Mechatronic Manoeuvre: Fighting Fire with Fire
‘Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire and threaten the threatener’
Fast forward to the year 2033 and Army has undergone unprecedented organisational transformation due to disruption realised by Intelligent Robots and Autonomous Systems (iRAS). The initial reticence to fully embrace these new technologies for the application of force was eventually substituted by an urgency to acquire it once nation states began operating first-generation iRAS during the late-2020s. It was determined that not mastering smart combat machines would erode Army’s regional capability edge and soldiers would become increasingly vulnerable to highly lethal autonomous drones. Thus regiments and battalions staffed with hundreds of humans were largely superseded by the introduction into service of intelligent combat and logistic support systems. Major force structure changes included the amalgamation of combat and combat support corps into one Australian Army Combat Systems Corps (AACSys) and all combat service support functions into the Australian Army Logistic Systems Corps (AALSys).
Whilst iRAS was capable of independent action, manned-unmanned teaming was a directed safety protocol so that humans maintained control of the deadly machines.
Combat elements were grouped into Mechatronic Manoeuvre Teams (MMT), which were either light or heavy sub-units (MMT-L & MMT-H).
MMT-L: Autonomous bipedal, tracked or multi-legged robots with direct and indirect fire weapon systems. MMT-H: Autonomous ground and air combat vehicles with long range direct and indirect fires, including air defence with bipedal, tracked and multi-legged robots that travelled within autonomous combat vehicles.
The MMTs were primarily comprised of neurally-networked iRAS but with primary and alternate human command nodes, supported by prognostic machine intelligence ‘Combat Watson’ devices to enable rapid decision-cycles. ‘Combat Watson’ machine intelligence devices are designed to optimise and accelerate mission planning, threat analysis and wargaming of tactical options. They were considered vital for survival against ‘like’ enemy command support systems. Human combatants wore augmented reality headsets, transcranial ultrasound helmets, shear hardening body armour and exoskeletons with active protection. Solar powered exoskeletons provided human soldiers with the strength, agility and endurance of a top Olympic athlete.
Personal Active Protection Systems consisted of miniaturised millimetric radar and counter-measures that deployed carbon-nanotube wafers to disrupt the trajectory and velocity of incoming projectiles. Individual signature management or ‘exo-stealth mode’ was also a feature of the protective system.
Humans were also escorted by sentry drones to enhance survivability. Sentry drones, as a last line of defence, were both armed and equipped with first aid/resuscitation capability. MMT drones were organised into Autonomous Action Detachments (AAD) with multiple variants needed for combined arms effects. AADs included: StrikeBots, BreachBots, FiresBots, ScanBots, LogBots & Micro-Drone Swarms. Mechatronic combined arms effects were coordinated by human command nodes to achieve tactical land combat missions. Multiple MMTs could rapidly task organise to form Mechatronic Task Units (MTU), which featured larger human command nodes. MTU human battle staff were also capable of remotely controlling MMT machines should their human command elements be incapacitated.
‘Mechatronic manoeuvre was tactically unconstrained by munitions safety distances applicable to human soldiers, so close combat capability was ruthlessly effective’
This confronting narrative is a potential scenario in the next fifteen years or more, but inferred as an alternate future from available information on RAS, quantum supercomputing and artificial intelligence. Therefore, a seminal question for futures planners is ‘is it conceivable that joint land combat is computational?’ If so, how much human derived military capability should be surrendered to the algorithms of war? We appear to be tracking towards an autonomous event horizon, where mechatronic battles could radically change the character of war.
If you consider the long view, it’s difficult to conclude that smart systems will not eventually become a ‘dominant feature’ of force structure calculus, so accepting the coming change and reviewing current capability project requirements is necessary.
The trajectory and capability implications of intelligent technology is coming into view with increasing clarity, so it’s now essential to study this disruptive phenomenon with prodigious curiosity and understand it as a national security imperative. Initially this means establishing an Autonomous Modernisation Directorate to develop a Joint iRAS Strategy. A multi-disciplinary team will enable the 5th Generation Army concept to be further contextualised and to begin closing the growing autonomous capability gap. Moreover, it is accepted military practice that defeating a specific capability is sometimes best achieved with a ‘like’ capability. For example, the best weapon to defeat an enemy tank is by using another tank, ideally with superior firepower, mobility and protection, however, for Army to defeat future iRAS adversaries, it may also necessitate ‘fighting fire with water’ by developing innovative counter-iRAS technology options and tactics, though what that ‘water’ might consist of is yet to emerge.
But if Army elects to fight fire with fire and progresses autonomous modernisation, society will demand due diligence and human-machine trust safeguards are unassailable from malicious hackers. It is timely therefore to stimulate a conversation with society on this important topic, as the Australian Defence Force will not have a monopoly on it. It is imperative that Defence develop a compelling narrative to maintain transparency and to reassure the nation. But the immediate challenge is to bring the potential and perils of weaponised iRAS into sharper focus to prepare land forces for mission success in a militarised autonomous future, however, this is not a definitive recommendation to acquire weaponised iRAS. Preparing for a future that features smart combat machines will generate multiple capability courses of action and force structure options. This important effort will be informed by the Defence Cooperative Research Centre for Autonomous Systems, which may be a useful place to start developing that narrative.
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.