Category Archives: Future War

Operation Iraqi Freedom

Not Like Yesterday: David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains

and into the Littorals

In a 1997 speech to the National Press Club that will be familiar to many Navy and Marine Officers, General Charles Krulak, 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps, told the story of Roman consul Publius Varus. Consul Varus was a once successful general whose legions were decimated by Germanic tribes using what we might refer to as asymmetric tactics that left the Roman’s flummoxed. Varus’ last words were recounted as “Ne Cras, Ne Cras,” or “Not like yesterday.” The story presents a challenge to military leaders in our own generation to refrain from getting complacent in their own capabilities, and to continue to adapt their organizations to meet new and unexpected threats.

General Krulak’s went on to introduce the concept of an urban “three block war,” in which combat forces would simultaneously conduct humanitarian relief, peacekeeping, and high intensity combat operations in the space of three contiguous blocks of a complex urban environment. In many ways General Krulak’s words were more prophetic than he could know, as within six years U.S. forces were engaged against an irregular enemy in complex, densely populated urban terrain in Iraq.

American combat troops out of Iraq and on the cusp of departing Afghanistan. This makes it the perfect opportunity to examine old ideas about urban warfare with fresh eyes and look for  both the continuities and the differences resulting from a globally connected world and the proliferation of advanced weapons and technologies down to the sub-state level.

Dr. David Kilcullen, an Australian soldier and counterinsurgency specialist who advised U.S. leadership on strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, has taken a major step in this direction with his new book Out of the Mountains. Kilcullen’s new work analyses the major trends driving the future of conflict around the world. His findings will indeed have far reaching implications for the U.S. military, which has been focused for years on a rural insurgency based in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. Conflict will not be as it was yesterday. It will be fought in major coastal urban centers amidst tens of millions of people, and it will span all domains including land, sea, air, and cyber. These conflicts will be complex and will almost never have a purely or even primarily military solution, but their intensity will at the very least require military force to protect and enable other forms of power and influence as they are applied in support of U.S. strategic goals. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps will need to be adaptable and flexible in order to remain mission-capable in such an environment.

This article will examine the major trends that Kilcullen identifies, and attempt to delve deploy into their military implications. Dr. Kilcullen identifies four “mega-trends” that are shaping the future of humanity, and with it the future of warfare as a human endeavor. These trends include:

  • Increasing Population – The U.N. estimates that the global population will continue to increase, especially in developing nations, before leveling off around 9 billion people sometime in the latter half of the century.
  • Urbanization – For the first time in human history, more than half of the population worldwide lives in cities.
  • Littoralization – Most cities, and certainly the largest ones, are in coastal zones that provide access to seaborne transportation and thus access to the global economy. Kilcullen usefully defines the littorals as the portion of land and air that can be targeted by weapons from the sea, and likewise that portion of sea and air that can be targeted from land.
  • Digital Connectedness – Internet and mobile phone access are beginning to saturate markets worldwide, and in some countries access to communications technology outstrips access to sanitation facilities.

The first three of these trends are not news. Kilcullen notes that sociologists have been writing about population and urbanization for decades, and urban conflict was a major focus of military thinking in the 1990s. However, the acceleration of these trends, combined with the burgeoning level of digital connectedness not widely foreseen in the 1990s, means that urban conflicts will take on a new level of violence and intensity that will be broadcast around the world instantaneously. This will provide our adversaries with powerful commercial tools to enable command and control  (C2) of independent networked cells in a dynamic battlespace.

Operation Iraqi FreedomAt the operational level, planners can expect warfare to range from the multiple-battalion level assault on Fallujah at the high-end to complex “urban seige” attacks such as Mumbai and Nairobi in the mid-range to the persistent urban violence of the drug wars in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas at the low-end. In each instance, the enemy will be a small, networked, and extremely well-armed group. It will reside in a sea of millions of civilians and be able to call upon commercial digital networks from cell phones to Twitter to collect intelligence, post propaganda, and act as ad hoc C2 nodes to coordinate operations. It will also be able to draw on a massive global transportation system to transport people, weapons, and finances around the world in short order.

1127-for-webMUMBAImapfIn order to flesh out the capabilities of modern networked urban terrorist groups, Kilcullen analyzes in detail the 2008 Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) Mumbai assault. LeT’s ground-breaking tactics, which displayed a level of free-flowing swarming ability that is at the very least rare for a sub-state actor, are worth examining. The attack was carried out by multiple cells of just a few individuals each who had conducted a thorough reconnaissance of their targets for nearly a year.  The attackers used maritime ratlines normally employed by smugglers to move from Karachi to the port of Mumbai, making landfall in a slum neighborhood with little police presence.  Once the assault began, their actions were coordinated via cell- and satellite-phone by a LeT command team operating their own combat operations center in Pakistan (likely with some support from Pakistani ISI). The team used broadcasts from CNN and other media networks to inform their battle tracking and develop an open-sourced understanding of the Indian police response. This allowed the LeT cells to remain several steps ahead of Indian security forces for several days, killing civilians at several high-profile public locations around Mumbai before they were finally surrounded and neutralized.

Digital connectedness is also allowing insurgent groups to expand their presence into the global information space that was once the sole purview of states and large corporations. Regular readers of this blog will likely remember that al-Shabaab live-tweeted the recent Navy SEAL raid in Barawe, and after the special operators withdrew, were able to claim victory before Western news outlets even knew the operation had taken place. The militants then followed up by posting pictures of equipment that the SEALs had left behind during their extraction from the firefight.  While seemingly trivial, this allowed al Shabaab to stake its claim to the information available on the attack, and perhaps shatter some of the aura of invincibility surrounding the SEALs since their assault on Osama bin Laden and rescue of Captain Richard Philips from Somali pirates.

It is beyond the scope of a single blog post to analyze all of the future trends that Kilcullen examines in detail. Indeed, the book itself is likely just the first of a great deal of research that still needs to be done on the future of urban conflict against evolved irregular or hybrid adversaries in mega-slums and other dense and highly complex urban environments. Much of that research will, of necessity, have to focus on non-military aspects of conflict prevention and mitigation, due to the unavoidable fact that future urban conflicts will be driven by sociological factors inherent to the urban systems where they are being fought. Under Kilcullen’s formulation, urban design and development will in many ways become as important to American policy as foreign aid, governance and economic development, and security sector reform.

The implications for military doctrine and organization will be significant as well. It will impact Naval doctrine, organization, and ship-building plans even as Navy leadership seeks to focus its efforts and budgetary priorities towards AirSea Battle. The same is true for the Marine Corps’ efforts to reposition itself as the nation’s amphibious crisis response force following a decade of warfare in landlocked environments. In following articles, we will examine these implications in depth, and attempt to achieve a better degree of resolution on the future of urban littoral combat and the steps that the Navy and Marine Corps will need to take to remain mission-capable in that environment.

Dan Dewit is a researcher with the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. From 2009- September, 2013 he served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Yellow: Attacks
Red: Open Extremist Conflict
Orange: Getting Close
Skull: Who do you Think?

African Navies Week: Al Shabaab Is Only the Beginning

On the Run, or Running Somewhere New?

After the massacre at Westgate, many American media outlets acted as if they were only hearing Al-Shabaab’s name for the first time. This is only the tip of the US Medias Fifth-Estate-Failure iceberg. While incidents may be reported in part and parcel, the staggering scale of militant Islam goes disturbingly unreported. While many of these movements remain separate to a point, the  geographic and communicative proximity provided by globalization serves as a catalyst for a horrifying potential collective even more monstrous than anything we could imagine in Afghanistan.

Globalization of De-development

Yellow: Attacks Red: Open Extremist Conflict Orange: Getting Close Skull: Who do you Think?

Yellow: Attacks
Red: Open Extremist Conflict
Orange: Getting Close
Skull: Who do you Think?

ADM Stravridis pegged this problem squarely on the head when he brought up convergence, that globalization is merely a tool. What can be used for to organize communities and build stable growing economies can also help coordinate civilization’s detractors. To spread our gaze further than the recent events in Libya and Somalia, Boko Haram fights a war against the Nigerian government; this is spreading into Niger, Camaroon, and Chad through a porous border. Its militants have also been found in in Mali, where they fought and trained with both Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb(AQIM) (MOJWA’s former parent organization). There, they fight an open war with the government. MOJWA meanwhile is also fighting in Niger. In one case, even more  with al Mua’qi’oon Biddam in revenge for an AQIM leader killed by the French and Chadians in Mali. While the forces of globalization may allow nice things like the Star Alliance global airline network, it can also be harnessed to create this jihadist hydra.

With Somalia’s conflict spreading beyond its borders in the east and the coalition of chaos in the west, the center is not holding either. The Central Africa Republic sits in the middle, with potential militant Islamic rebels causing mayhem throughout the country after a successful coup… not that their neighbor is doing much better. Oh, did we mention Egypt too? No? Well… I’ll stop before I’ve totally crushed my own spirits. The tendrils of many different militant groups, often associated with, facilitated by, or directly franchised by Al Qaeda grow close together in a vast body of uncontrolled spaces.

Why the Navy?

So, it’s African Navies week, and I’ve yet to get to maritime security. You’d be correct to assume that, as with Somalia, these problems don’t have primarily naval solutions… but effective maritime security will help prevent the growth of the power vacuum and encourage shore-side virtuous cycles.

The critical importance of maritime security is both pushing back the lawlessness and increasing entry costs for illicit actors. Lawlessness builds vacuums of civil order or undergrounds paths for militant Islam to enter either the money or idea markets. Islamic Militancy isn’t just sporadic and spontaneous violence; it’s also a massive logistics and patronage system that funds militants and creates in-roads into local communities. Where al-Shabaab can utilize the Ivory trade along with the LRA (wouldn’t that be a lovely marriage of convenience), who is to say Boko-haram couldn’t find in-roads into the multi-billion dollar oil-theft market, cocaine trade, or the full-on theft of motor vessels for movement of arms, persons, or stolen goods, let alone the Nigerian piracy enterprise which now even exceeds that of Somalia. Law enforcement needs a “last line of defense.” As stolen ships, goods, and persons leave the shore, the maritime presence is that final check of a state’s strength of institutions. This not only sweeps back this vast illegal enterprise, but also makes it harder later to re-enter the market.

That strength has a virtuous effect, since a rising tide lifts all boats. The improvement of civil society is not completed one institution at a time. Professional courts require professional police require professional elected officials, etc… etc… etc… Improvements to navies and coast guards help improve other portions of military and law enforcement infrastructure. Especially as such lucrative opportunities arise as crime’s payout and connections increase, closing such temptations through capabilities and professionalism is important.

Bottom Line

Africa is critically important to future global security. Despite its great  economic growth, improving institutions, and growing innovation, the forces of terrorism so long reported “on the run” are growing and connecting at an alarming rate, even in places some thought secure. In such a vast countryside with at minimum half-dozen Afghanistan-sized poorly controlled areas, rolling back this development is of deadly importance. Maritime security, while not the primary arena, will help stay the spread of the lawless vacuum in which militancy thrives and help improve surrounding institutions to further minimize that vacuum ashore.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Tom Clancy, Fair Winds and Following Seas

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“Nothing is as real as a dream. The world can change around you, but your dream will not. Your life may change, but your dream doesn’t have to. Responsibilities need not erase it. Duties need not obscure it. Your spouse and children need not get in its way, because the dream is within you. No one can take your dream away.”

 

Bestselling author and popular commentator, Thomas Leo Clancy Jr., recently passed away at the age of 66.

Mr. Clancy’s prolific career began rather unexpectedly.  The former insurance agent originally began writing Patriot Games in the early 1970s, but after learning of the mutiny aboard the USSR vessel “Storozhevoy,” he authored The Hunt for the Red October.  After several publishers turned down the manuscript, Mr. Clancy approached the United States Naval Institute (USNI) and struck a deal with them resulting in the publication of their first fictional novel.  His sole goal during this process was simply just publication because “If your name is in the Library of Congress, you’re immortal.”  Yet, The Hunt for the Red October reached higher levels of success, and once President Reagan mentioned that it had been keeping him up all night, it immediately became a bestseller and remains to this day USNI’s most successful publication.

Mr. Clancy’s ability to bring out his environment with technical details clearly translated to the reader set high, new standards for fictional authors.  Unlike many authors that “data-dump” readers with incomprehensible numbers and statistics, Mr. Clancy took the time to explain the mechanics of the real and “imagined” items in his universe.  The ability for an author like Mr. Clancy to describe how a magnetohydrodynamic drive (The Hunt for the Red October) functioned to a diverse audience (who mostly had no experience with submarines and did not have “Google” to help them) is arguably unprecedented in fiction.  Ranging from describing the classic “Crazy Ivan” submarine maneuver used by Soviet submarines (The Hunt for the Red October) to the more technical AQS-13 dipping sonar on an SH-60 (Red Storm Rising), Mr. Clancy’s descriptions of these advanced, and often secret, topics are so well done that he once admitted that “I’ve made up stuff that’s turned out to be real, that’s the spooky part.”

Yet, Mr. Clancy supplemented his war-gamed scenarios and weapons with some of the best characters.  Jack Ryan serves for some as a cooler alternative than James Bond, and even Jason Bourne.  His background, demeanor, and successes kept readers enthralled—watching Ryan connect the dots to foil America’s adversaries (and the occasional political ones), and eventually somehow get caught up in a gunfight, is not only awesome, but it never gets old.  Sure, Ryan does not drink the famous Vesper cocktail or drive an Aston Martin, readers feel like they actually have something in common with him.  Watching him achieve heroic feats while displaying the qualities shared with readers is a rewarding experience.  How can you not like a man that stockbroker, to CIA historian, to President?

For many, Mr. Clancy was more than a literary powerhouse–he was an inspiring figure. When he put the pen to the paper, he created not only a page turner, but also created an educational and motivating experience that siphoned the abundance of energy of teenagers and men of all ages. From the submarine bridge in The Hunt for the Red October to the fields of the Fulda Gap in Red Storm Rising and the Olympics in Rainbow Six, Mr. Clancy always provided his readers with as realistic picture as possible, inspiring my personal current academic and professional pursuits, and many others. His characters, and the ideas that they fought for, truly embody the American spirit.

Although Mr. Clancy is in a different place, Jack Ryan, John Clark, Admiral Greer and Ding Chavez will always live in our libraries.

A Post-Sequestration Blueprint for a Leaner and Smarter Military

Five months after the much-dreaded sequestration went into effect, many defense analysts and military officials alike are worried about the negative repercussions of the drastic budget cuts on military readiness. In his latest commentary, the rightwing commentator Alan Caruba declared that “The U.S. military is on life support.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also argued in his Statement on Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) that “sequester-level cuts would ‘break’ some parts of the strategy, no matter how the cuts were made [since] our military options and flexibility will be severely constrained.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel answers reporters' questions during a Pentagon press briefing on the recent Strategic Choices. Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., right, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Hagel for the briefing. (DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett)

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel answers reporters’ questions during a Pentagon press briefing on the recent Strategic Choices. Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., right, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Hagel for the briefing. (DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett)

To its credit, the SCMR seemed to hint at operational and structural adjustments underway by offering two options—trading “size for high-end capacity” versus trading modernization plans “for a larger force better able to project power.” Nevertheless, one important question which went unasked was whether or not the US Armed Forces alone should continue to play GloboCop.

The current geostrategic environment has become fluid and fraught with uncertainties. As Zhang Yunan avers, China as a “moderate revisionist” will not likely replace the United States as the undisputed global champion due to myriad factors. As for the United States, in the aftermath of a decade-long war on terror and the ongoing recession, we can no longer say with certainty that the United States will still retain its unipolar hegemony in the years or decades to come.

That said, Secretary Hagel is correct that the United States military may need to become leaner in the face of harsh fiscal realities. To this must be added another imperative: The US Armed Forces must fight smarter and must do so in ways that may further America’s strategic and commercial interests abroad.

So how can the United States military fight smarter and leaner?

COCOMs

Possible Combatant Command Realignments

First, given massive troop reductions whereby the Army personnel may be reduced to 380,000 and the Marine Corps “would bottom out at 150,000,” while at the same, the DoD is seriously considering restructuring existing Combatant Commands (COCOMs), it no longer makes sense to deploy or train troops for protracted counterinsurgency campaigns or foreign occupations. Instead, should another transnational terrorist group or a rogue state threaten homeland security, the United States could rely on SOF (Special Operations Forces) commandos and UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to selectively target and neutralize potential threats. While the SOF and UAV surgical raids should not be viewed as substitutes for deft diplomacy, they can provide cheaper and selective power projection capabilities.

Second, since the United States Navy may be forced to “reduce the number of carrier strike groups from 11 to 8 or 9,” it can meet its power projection needs by encouraging cooperation among its sister navies and by bolstering their naval might. One example of such partnerships would be to form a combined fleet whereby America’s sister navies “may share their unique resources and cultures to develop flexible responses against future threats” posed by our adversaries.

Third, the United States may encounter more asymmetric threats in the form of cyber attacks, CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiation, Nuclear) attacks, and may also be subjected to attacks from within by homegrown terrorists and drug cartels—all of which may wreak havoc and may even cripple America’s domestic infrastructures. As retired Admiral James Stavridis argues, such asymmetric attacks may stem from convergence of the global community. Such threats require that the United States take the fight to its adversaries by cooperating with its allies to “upend threat financing” and by strengthening its cyber capabilities.

Fourth, where rogue states such as Iran, Syria and North Korea, are concerned, the United States could implement what General James Mattis refers to as the “proxy strategy.” Under this arrangement, while “America’s general visibility would decline,” its allies and proxies would police the trouble spots on its behalf.

Fifth, the United States must be prepared to defend homeland against potential missile attacks from afar. The United States may be vulnerable to hostile aggressions from afar following North Korea’s successful testing of its long-range rocket last December and Iran’s improved missile capabilities. Thus, improving its missile defense system will allow greater flexibility in America’s strategic responses both at home and abroad.

Last but not least, the United States Armed Forces needs to produce within its ranks officers who are quick to grasp and adapt to fluid geostrategic environments. One solution, as Thomas E. Ricks proposes, would be to resort to a wholesale firing of incompetent generals and admirals. However, it should be noted that rather than addressing the problem, such dismissals would ultimately breed resentment towards not only the senior brass but civilian overseers, which will no doubt exacerbate civil-military relations that has already soured to a considerable degree. Instead, a better alternative would be reform America’s officer training systems so that they may produce commanders who possess not only professional depth but breadth needed to adapt to fluid tactical, operational, and strategic tempos.

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“The US Military Establishment’s Greatest Foes” By Jack Ohman/Tribune Media Services

Despite the hysteric outcries from the service chiefs and many defense analysts, in the end, the sequestration may not be as dire as it sounds. In fact, Gordon Adams argues that after several years of reductions, “the defense budget…creeps upward about half a percentage point every year from FY (Fiscal Year) 2015 to FY 2021.” Simply stated, one way or the other, the US Armed Forces may eventually get what it asks for–as it always has been the case. Nonetheless, the sequestration “ordeal”—if we should call it as such—offers the US military object lessons on frugality and flexibility. Indeed, American generals and admirals would do well to listen to General Mattis who recently admonished them to “stop sucking their thumbs and whining about sequestration, telling the world we’re weak,” and get on with the program.

Note: This article was originally published in its original form in the Naval Institute’s blog and was cross-posted by permission.

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings on US defense and foreign policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the World Outline and CIMSEC’s NextWar blog.

Dire Straits: ASEAN and Piracy

IndonesiaAmid reports of hijackings and narrow escapes by merchant vessels in the Gulf of Guinea, West African piracy has begun to capture international attention. Meanwhile, NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield and the EU’s Atalanta maintain presence with other international partners in the Gulf of Aden, securing a crucial trade route against the threat of Somali piracy. However, the waterways of Southeast Asia are now almost entirely absent from the Western media narrative regarding the threat posed by piracy to international trade. This comes as some surprise, since piracy in this part of the world is very much on the rise.

According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), 57 attacks were reported in Southeast Asia during the first six months of 2013. Of the 297 pirate attacks that took place in 2012, 81 were perpetrated in Indonesia’s coastal waters alone, surpassing the 75 attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Aden the same year. This resurgence of Southeast Asian piracy is placing significant stress upon the shipping industry, generating new expenses and placing human lives at risk.

Malaysian special forces abseil onto a vessel from a police helicopter during an antipiracy demonstration in the Strait of Malacca (Jimin Lai / AFP)

Malaysian special forces abseil onto a vessel from a police helicopter during a counter-piracy demonstration in the Strait of Malacca (Jimin Lai / AFP)

It is little wonder that this region has become the latest hot spot for pirate activity. It is estimated that approximately one-third of global crude oil and over half of global liquefied natural gas pass through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea each year. In fact, roughly one-third of global trade passes through the Strait of Malacca, making it one of the most vital waterways to the world economy. Yet despite its strategic significance, there have been only limited efforts to secure the flow of goods and fuel through the Strait. In 2004, an informal arrangement was established between the naval forces of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore to cooperate on counter-piracy operations. In 2006, when Indonesian authorities expressed concern that they lacked the capabilities necessary to patrol Indonesia’s own territorial waters, the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard agreed to contribute vessels and crews to counter-piracy efforts on a limited basis.

For some years, this multinational arrangement saw success in reducing both the frequency and intensity of regional piracy, particularly in the Strait of Malacca. Unfortunately, these successes, rather than motivating further security cooperation, seem to have contributed to a certain degree of complacency. In April 2011, the Chief of the Malaysian Defence Forces was quoted claiming that the multinational collaboration had brought a complete end to piracy in the Strait. This does not mesh with the aforementioned increase in attacks over recent years.

An Anchorage off Singapore

The Singaporean anchorages, plump with potential piracy victims.

The current situation presents both a powerful motive and an opportunity for pirates to prey on shipping in the Strait of Malacca – the value and volume of shipping is considerable, and the lack of a formal counter-piracy framework in the region leaves patrolling disjointed. In place of the current multinational collaboration, an intensive counter-piracy program on the part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) might better discourage pirate activity. ASEAN, whose membership comprises ten countries, has embarked on an effort to establish a functioning political-security community by 2015. The lack of an effective ASEAN response to a conflict in the Malaysian region of Sabah during the early months of 2013 has cast some doubts as to whether the necessary level of security integration can be achieved by the 2015 deadline. But regardless of whether the ASEAN member states can fully realize their integrationist ambitions, the attendant reform process may present the perfect setting in which to adopt a shared counter-piracy strategy, exchange best practices, and commit to a plan that will see the Strait of Malacca consistently and effectively patrolled by the naval forces of ASEAN member states.

Southeast Asian governments have been striving to position their region as a major economic hub, and the success of these efforts will depend in large part on whether international audiences see ASEAN integration as credible. Piracy in the Strait of Malacca is precisely the kind of challenge ASEAN can address through collective action, demonstrating that needed credibility. Continued complacency, on the other hand, will only contribute to a deepening crisis, undermining ASEAN once again and harming prospects for regional economic growth by fueling organized crime. With an ASEAN Summit set to take place in Brunei Darussalam this October, it is imperative that piracy make it onto the agenda.

Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

Video Game AI and the Future UCAV Top Gun

My brother in flight school should be glad we played so much Ace Combat 4.

Alright, Roomba, now start sweeping for enemy units.

A Roomba is useful because it can sweep up regular messes without constant intervention, not because it can exit and enter its docking station independently. Although the Navy’s new X-47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) has, by landing on a carrier, executed an astounding feat even for humans, this ability only means our weapons have matured past their typical one-way trips. The real challenge will be getting a UCAV to defend units while sweeping up the enemy without remote guidance (i.e. autonomously). The answer is as close as the games running on your Xbox console.

 

 

Player One: Insert Coin

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Simulated fighters are UCAVs having an out-of body experience.

Considering the challenge of how an air-to-air UCAV might be programmed, recall that multiple generations of America’s youth have already fought untold legions of advanced UCAV’s. Developers have created artificial “intelligences” designed to combat a human opponent in operational and tactical scenarios with imperfect information; video games have paved the way for unmanned tactical computers.

A loose application of video game intelligence (VGI) would work because VGI is designed to operate in the constrained informational environment in which a real-life UCAV platform would operate. Good (i.e. fun) video game AI exists in the same fog of war constraints as their human opponents; the same radar, visual queues, and alerts are provided to the computer and human players. The tools to lift that veil for computer and human are the same. Often, difficulty levels in video games are not just based on the durability and damage of an enemy, but on the governors installed by programmers on a VGI to make competition fair with a human opponent. This is especially evident in Real Time Strategy (RTS), where the light-speed all-encompassing force management and resource calculations of a VGI can more often than not overwhelm the subtler, but slower, finesse of the human mind within the confines of the game. Those who wonder when humans will go to war using autonomous computers fail to see the virtual test-bed in which we already have, billions of times.

This Ain’t Galaga

No extra lives, and forget about memorizing the level's flight patterns.

No extra lives, and forget about memorizing the level’s flight patterns.

Those uninitiated must understand how VGI has progressed by leaps and bounds from the pre-programmed paths of games such as the early 1980′s arcade shooter Galaga; computer opponents hunt, take cover, maneuver evasively, and change tactics based on opportunities or a sudden states of peril. The 2000′s Half-Life and HALO game series were especially lauded for their revolutions in AI – creating opponents that seemed rational, adapting to a player’s tactics. For the particular case of UCAV air-to-air engagements, since the number of flight combat simulators is innumerable, from Fighter Pilot on the Commodore 64 in 1984 to the Ace Combat series. Computers have been executing pursuit curves, displacement rolls, and defensive spirals against their human opponents since before I was born.

However, despite its utility, VGI is still augmented with many “illusions” of intelligence, mere pre-planned responses (PPR); the real prize is a true problem-solving VGI to drive a UCAV. That requires special programming and far more processing power. In a real UCAV, these VGI would be installed into a suite far more advanced than a single Pentium i7 or an Xbox. To initiate a learning and adapting problem-solving tactical computer, the DARPA SyNAPSE program offers new possibilities, especially when short-term analog reasoning is coordinated with messier evolutionary algorithms. Eventually, as different programs learn and succeed, they can be downloaded and replace the lesser adaptations on other UCAVs.

I’ve Got the Need, The Need For Speed

Unlike Maverick, drones will never have to go through motorcycle safety training.

Unlike Maverick, drones will never have to go through motorcycle safety training.

When pilots assert that they are more intuitive than computer programs, they are right; this is, however, like saying the amateur huntsman with an AR-15 is lesser trained than an Austrian Arabesquer. The advantage is not in the quality of tactical thought, but in the problem solving rate-of-fire and speed of physical action. A VGI executing air-to-air tactics in a UCAV can execute the OODA loop encompassing the whole of inputs much faster than the human mind, where humans may be faster or more intuitive in solving particular, focused problems due to creativity and intuition. Even with the new advanced HUD system in their helmets, a human being cannot integrate input from all sensors at an instant in time (let alone control other drones). Human pilots are also limited in their physical ability to maneuver. G-suits exist because our 4th and 5th generation fighters have abilities far in excess of what the human body is capable. This artificially lowers aircraft tactical performance to prevent the death or severe damage of the pilot inside.

Pinball Wizard: I Can’t See!

VGI doesn’t have a problem with the how, it’s the who that will be the greatest challenge when the lessons of VGI are integrated into a UCAV. In a video-game, the VGI is blessed with instant recognition; its enemy is automatically identified when units are revealed, their typology is provided instantly to both human and VGI. A UCAV unable to differentiate between different radar contacts or identify units via its sensors is at a disadvantage to its human comrades or enemies. Humans still dominate the field of integrating immediate quality analysis with ISR within the skull’s OODA loop. Even during the landing sequence, the UCAV cheated in a way by being fed certain amounts of positional data from the carrier.

We’ve passed the tutorial level of unmanned warfare; we’ve created the unmanned platforms capable of navigating the skies and a vast array of programs designed to drive tactical problems against human opponents. Before we pat ourselves on the back, we need to effectively integrate those capabilities into an independent platform.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy, although he wishes they did.

What’s at Stake in the Remote Aviation Culture Debate

It has been written that it is difficult to become sentimental about . . . the new type of seaman—the man of the engine and boiler rooms. This idea is born of the belief that he deals with material things and takes no part in the glorious possibilities of war or in the victories that are won from storms. This theory is absolutely false . . . for there is music as well as the embodiment of power about the mechanisms that drive the great ships of today.

—Capt Frank Bennett, USN
The Steam Navy of the United States, 1897

Hunting for a wingman

                                      Hunting for a wingman

From our flyboy friends in the U.S. Air Force comes the article “The Swarm, the Cloud, and the Importance of Getting There First” in the July/Aug issue of the Air & Space Power Journal (including the lead-in excerpt). In it, friend-of-CIMSEC Maj David Blair and his partner Capt Nick Helms, both manned-aircraft and drone pilots, address their vision for the future of the aviation warfare concept of operations and the cultural sea changes that must take place to accommodate it. Needless to say, such a vision is also relevant to the future of naval aviation. So if you’ve got some beach-reading time ahead of you, dig in. The link above includes the full article:

This article advocates an aviation future of manned–remotely piloted synergy in which automation amplifies rather than replaces the role of aviators in aviation. In this vision, aviators are judged solely by their effects on the battlefield. Amidst this new standard of decentralized execution is the “swarm,” a flock of highly sophisticated unmanned combat aerial vehicles that serve as “loyal wingmen” for manned strike aircraft. Here, every striker is a formation flexibly primed to concentrate effects at the most decisive times and locations. This future also includes the “cloud,” a mass of persistent remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) that provide vertical dominance through wholesale fire support from airspace cleared by the swarm. Fusion amplifies the human capacity for judgment by delegating routine tasks to automation and “demanding” versatile effects in response to fog and friction rather than “commanding” inputs.

The challenge is not technological but cultural. To realize this future, we first must accept remote aviation as a legitimate part of the Air Force story, and then we must look to deep streams of airpower thought in order to understand it. First, Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold teaches us air-mindedness—to fully leverage a technology, we must develop both humans and hardware. Second, Gen Elwood Quesada describes an aviator’s relationship with technology—the discussion is never “human versus machine”; rather, it concerns the relationship between humans and machines. Instead of a cybernetic view in which automation reduces the role of humans in the world, we argue for a capabilities-based perspective that uses automation to empower aviators to better control the battlespace. Third, Col John Boyd reminds us that identities are always in flux in response to changing technical possibilities.

Thus, the F-22 and the RPA are more akin than we realize since both embrace the power of advanced processors and networked data links. An Airman’s view of RPA futures enables manned–remotely piloted fusion, and both traditional and remote aviators must build that future together as equals. The friendly lives saved and enemy lives taken by RPAs in the air campaigns of the last decade merit this acceptance. 

Dave also recommends the article “Why Drones Work: The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice” by Daniel Byman.