Fighting Artificial Intelligence Battles in the Land Domain

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In January the Australian Defence College published a paper by Dr Peter Layton under the title “Fighting Artificial Intelligence Battles: Operational Concepts for Future AI-Enabled Wars.” The 116-page report proposes and explores various operational concepts applicable across the air, sea and land domains that can be used to fight and win in the artificial intelligence (AI) enabled battles of the future. This article will take a closer look at the land domain concepts and what they will mean for soldiers on the ground.

Dr Layton proposes both an offensive and defensive concept for the land domain. The defensive concept relies on something he terms “interchangeability warfare,” that prioritises protection and firepower over mobility. This future battlespace will be dominated by massed fires queued by a pervasive and persistent AI enabled sensor network leaving conventional manoeuvre forces relegated to a supporting role.

This scenario will see an increased weight of offensive fires at short ranges (up to ~50km) through the expanded use of relatively cheap precision guided loitering munitions, of which drone swarms are one example. This scenario will also see a deepening of the battlespace through the increasing range of long-range fires (the US Army’s strategic long range cannon is planned to fire ~1600km). When coupled with a pervasive, persistent and AI enabled sensor network, it is expected that a high degree of attrition will be inflicted on any massed force moving through the battlespace.

Here Dr Layton stresses that the key to surviving on this increasingly transparent and increasingly lethal battlefield is to win something termed the battle of signatures where “to be seen is to be engaged and to be engaged is to be killed.” This emergent paradigm is expected to strongly favour the defender over the attacker.

Dr Layton predicts that this is likely to lead a stagnant theatre where operating from well-protected, well supplied defensive zones is the most reliable way to minimise one’s own losses while inflicting a high degree of attrition on the enemy whenever they attempt to mass for an assault. Dr Layton predicts the emergence of a three zone theatre: the zone of advantage (one’s own defensive zone); the zone of vulnerability (the adversary’s defensive zone); and the contested zone (the area in between).

This is similar to the situation described in “Crossing 2000km of Death,” where Dr Albert Palazzo describes the emergence of a close fight, a distant fight and killing zones that span entire theatres of conflict. All of which is made possible due to the combination of improving long range fires technologies and improving AI enabled sensor networks.

Dr Layton’s offensive concept rests on two pillars. One is using protected mobility to rapidly cross the contested zone under the cover of massed fires to assault into the adversary’s defensive zone seeking to break through and destroy its logistic tail and supporting infrastructure. The other is for small teams using infiltration tactics to slip into the rear areas before attacking the logistic tail. These small teams will need to use loitering munitions and various supporting robotic systems supported by an AI enabled command and control system to achieve mass and tempo at the decisive moment.

The ability to mass robotic systems and long range fires is critical for the survival of these teams as they will potentially be operating hundreds of kilometres from the main manoeuvre elements.

Both options aim to destroy the logistic tail and supporting enablers in order to cut off the supply of munitions and autonomous systems, degrading the enemy’s ability mass fires for extended periods of time. This leaves the enemy’s manoeuvre elements unsupported and vulnerable to defeat in an asymmetric engagement where the enemy’s AI enabled sensor/shooter network is significantly degraded relative to our own.

Both Dr Layton and Dr Palazzo stress the importance of negating the enemy’s ability to mass fires as an essential pre-requisite to any large scale offensive action. Without successfully doing so any attempt to cross the extended contested zone in large numbers is likely to fail.

In some ways there is nothing new to these concepts. Both offensive concepts look like futuristic revivals of the combined arms tactics employed by the First Australian Imperial Force (1st AIF) on the Western Front during the final months of the First World War in 1918.

What distinguishes these concepts from anything that has gone before is the combination of a significantly expanded physical battlespace, rapidly diminishing opportunities for concealment and an increasingly autonomous decision cycle which together bring about an acceleration in tempo that makes it increasingly difficult to manoeuvre without being rapidly destroyed.

This trend is an emergent property of the future battlespace brought about by the convergence of many disparate technologies. Advances in digital technologies such as AI enable the acceleration in decision making while advances in weapons, sensors and propulsion technologies enable the physical expansion of the battlespace.

An immediate implication of this technological convergence is that there will be no single technological solution that can restore the status quo. Technological solutions will play a part, but it will require a range of them combined in intelligent and creative ways. We won’t be able to simply “pick a winner.”

Thankfully many of the technologies required to realise the AI enabled battlespace described by Dr Layton are still relatively immature and not yet fielded at scale, however this is rapidly changing.

So, what can be done now to start preparing for the future battlespace described by Dr Layton that doesn’t require new technologies, equipment or additional money and personnel?

Simple. We need to work out how to win the battle of signatures.

Dr Layton clearly states that winning the battle of signatures is key to surviving and fighting in the future battlespace. He also explains that the battle of signatures extends beyond the visual, to include acoustic, seismic, heat (infra-red), radar and electromagnetic signatures (including radio transmissions). Therefore, signature management needs to be considered at every level of operational planning and it needs to be an all corps soldier skill. This creates a training burden and a requirement for ongoing practise.

The paper also makes clear that deception needs to be considered alongside signature management as it is impossible to hide every signature all the time. We need to understand how we can be detected at any one time and how to manipulate the odds of detection so that the adversary sees only what we want them to see. The way to do this is signature management.

The good news is that we already do this to an extent. Every officer and soldier receives lessons on camouflage and concealment during their initial training. It teaches why things are seen and how to manage that visual signature. It also teaches about the need to manage acoustic signatures. This training and its underlying doctrine should be expanded to have a multispectral focus. It should cover all types of signatures and how they can be managed. This then needs to be reinforced throughout a person’s career on subsequent courses. “Why things are seen,” needs to become “how are things detected.”

This is a modernisation of what we already do and we can start now without the need for expensive equipment acquisitions. Our tactics, techniques and processes can then evolve in line with the enabling technologies. The key will be rapid assimilation of the lessons learned.

Achieving this, will require a renewed emphasis on some of the less glamourous aspects of soldiering, a willingness to experiment on exercise, an acceptance of experimental failure and an ability to rapidly communicate and assimilate the lessons learned into doctrine to enable their implementation across Army. The discovery of an ineffective signature management technique is still a valuable lesson.

By starting small and learning quickly, junior officers and soldiers can get out into their local training areas and start driving some meaningful grass roots innovation. Initiatives like brigade good ideas days and DEFAus (Defence Entrepreneurs Forum, Australia) offer additional avenues for grass roots innovation.

What is clear from Dr Layton’s paper is that if we arrive on the future AI enabled battlefield without mastery of the tactics, techniques and processes required for the battle of signatures, we’ll likely lose quickly and decisively.

About the author: Chris is an Associate Editor at Grounded Curiosity and a currently serving Australian Army officer. Building on a multi-discipline engineering background, his passion is technological development and PME. Chris’ work has previously appeared on Grounded Curiosity, Strategy Bridge and The Cove. Find him on Twitter.