A constant in military capability development is change, and there are many emerging technologies that, as they mature, will evolve the role of Cavalry in Combined Arms. In recent years we have seen the global rise of AI and autonomy. So, what’s in it for Cav?
Technology today is capable of supporting fully driverless vehicle tasks such as delivery and mining – and private firms are rolling this technology out in partnership with governments. In San Francisco (the home of Silicon Valley), it is easy to find an autonomous vehicle overtaking human drivers as it delivers a package to an app user. The ACT and Queensland have both hosted aerial drone-based delivery services.
To any military vehicle commander, at first glance it would appear challenging to fully automate tactical vehicle movement – especially in high threat environments. Tactical movement requires a continuous assessment of likely enemy locations, actions, and reactions, together with near and far terrain analysis and knowledge of weapons systems and the rules associated with their employment. This is combined with the location of other vehicles in the troop to determine the best route. However, this all sounds programmable. Sensors on the vehicle could identify ground, cover, hazards, and surface tension, and combine it with topographic space-derived data to improve routes.
What adds complexity is the human environment. Humans continue to demonstrate their ingenuity in undermining the programming of autonomous vehicles. This includes taking advantage of ‘no human collision’ software to stand in front of a vehicle to enable a robbery of the occupant or sticking QR codes over ‘stop’ signs to deceive the vehicle’s software. This unpredictable variable means retaining a human ‘on the loop’ will continue to be of value.
However, there remains a case for partial or situational automation to ease the cognitive burden on and survivability of commanders and drivers. Defence industry is already experimenting with remote driving, including for the e-PMV. This could allow for remote extraction if the crew are incapacitated, or the ability to switch over to ‘autopilot’ in lower-threat environments or lower-complexity terrain such as roads to enable rest and reduce the risk of driver fatigue.
As experiments with chess matches have shown, the best use of AI is when it is teamed with humans. Could there be an opportunity to co-deploy autonomous ‘buddy’ vehicles with the cavalry troop? Australian successes in developing autonomous air (Ghost Bat) and undersea (Ghost Shark) systems have paved the way for a land equivalent – likely as aptly named. Surely a ‘Ghost Dingo’ would be welcome in the cavalry of the future. Current concepts for the employment of such vehicles include a multi-vehicle resupply convoy that has a single driver located within the line. Depending on the driver’s actions or directions, the autonomous vehicles either disperse, return to base, or continue the mission. In a cavalry context, perhaps a four-car troop would only need two commanders (one for redundancy), with two vehicles responding to the human-commanded vehicles. This would free up space for more dismounts or, importantly, systems operators.
While it’s easy to look for advancements to cavalry-specific systems, it would be a mistake to not also consider the ability to team with other corps’ automated elements – in particular the artillery. The technology of aerial combat drones and loitering munitions is well-established, and these have been used in conflicts across the world. More recently the platforms themselves have miniaturised; this together with advancements in AI has led to development of expendable drone ‘swarms’ that can be deployed through a ground-launched canister system.
Cavalry’s ability to rapidly move through the battlespace with small payloads (using vehicles like the Hawkei and its trailer) synergises well with the forward deployment of drone swarms – to both locate, dislocate, and disrupt the enemy and provide a useful combat multiplier to other corps. One concept could be a forward-deployed troop conducting an observation post while providing security and a communications node for a ‘sleeping’ remotely-piloted UAS swarm – to be activated on visual confirmation of the enemy and piloted by systems operators either on-site or in the rear. In this case it may be that the cavalry provides an improvement to the employment of emerging capability – rather than the opposite.
There are seemingly endless possibilities when theorising on the effect of technology on future capability. For the cavalry we could just as easily speculate on the rise of battery powered vehicles, or what improvements quantum technology may bring to communications and navigation. The challenge will always be for our organisation to recognise the potential benefits, adopt it, and integrate it before we are overtaken by the never-ending upwards spiral of technological innovation.