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Commentary: Swarming the Battlefield

The US Department of Defense has launched a long-range research and development planning effort, and DoD leaders have stated that robotics and autonomous systems will be a critical component.

Swarming robotic systems will be key to sustaining US military dominance, as they can create decisive advantages over adversaries by bringing greater mass, coordination, intelligence and speed to the battlefield. Don't be fooled by their sci-fi sounding name — robot swarms are real, they're here and they will change how militaries fight.

Last year, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) demonstrated a swarm of small boats in a mock high-value vessel escort operation on the James River. In the demonstration, a single sailor simultaneously controlled multiple small boats, each of which were uninhabited, autonomous and cooperative.

Rather than control each boat individually, as uninhabited vehicles are controlled today, the sailor directed the swarm to perform an action and the boats cooperatively and autonomously accomplished the task together, deconflicting and coordinating their actions.

ONR's demonstration was one of the more high-profile swarm demos, but robot swarm research is ongoing in academic, military and industry labs. As swarming capability matures, not just in boats but in air, ground and undersea vehicles, it will have significant implications for warfare. Swarming will enable militaries to field forces on the battlefield with greater mass, coordination, intelligence and speed, providing major advantages over those who fall behind.

Mass

By allowing one person to control many robotic vehicles simultaneously, swarming can expand the amount of mass a military brings to the battlefield. A military heavily invested in swarms could field forces far greater than what would be possible by human-inhabited or even remotely controlled uninhabited vehicles. This makes swarming a particularly attractive option for volunteer militaries, especially the US military, given the steady budgetary downward pressure on end-strength.

Rather than invest in small numbers of expensive, exquisite platforms, swarming offers the potential for a different model: large numbers of low-cost distributed platforms.

This has several advantages. Combat power can be dispersed, increasing resiliency and complicating an adversary's targeting. Survivability can be balanced against cost and the ability to afford larger numbers of systems, shifting the focus from the survivability of the platform to the resiliency of the swarm as a whole.

Greater mass allows the graceful degradation of combat power as individual platforms undergo attrition, as opposed to a sharp loss in combat power if a single, more complex platform is lost.

Robot swarms would still require maintenance, but mitigating approaches could minimize the burden. Robots could be made cheap and numerous, with modular design so that if any one piece broke, it could be easily swapped out. Robots could be kept "in a box" during peacetime with only a limited number used for training, much like missiles.

And for some applications where swarms would be needed in wartime but not in peacetime, mixed-component units that leverage National Guard and reserve maintainers may be a cost-effective way to manage personnel.

Coordination, Intelligence, Speed

A deluge is not a swarm, however, and the advantages of swarming extend far beyond merely bringing additional mass to the battlefield. Swarming in nature leads to collective intelligence, allowing simple animals like ants and termites to efficiently forage for food, transport large objects, build bridges and other structures, and defend against attackers. Similarly, coordination among swarming robots will allow them to fight dispersed, but as a coherent whole.

Cooperative behavior will enable self-healing networks for reconnaissance or communications, distributed sensing and electronic attack, advanced deception operations, and coordinated attack and defense. Swarming is also the ultimate in centralized command and decentralized execution, pushing decision-making to the battlefield's edge and shortening the timeline for reacting to enemy decisions.

Building the Swarm

Harnessing the full potential of robot swarms will require further improvements in vehicle autonomy and protected communications, but the biggest hurdles are conceptual and cultural.

The history of revolutions in warfare suggests that it is not technology alone that leads to disruptive changes on the battlefield, but the incorporation of technologies into new concepts of operation and doctrine, along with the training and organizational structures to capitalize on these advantages. It is this paradigm shift that is most challenging, however, as militaries tend to view new technologies through existing paradigms, rather than see their potential to change how militaries fight.

Experimentation is the key to uncovering the best way of applying robot swarms, not to replace humans but merely extend their reach, survivability and lethality. As part of its new long-range research and development plan, DoD should develop an aggressive program of experimentation and iterative technology development to harness the power of the swarm.

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Scharre is a fellow and Director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security and author of CNAS's recent report, "Robotics on the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm

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