New technologies have brought about new opportunities and threats to military strategy. Historically, the United States has been able to outpace its adversaries by providing elegant and expensive solutions to address the most severe threats while allowing the capabilities to maintain an advantage in likely employment scenarios. In the past 20 years, the United States has moved from highly specialized weapon systems to multi-mission weapon systems to reduce the number of assets required to perform similar tasks and to reduce manning requirements. As new technologies have emerged, however, U.S. adversaries have used high numbers of low-cost solutions—such as improvised explosive devices—that require inordinate resources to defeat. There are three advancements in technology that, when combined, are game changers for U.S. military effectiveness.
The three technologies that have the most promise to turn the table on our adversaries are micronization, artificial intelligence (or adaptive learning), and multifunction arrays. Each technology has benefits on its own but the synergy of those three technologies has enormous implications that can be exploited to great effect.
Micronization. What required a hard drive a decade ago now can be placed on a chip the size of a dime. Reduced size means reduced weight and greater processing power for a given weight. Drone technology has taken advantage of these gains. The AT&T half-time show for the Superbowl in 2017 demonstrated the power of small flying drones and the intricacy of what they can now do. As micronization drives down the cost of the computers to control the machines, it also allows the ability for the machine to think on its own.
Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI, long the promise of the science-fiction world, is now a reality. Algorithms are being developed that allow machines to understand the environment and adapt as required to complete missions. Building the next “HAL 2000”* that can think on its own and engage an enemy autonomously for the U.S. military is an unlikely future as rules of engagement require a human in the loop. But there soon may be the ability for a platform that can sample its environment, understand barriers to performing a certain mission, and alter its position accordingly or drop to a secondary mission as required to continue prosecuting a threat. The ability of unmanned and manned systems to feed a high fidelity battle picture that is resistant to enemy manipulation and can alter its spectrum, communications, and mission to ensure network integrity is where AI can be most beneficial. Though there are requirements to implement AI on future systems, there aren’t any systems currently implemented. How AI can move an array in the spectrum and changes its mission is where multifunction arrays come in.
Multifunction Arrays. Multfunction arrays have been around for sometime but have only recently been evaluated to perform more than one mission. Radars in the F-15, F-16, F/A-18, F-22, F-35, the Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) on Growlers, and SPY-1 are all examples of arrays. Many were designed to be a single mission targeting radar but some were also designed to be point source jammers as well. Future software modeling shows promise in multiple roles. Array technology uses point sources networked into an array to receive or transmit signals. Historically, arrays have been built for single purpose uses. Arrays also have been good signal collectors and have been used as communication links and electronic jammers. Because of technology improvements and the micronization of computing power, arrays could exercise all of those capabilities. The hardware is the same which makes it attractive to a commercial seller. The term that military corporations and acquisitions folks use to define this technology is hardware defined, software enabled. The backside software is what changes to make the capabilities a reality.
Multifunction arrays do have limitations. The physical characteristics of the array limit the range of frequencies in which it can operate. Also, most arrays are not be able to do multiple tasks simultaneously. An array could be a good jammer with marginal collection capability but struggle as a communications antenna. The physics of electromagnetic waves are complicated. That is where AI comes in.
Confluence of Technologies
AI can sample the environment through the array, weigh that against given priority mission responsibilities, and adjust priorities to ensure the best information gets into the network to prosecute a threat or defend the network. It also could alert a more capable platform to defend the network or in better position so that it can continue its mission or hand off its primary mission to another platform so it can defend the network. Arrays using AI to help provide a high fidelity networked battle picture with targetable information is the power of the third offset strategy. Again, there are no systems using AI in the conventional field, but current requirements for future systems are full of request for AI technology.
There are challenges to reaping the rewards of the confluence of this technology. Physics still applies. Being nimble in the electromagnetic spectrum requires multiple sized arrays to adjust to a threat. Physical space on platforms limits size and weight of potential systems. The amount of data that can be transmitted within a frequency band is limited.
The military must break some old habits. Historically, the Department of Defense (DoD) has tried to solve tactical dilemmas with expensive cutting-edge technology that requires long lead times for acquisition. Moore’s Law and the intense micronization of technology within the commercial sector renders traditional DoD acquisition obsolete for many current problems.
The unmanned portion of the U.S. military arsenal should leverage commercial industry to provide cheaper solutions. Digitally-printed carbon-fiber frames for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are commercially available and can have a power plant and electronics rapidly installed.
These platforms can be stationed closer to the launch platforms in air which will help defeat jamming attempts as range is one of the biggest variables to overcome to be successful. Unmanned vehicles offer the biggest opportunity to yield a distinct advantage over U.S. adversaries at a reasonable cost. The military always will require platforms that can deliver weapons to the enemy at speed, maneuverability, and distance to deter a conflict on our soil. The focus for these platforms, however, has to change.
The confluence of these three technologies provides an opportunity to regain a military advantage. DoD must approach integrated weapon systems and sensors across all the services holistically to seize the advantages AI, arrays, and unmanned vehicles can provide at a cost that the taxpayer can afford.
*From the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Commander Thomas serves as the Air Boss on board the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77).