The future of war is entering a transitory period not seen since the end of the Second World War and the dawning of the Atomic Age. The breakneck pace with which the proliferation of unmanned and optionally manned platforms around the world are accelerating makes it hard to grasp all the implications for the warfighter.
The use of unmanned and remote-control vehicles for scouting duties and hazardous environments is nothing new. Even the use of unmanned platforms to attack hard targets dates to fire ships used against navies in the Bronze Age. What is new; however, is the sophistication and lethality of unmanned threats across all the military domains, including cyber-attack and space systems. Various 'Loyal Wingman' programs around the world are high profile measures aimed to bring more capability to attack and defence in the air. While attention getting, these programs are the mere tip of the unmanned vehicle iceberg. Robot 'dogs' are making their way into the civilian law enforcement environment. Unmanned subsurface vehicles are finding wrecks, new species and monitoring the ocean floor like never before. The air is filled with various Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in all sizes and shapes, with capability growing at exponential rates.
All these vehicles bring an entirely new dimension to military operations, offensive and defensive. Loitering munitions increase situational awareness and lethality for the forces that employ them. Swarms of drones, sharing data to manage their attacks and threat analyses, are going to be the modern equivalent of the Maxim machine gun or the HMS Dreadnaught. Managed through increasingly capable AI, the deployment of low-cost unmanned vehicles of various types operating in concert will utterly destroy any legacy hostile force arrayed against them. Unmanned surface and subsurface vessels will bring to any navy that can develop and deploy them unmatched control of the maritime environment while bringing complexity and lethality to the littoral regions like nothing before imagined.
While nation states are developing cutting edge systems and integrating them into their current order of battle, non-state actors have turned commercially available hobby UAS into lethal battlefield cross-domain threats. Used for surveillance, attack coordination, propaganda footage and direct attack; these small UAS pose a threat far outweighing their cost. Non-state actors have also demonstrated that they can construct their own UAS that have proven to be devastating when employed in the attack role. Expanded proliferation of all types of unmanned vehicles among non-state actors is the greatest asymmetric threat facing various democratic nations around the world.
The problems for Western nations, and I include Australia, India, Israel, and other representative governments in this broad definition, in adapting and adopting these technologies comes in two broad categories. These are ethics, and 'empire-building' by legacy forces.
The ethical concerns affect the civilian leadership and decision makers the most. The YouTube short film 'Slaughterbots' is not too far from being a reality, and this has been brought to the front and centre of many political and philosophical debates when it comes to development of AI and deployment of unmanned vehicles with munitions. How much autonomy is too much? Can lethal force be put into the metaphorical hands of a robot? Where and when are such things legally justifiable? What sort of fail-safes can be put on such tools to make them safe from a public relations front? All these questions weigh heavily on the minds of the politicians and generals at the top of the decision-making process.
The problem of empire-building by the military establishment is one that comes up with every new development to some degree or another. Even something as obviously helpful as a helmet-mounted sight for fighter pilots can be an issue if institutional pride is great enough (an example from the US Air Force (USAF)). The same goes for the use of unmanned platforms. The MQ-1B Predator UAS originally entered service as the RQ-1 Predator, and it was strictly an unarmed affair. Entering service with the USAF in 1995, it was the result of a Navy program designed to replace the RQ-2 Pioneer UAS that had been purchased from Israel in the 1980s for use as a gunfire spotter on the USS Iowa class battleships. The battleships were retired, and the RQ-2s went to the US Marine Corps (USMC), which made good use of them until they were replaced by more modern systems in the 2010s. The RQ-1 Program was then turned over to the Army, but Congress decided the USAF should take the lead. The USAF was not really pleased by the RQ-1 and was greatly resistant to arming them. USAF RQ-1s wouldn’t be armed until 2005, and the first missiles carried on board were Stinger air-to-air missiles! The armed MQ-1 Predators used by various shadowy government agencies since the early 2000s were not answerable to Big Air Force, and thus are a topic for another discussion. With great reluctance, the MQ-1 and later MQ-9 UAS were accepted by the USAF, mostly on the demands of the US Army and USMC. This push for ISR and armed UAS by joint forces and the reluctance of the USAF to cooperate resulted in the Air Force Chief of Staff being relieved of duty in 2008.
The United States military lags significantly behind in the 'drone wars' and no service is farther behind than the USAF. The highly successful unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) testing in the early 2000s was discarded by the USAF as quickly as it could. While private companies like Raytheon and Kratos are testing ever larger drone swarms and expanded munition technologies, none of these innovations are close to being adopted into limited service with the US DoD. Self-defence pods, electronic warfare pods, and smaller on-board drones or towed decoys that could enhance the survivability of the MQ-9 in a contested environment have yet to be adopted or fully funded for development.
Other Western countries, notably Israel, the UK and Australia are farther along in their development of unmanned technologies. This is driven by their limited manpower more than any other factor. All Western countries to one extent or another have limited their employment of unmanned systems and armed unmanned platforms to some form of 'man in the loop' authorisation process for lethal force/attack. While the USAF is the most notable offender in the drive to slow down the emergence of unmanned technology, it is not the only offender. The various Western militaries are going to have to come to grips with the new reality, and one hopes sooner rather than later. The West is also behind on the Counter Unmanned Systems front as well. There is no justification for this, other than it is based on a biased blind spot on the part of the military leadership of these countries.
Meanwhile, nations like Turkey, Russia, and China have forged ahead in this space. China and Turkey are becoming the world leaders in the development and proliferation of unmanned military technology, with Israel in a distant third. Turkish UAS have featured prominently in conflicts in Libya, Syria and Armenia. These deployments of Turkish UAS have been very successful, with Ukraine and Poland recently purchasing UAS from Turkey as a result. China is at the forefront of unmanned system development and deployment, with an emphasis on UAS and swarming technology. Russian and former Soviet states are pushing hard to get unmanned armed ground fighting vehicles into the field. This will probably happen in the very near term. These nations – Turkey in particular – are also leading in counter unmanned technology and weapons development. Turkey fielded a laser weapon in Libya that brought down a Chinese MQ-1 Predator analog operated by the UAE in 2019, as an example of this gap in capabilities.
The same ethical concerns for unmanned systems are even more in play for the West when it comes to Artificial Intelligence. AI is the stuff of science fiction and dystopian nightmares; with good reason to be fair. AI has tremendous potential for abuse and the rewards must be weighed against the risks. AI and robotics will alter society as we know it and the effects on the military are going to be equally extreme. Not all nations share our ethical concerns beyond keeping the AI under their control. Everything else is fair game.
With all of this in mind, it is important to develop counters to the unmanned systems entering all areas of the battlespace. Development and deployment of counter unmanned technology must factor higher in the thinking of Western militaries for both non-state conflict and peer competition. Electronic warfare will play a much more prominent role in the conflicts of tomorrow, regardless of the adversary. This must be addressed accordingly.
Cyber warfare and network security will be a key factor in any peer conflict on both sides. Use of unconventional cyber warfare such as social media influencing, recruiting, and targeting will be a battlefield reality in any future conflict. Unmanned systems have the potential to be used to deliver EW and cyber-attack payloads to areas that were inaccessible in the past. Rogue AI programs are a threat to any network they can reach and are a logical development from current malware attacks. As the number and sophistication of unmanned systems grow, the value of secure networks grows in step, particularly for the West since the ethical concerns of munitions with the ability to find and attack their own targets are multiplied and the demand for a man in the loop remains consistent.