Tactical Ground Warfare in 2050 – The Army Research Lab’s Stark Predictions

The U.S. Army Research Lab (ARL) recently published the results of a two-week discussion among strategic thinkers and military researchers meant to provide a visualization of the tactical ground battlefield in 2050. The conclusions produced by this group of distinguished thinkers will likely not surprise those who have long considered where key technological trends are heading. They should, however, be a reminder that many emerging information technology advances will require a complete reinvention of tactics and doctrine.

In previous essays on our site we have discussed the implications within the military of the pervasive use of robotics, sensors,  Internet of Things (IOT), augmented reality, wearables, and the ongoing information revolution. A number of the discussions outlined in these essays correspond to the future capabilities the authors of the ARL report believe will differentiate tactical scenarios in 2050 from those today.

According to the ARL authors, the major aspects of this battlefield, (with quoted descriptions from the report), include the following:

  • Augmented Humans: “The battlefield of the future will be populated by fewer humans, but these humans would be physically and mentally augmented with enhanced capabilities that improve their ability to sense their environment, make sense of their environment, and interact with one another, as well as with “unenhanced humans,” automated processes, and machines of various kinds” (p7).
  • Automated Decision Making and Autonomous Processes: “The tactical battlefield of 2050 will be qualitatively more automated with autonomous processes making many decisions that humans make today. Decision agents would be integral to all of the processes associated with C2, IPB, ISR, and BDA. The tasks that these agents would perform include filtering information, fact checking, fusion, dynamic access control (determining who has access to what information), and adaptive information dissemination (who should receive specific pieces of information and/or notifications). In addition, automated processes will task sensors (what to look at/for) and alter communications paths and priorities based upon their (machine) understanding of mission intent and context” (p9).
  • Misinformation as a Weapon: “As information became separated fromthe chain of command, Soldiers began to have access to more information sources, but inherited the problem of assessing the quality of information sources” (p9).
  • Micro-targeting: “Micro-targeting represents a considerable revolution in the concepts and capabilities associated with current instantiations of precision strike. For example, instead of being able to identify and engage a particular building or moving vehicle while minimizing collateral damage, the concept of micro-targeting involves the identification and surgical engagement of specific individuals employing either kinetic or non-kinetic means” (p10).
  • Large-scale Self-organization and Collective Decision Making: “An expected feature of the battlefield of 2050 would be the existence of new, more edge-like approaches to command and control where individuals, teams, and software agents would, when appropriate, self-organize, dynamically creating and modifying collaborative processes. As a result, these self-organized entities would manifest emergent behaviors in response to the environment and the tasks to be accomplished” (p11).
  • Cognitive Modeling of the Opponent: “A vastly improved capability to understand an opponent and predict their actions will enable a new and potentially disruptive capability in this time frame. Directed at both populations and key adversary decision makers on an individual basis, this targeting capability is based upon an understanding of population and individual motivations, biases, cognitive processes, and decision-making styles. In addition, physical and physiological states will be capable of being known. In terms of both individuals and populations, it will be possible to sense their moods and whether or not they are vulnerable to deception or primed to act in a certain manner (resist or be passive)” (p12).
  • Ability to Understand and Cope in a Contested, Imperfect, Information Environment: “After a discussion of all of the improvements that could be expected in the quality of information, the workshop participants came to the conclusion that 2050 would not see the realization of the long-heralded era of perfect information. The attributes associated with the quality of information in this discussion included correctness, completeness, relevance, timeliness, precision, authenticity, secureness, uncompromisability, availability, trustedness, and ease of use. Participants concluded that on the battlefield of 2050 there would still be a significant amount of noise mixed in with information. Therefore, it would remain difficult to extract key information and identify misinformation, as well as identify unverified, unattributed, unsourced, and incorrect and/or out-of-date information” (p13).

Beyond these seven aspects that differ from today’s tactical battlefield, the ARL report also presents related findings about what they label “Moving, Surviving, Effecting, and Sustaining.” The authors conclude that the major changes with respect to these categories will be characterized by the following, (again with quoted descriptions):

  • Ubiquitous Robots: “Workshop participants envisioned the battlefield of 2050 as being populated by large numbers of autonomous entities of all kinds. These entities were referred to by participants as simply “robots.” Many of these robots would be fairly similar to the systems that exist today, such as unattended ground sensors, small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and fire-and-forget missiles. However, their 2050 versions would possess significantly greater capabilities of machine reasoning and intelligent autonomy than those existing today … These robots would range in size from insect-sized entities to robotic vehicles capable of transporting a team of humans. They would also be “virtual” and able to navigate and “act” in cyberspace. The collection of battlefield robots would be robustly networked and capable of communicating and collaborating with one another, with a variety of systems, and with humans.” (p16).
  • Swarms and Teams: “Robots will commonly operate in teams or swarms in the battlespace of 2050 in the same way Soldiers act in teams today. These self-organized and/or collaborative collections of robots would operate with varying degrees of freedoms (from being actively managed to being autonomous) under dynamically established rules of engagement/priorities. Robot swarms and teams (as well as individual robots) would be assigned a variety of tasks. For example, as independent attack forces or as part of an orchestrated attack using a variety of weapons, as a collective defensive shield, and as a sensing field. Among the less obvious roles for a robot team, the participants of the workshop envisioned a team of robots warning civilians (e.g., in a battle raging in a mega-city environment) to keep away from dangerous areas and even acting as a defensive shield for the civilians against any stray projectiles” (p17)
  • Dynamic Hacking and Spoofing: “Dynamic hacking and spoofing is likely to be a prominent feature of the tactical environment circa 2050 because 1) the “attack surface” of robot teams and swarms is large, which makes these forms of attack highly attractive; and 2) increased interest and attention is being paid to research that would enables such attacks. This includes efforts to automate reverse engineering and intelligent vulnerability analysis” (p19).
  • Super Humans: “The principal Army unit operating in 2050 will be mixed human-robot teams. To enable humans to partner effectively with robots, human team members will be enhanced in a variety of ways. These super humans will feature exoskeletons, possess a variety of implants, and have seamless access to sensing and cognitive enhancements. They may also be the result of genetic engineering. The net result is that they will have enhanced physical capabilities, senses, and cognitive powers. The presence of super humans on the battlefield in the 2050 timeframe is highly likely because the various components needed to enable this development already exist and are undergoing rapid evolution” (p19).
  • Directed-Energy Weapons (DEWs): “There are a number of ways that the intended targets of DEWs can counter their attacks. Targets can be designed with a variety of characteristics and techniques to reflect, refract, and disperse the energy directed at them. These include surface features and contours and the use of active defenses like chaff or dust. The use of multi-spectral decoys can be effective, as well as can the ability to rapidly maneuver out of the effective envelope of the attack. Intended targets can also use cover and concealment to avoid attacks. Attacking the DEW power source can also be an effective counter strategy” (p20).
  • Force Fields: “Force fields consist of particles, energy, or waves that destroy, cripple, or otherwise interfere with objects that attempt to penetrate them. Given the variety, precision, and lethality of the weapons and the ubiquitous nature of the sensors that will be found on the battlefield of 2050, considerable attention will be devoted to developing force fields that can both help protect easy to locate assets and track high value targets. Workshop participants believe that sufficient progress will be made to make it likely that force fields will be employed in 2050 for some of the same reasons given for DEWs. In addition, workshop participants felt that force fields would be developed because they are seen as a counter to DEWs. Furthermore, the decreasing utility and cost-effectiveness of armor make force fields attractive alternatives” (p20).
  • Reliable Power Sources: “Workshop participants felt that as a result of the considerable attention that is being paid to the development of improved power sources and power storage (lighter, more efficient, more cost-effective, faster recharge) that power would not be the limiting factor in the ability to deploy the technologies discussed in this report. Confidence in this assertion was increased as workshop participants also envisioned more sources of power on the battlefield than are found today

Takeaways

The vision of tactical warfighting in 2050, as conceived by the distinguished group asked to imagine this future, is one dominated by information technology systems. The continuous advance in the capability of sensors, processors, and algorithms has the potential to carry humanity into a brave new world where an even greater symbiotic relationship with information technology exists. As military communicators, it is vital that we stay abreast of these potentialities and consider the second and third order implications of these revolutions in technological capabilities. These advances will likely not change the nature of warfare, but they will profoundly alter its characteristics. In the coming weeks we will explore the aspects outlined in the ARL report of tactical warfighting in 2050 while trying to better understand the nature of the communication systems behind this vision. As systems evolve, it is our job to inform combat leaders of the full potential of the application of these technologies and remind them of their limitations.

Questions for Readers

  1. If you have read this report, do you agree with the authors? Why or why not?
  2. Do the demands of warfare produce the type of inevitabilities predicted by these reports, or do these reports create new demands on warfare?
  3. What one new technology will completely unravel current ground warfare tactics or doctrine?

Disclaimer

As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.


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