, posing a threat to enemy surface and submarine vessels.
The increased potential of swarm technology is being enabled by the aforementioned developments in AI, as well as additive manufacturing, compressed gel fuels and nano-explosives. The production and deployment of many small, inexpensive systems in a short space of time would cut through the bureaucratic waste of the American defence industry, while significantly altering the nature and doctrines of the US military.
Barges- Big and Many
A swarm of semi-autonomous drones overwhelming Chinese air defences sounds exotic, but there are some difficulties. Particularly, the feasibility and small size of such systems limit their range and payload.
Another idea being touted is to leverage improvements in automation by building unmanned ‘arsenal platforms’ that carry large quantities of missiles and smaller systems.
By the lowest estimate, a Tomahawk missile carrying 1000 pounds worth of explosives costs as much as $500,000. Following the same estimate, one B-2 bomber costs up to 4000 Tomahawks. Strategists have thus revitalised a fringe concept of large retrofitted aircraft and boats; specifically designed to carry as many missiles as possible. Given advances in automation, these enormous platforms would not have to be manned as space previously dedicated to accommodating the crew would instead be used to increase offensive and defensive capabilities. By Scharre’s understanding, a retrofitted B-52 bomber could carry up to 66 air-to-air missiles, compared to the maximum 6 of current US fighters.
These platforms would likely not be manned. Representing huge targets and designed specifically to carry ordinance, they would be highly visible and vulnerable targets. The ability of pilots to increasingly control multiple vehicles in the air thus allows ‘arsenal platforms’ to act in support roles, extending the number of missiles available to pilots in far-flung conflict zones.
Automation is thus allowing the DOD to replace expensive platforms that do anything for a huge price tag with a variety of simpler systems that do one thing well. Anticipating a likely future, there will be a far greater variety in the type of military hardware being used; from miniature swarm vehicles to submersible drone mines and gigantic pilotless aircraft filled to the brim with missiles.
The developments discussed are recent, and not excluding other, more traditional, developments in the US military (i.e. the upcoming B-21 Strategic bomber). Rather, the quantitative arguments for larger numbers of specialised weaponry are beginning to gain traction in the decision-making process.
At a time when devastating armaments and sophisticated platforms are becoming ever easier to access and manufacture, the highly elaborate and expensive weapons and platforms of yesteryear are becoming increasingly unattractive to defence planners.
Just as 3OS is being devised as a response to the anti-access strategies of America’s adversaries, countries like China are likely to react with new and innovative doctrinal changes of their own. 3OS is, therefore, likely to condition ever more ambitious military investment in the Asia-Pacific, suggesting a more adversarial stance on the part of both Washington and Beijing.
The previous two offset strategies were designed to counter the Soviet Union, an entity that lacked the scientific capabilities of America, with notable exceptions like Sputnik. By contrast, the probability of America maintaining a technological edge over China is increasingly in doubt. In the two previous offset strategies, The US was responsible for most military technologies of consequences, but in an increasingly globalised environment, increasing the affordability of platforms could negatively affect the balance of power in favour of Washington’s rivals.
A further geopolitical consideration should be the possibilities for smaller non-state actors to compete with states in the production of weapons systems. Difficulties that terrorists have had in mass-producing explosive formed devices (EFP’s) have been overcome by the sophistication of 3D printers. Meanwhile, commercial drones are becoming cheaper and more numerous, even as they become more sophisticated. To name but one, Aerovel’s Flexrotor has an effective range of over 2000 miles (comparable to large military aircraft) yet only costs $200,000. The gulf in platform quality and volume between states and non-state actors, well defined for so long, is becoming increasingly tenuous. States like Iran have been providing groups like Hezbollah with Unmanned systems since 2006, and in his excellent 2015 book ‘Sudden Justice’, Chris Woods detailed the uncovering of Jihadist ‘drone-workshops’ in at least three nations.[ii]
3OS is America’s attempt to leverage new technology to maintain its military edge over rival states. However, technological innovation is increasingly democratising the ability to produce and use sophisticated and lethal weaponry in large quantities. The production of nuclear weapons, fighter jets and aircraft carriers all necessitated enormous state resources, across military, technical and scientific sectors. In trying to maintain its central role as the world’s sole military superpower, America is opening a Pandora’s box of technologies that could conceivably shake the monopoly of violence states have enjoyed for centuries. contested.
[i] Martin Van Creveld, M. (2009) A history of air warfare. Edited by John Andreas Olsen. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books. P. 361
[ii] Chris Woods, ‘ Sudden Justice’ p. 275
Rian Whitton is an author and graduate of Kings College London with an avid interest in technology and security, including cybersecurity, aerospace and unmanned systems. His recent publications cover anti-establishment narratives, UAVs and reviews of the documentaries ‘Lo and Behold – Reveries of the connected World’ by Werner Herzog and ‘Hypernormalisation – The respectable viewer’s Zeitgeist’ by Adam Curtis.
Image credit: DARPA