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Securing the Swarm: New Dogs, Old Tricks

As the tide of automated warfare rises, optimists are already attempting to ride the wave.  I do so in Proceedings, suggesting possible paths of development for autonomous platforms, and at the Disruptive Thinkers blog Ben Kohlman and I imagine future scenarios in which automated platforms might be used. Admittedly, we often ignore the many ways our concepts can wipe out: particularly signals hijacking and spoofing of navigational systems. As illustrated by eavesdropping on Predator communications and the recent forced crash of a drone in Texas, determined enemies can steal information or cause mayhem if they break the code on combat robot (ComBot) operations. Ideas for securing these advanced automated armadas can be found in some of the oldest methods in the book.

Paleo-Wireless: Communicating in the Swarm
In 2002, LtGen Paul Van Riper became famous for sinking the American fleet in a day during the Millennium Challenge exercise; he did so by veiling his intentions in a variety of wireless communications. We assume wireless to mean the transfer of data through the air via radio signals, but lights, hand signals, motorcycle couriers, and the like are all equally wireless.  These paleo-wireless technologies are just what ComBots need for signal security.

ComBot vulnerabilities to wireless hacks are of particular concern for planners. Data connections to operators or potential connections between ComBots serve as a way for enemies to detect, destroy, or even hijack our assets.  While autonomy is the first step in solving the vulnerability of operator connections, ComBots in the future will work as communicating teams. Fewer opportunities will be provided for subversion by cutting the long link back to the operator  while maintaining the versatility of a small internally-communicating team. However, data communication between ComBots would still be vulnerable. Therefore, ComBots must learn from LtGen Van Riper and move to the wireless communications of the past. Just as ships at sea communicate by flags and lights when running silent or soldiers might whisper or motion to one another before breaching a doorway, ComBots can communicate via light, movement, or sound.

Unlike a tired Junior Officer of the Deck with a NATO code-book propped open, computers can almost instantly process simple data. If given the capability, a series of blinking lights, sounds, or even informative light data-transmissions  could allow ComBots of the future to coordinate their actions in the battlefield without significantly revealing their position. ComBots would be able to detect and recognize the originator of signals, duly ignoring signals not coming from the ComBot group. With the speed and variation of their communications, compressed as allowed by their processing power, ComBots can move through the streets and skies with little more disruption than a cricket, lightening bug, or light breeze. High- and low-pitch sounds and infrared light would allow for communications undetectable to the average soldier.

LtGen Van Riper melded a deadly combo of new weaponry with old communications to build a force capable of, with the greatest surprise, wiping out a force armed with the greatest technology in every category. Utility, not technology, is what gives us the edge in the battlefield. Sometimes it is a combination of the old and new that allows for the potency. Perhaps, one day, ComBots will be set loose into the battlefield where they will operate more as a pack driven by sight and sound than a military formation managed over a data link.

GPS: How About a Map?

The Texas incident has broken open the doors on a previously low-key vulnerability for ComBot systems, navigation. While speculation is rife as to how the CIA lost a drone in Iran, it is quite clear that the researchers in Texas were able to spoof a ComBot into destroying itself. Spoofing of externally-based navigational systems is a potential way to turn aerial ComBots in particular into weapons against us.  It is often forgotten that systems that are “autonomous” still rely on outside guidance references that can be manipulated. While civilian GPS is less secure than military-grade GPS, the potential for GPS spoofing to lay-low a combat force is a chilling one. However, the solution can be found by augmenting legacy techniques with modern processing.

Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM) and Digital Scene Mapping Correlation (DSMAC) are non-GPS methods of navigation that specifically use internal recognition of local terrain and urban landmarks to maneuver Tomahawk missiles. This is another way of, “looking around and reading a map.” Processing power advances since the system was first introduced during the Cold War mean greater amounts of recognition data can be processed in shorter amounts of time by smaller platforms. ComBots deployed to specific areas can upload local data to allow localization based on terrain from high altitude or Google-maps-style scene matching from rooftops or even street-by-street. With adaptive software, ComBots could even “guess” their location if the battlefield changes due to combat destruction, noting changes in their environment as damage is done.  While GPS can be spoofed, unless the enemy has been watching too much Blazing Saddles, DSMAC and TERCOM will be nigh impregnable navigational systems.

This defense for ComBot operations can also act as a navigational redoubt for a fighting force. The downing of GPS satellites or the spoofing of signals effects everyone using electronic navigation systems. Aerial ComBots outfitted with TERCOM and DSMAC could act as a secondary GPS system in an area with a GPS outage. If signals are jammed or satellites taken out, warfighters or other navigationally lesser-developed ComBots could triangulate their positions based on the system of ComBots with locations determined by TERCOM and DSMAC. By adding these recognition systems to autonomous drones, commanders will defend ComBots from hijackers and combatants from the choking fog of war.

Riding the Wave

The key to the safe and effective use of ComBots is to avoid the extremes of optimists and luddites. Optimists will look far into the realm of capability before necessarily researching vulnerabilities, abandoning the old for every shiny new development. Luddites will make certification and security processes long and complicated, cowering from the strange light new technology brings; ComBots would run on Windows 95 and take 30 minutes to log on to themselves. It is best to advance fearlessly, but take our hard-learned lessons with us. Non-digital communications, aka speech and signals, and localized navigational systems, aka carrying maps, offer ComBot developers a shield against interlocutors.  Our new dogs will be best defended by some of the oldest tricks.

This article appeared in its original form at Small Wars Journal.

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. 

Nextics: Flak is Back

Two should cut it, right? We’ve all got guns and the Germans are just rolling around in glorified trucks!

The tanks of the French 3rd Republic have become an unfortunate mascot of doctrinal stagnation. While the lessons of the Blitzkrieg are well taken, few note the incredible amount of time, the 25 years between the invention of the tank and WWII, during which tacticians could have developed new tactics. The real crime wasn’t ignoring the border with Belgium, it was ignoring technological developments for so long. By 1939, the Blitzkrieg concept should have been understood, countered, and re-developed by all sides. Tacticians must strive to provide their weapons with new tactics. Nextics, a combination of “next” and “tactics” is the development beyond that cutting edge: the weapons of tomorrow countered by the tactics of the day after. Drone swarms are a technology that, with a potential to be a near-term reality, we should prepare to counter as well as use.

The U.S. does not have a monopoly on the use of autonomous drone groups; a technology like drones using primarily open-source commercial and academic sources will soon be available to our competitors. Our technological advantage, experience, and know-how can keep us on the cutting edge, but we should be prepared to counter our own innovation before it is even brought into the field.

Traditional countermeasures will not work against drone swarms. Kinetic interceptors such as missiles and 20mm CIWS are designed to intercept single targets and groups of limited size. Drone swarms, numbering from dozens to hundreds of individual units, would overwhelm any kinetic system when attacking ships and aircraft. Typical chaff and electronic countermeasures will have difficulty countering drones using optical or infrared systems that recognize platform shapes, and chaff would not linger long enough to out-last a large drone cloud. The best countermeasure for a large formation of small, agile units is a weapon we have long left behind.

Same swarm, same problem, but processors instead of pilots.

Flak cannons and other aerial saturation systems are the day after’s countermeasures against the weapons of tomorrow. In the 1990s, Oerlikon designed the Millennium Gun, a close-in weapon system designed to intercept missiles with a shotgun-style area-effect blast. Such a system is a model for future drone-swarm countermeasure systems. Larger aircraft with the ball-turret style weapons of old could be deployed to protect high value units, or even drone swarms themselves from their opponent swarms. On land, soldiers could use a modified Trophy system to defend themselves from drones designed to combat men and vehicles. “Going stupid” saves on vital space that would be required for higher-level processors and detectors designed to combat individual miniature drones.

The urge to fight fire with fire is a strong one. Newer and better technologies are available to help us over-think problems. The coming age of automated warfare has us obsessed with hacking, spoofing, and otherwise electronic befuddlement. However, Gordian’s technological Knot does not always require complicated detection systems, guided weapons, or coded backdoors. On occasion, a really big Mossberg 500 will do.

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. 

ComBot: A Rose by Any Other Name

After his brush with stardom, he’s really let go.

Our present-day pilotless platforms have been branded “drones” to their detriment. The word communicates a lack of adaptability or agency. For an increasingly automated fleet of machines, it denotes monotony and mindlessness: the droning of engines as a Predator lazily loops above the mountains, observing friend and foe alike. “Drone” is inappropriate for an ever-expanding suite of devices with greater close-in roles in combat. An AlphaDog, an EOD bomb-disposal bot, the DARPA Crusher, and the Battlefield Extraction Assistance Robot (BEAR) are not “drones.” To better describe our new combat compatriots and better comprehend their multitudinous uses and designs, let us properly christen our autonomous allies.

ComBot is the accurate alternative to “drone.” An obvious combination of Combat and Robot, it describes our soon-to-be automated assault associates in an easy-to-digest term. The name has a practicality lacking in most military monikers. It is not a shoe-horned acronym such as Close-In Weapons System (CIWS) pronounced “see-wiz” rather than “ki-wis” or “cue-z”. What layman would ever think of a high-tech Gatling-gun when they hear “CIWS”, or a pilotless aircraft when they hear “UAV”? However, the wordplay of ComBot makes the backing concept immediately recognizable. A rose by any other name may be just as sweet, but people abandoned the term horseless carriage for a reason; let’s update our language to match the concept.

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. 

July 4th: Nation from a Navy

A year before Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” was started.


Before the Founding Fathers put pen to paper, formally declaring the independence of these United States, there was a navy. This is a nation birthed by a navy. Our vast nation started with the intrepid explorers, pilgrims, and entrepreneurs who first crossed the vast and often terrifying Atlantic to reach our shores. As the colonies developed, the journey became mainstream, the colonies plied an ever-growing trans-Atlantic trade network supported militarily and logistically by British Naval might .

I’m torn between my love of America, and my distaste for French Rococo.

Founded by sea, defended by sea, and nourished by sea, our Republic found its independence at sea. From the Boston Tea Party to the Continental Marine’s landing at Nassau and John Paul Jone’s raid of England proper, the colonists’ plucky determination to use their hard-won seamanship skills against the mighty Crown served as a source of great courage to the embattled freedom fighters. However, of even greater importance was the interference provided by the French and later Spanish navies. The very ocean that served as America’s source of wealth was also Britain’s greatest source of military strength and a direct link back to the Realm’s stores and armories. No amount of determination could, with that source of power unchecked, defend the colonists from the full might of Imperial disciplines.Indeed, the war itself was won at sea, the French putting the lid on Cornwall’s Yorktown coffin as the colonists hammered in the nails.


USS KEARSARGE (LHD-3) transits the Straits of Hormuz.

Here at CIMSEC, we celebrate the transformation from Jefferson’s colonial upstart to Hamilton’s commercial superpower. From the Barbary Wars to America’s modern steady-state Great White Fleet, America is now defined by its global position: an economic, political, military, and cultural presence fed by a world-spanning arterial network of ships both commercial and kinetic. America is a nation born by sea, raised by sea, and living by sea.

That was your obligatory Fourth of July post. Now get some BBQ and set off explosions.

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.