A recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Readiness focused on the third offset strategy, which is the Pentagon’s attempt to maintain America’s military technological superiority. According to Deputy Defense Bob Work, the initiative will rely on “human-machine collaborative combat networks.” In other words, the military wants to use robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), networked processing, and distributed computing to fight future wars. This human-technology merger concept has been dubbed ‘Centaur,’ after the Greek mythological being with the upper body of a man and lower body of a horse. However, the optimistic assumption underpinning the concept might result in something that better resembles a Frankenstein monster.
Two questions asked during the hearing perhaps best framed the problem. The first question focused on concerns about the over-reliance on technological development, and asked how the Department of Defense was working to ensure that reliance on new technological tools would not simply provide enemies with a new way of undermining the U.S. military’s effectiveness. The second question asked about the human element of the third offset strategy, and whether the operators were trained to fully implement new tools in innovative ways. The witnesses argued that they were confident in the military’s ability to address both these problems. In one key area of operations, however, the indications of this ability are not good.
Recently, there have been frequent warnings that the United States has lost its military dominance in the electromagnetic spectrum. Russia’s involvement in Ukraine exhibited how potential military rivals have exploited electromagnetic communications and signatures to locate, and then attack, enemies on the battlefield.
The U.S. Army is aware of the risks, and is trying to acquire and develop tools to counter the threat. The solution, though, seems to be a long way off. Proponents of the networked ‘centaur’ offset strategy may therefore be getting ahead of themselves. Autonomous platforms will need to use the electromagnetic spectrum to communicate. Without improved electromagnetic tools and approaches, these networked structures are likely to paint targets on units throughout the battlefield. This would come at a time when the U.S. Army is already concerned that its electromagnetic systems are providing enemies with easy-to-find targets.
This is not just an issue for the Army; the Navy has to deal with this important aspect of military operations as well. The Center for Strategic and International Studies highlighted that one of the most concerning developments in the South China Sea, for example, was not the Chinese deployment of new missiles, but the appearance of Chinese radar systems. While missiles are concerning, the radar systems would allow the Chinese military to better locate American naval assets in the sea. If the Chinese are deploying assets that allow them to monitor U.S. electromagnetic use as well, then American attempts to project power in a regional crisis may be dramatically hampered.
To then fully exploit robotics, AI, and cloud computing, the Department of Defense needs approach the problem more realistically. Any approach to mitigate electromagnetic spectrum risks must be more than technological. At least part of the loss of dominance in the spectrum has come from an inability of the military to properly structure its forces around the tools it has. This is not to say that the technology aspect shouldn’t be taken seriously, but it casts doubt on the idea that the military will be able to address the risks simply by having the required kit. The organizational adaptations are just as important. Potential American adversaries are already restructuring their militaries to better utilize the electromagnetic spectrum. This was shown in Ukraine to lethal effect, when the first step in a Russian attack was using electrons, not munitions.
If the military cannot create the organizational structures to properly use the spectrum that underpins its offset strategy, how can it be expected to craft the structures needed for the tools that will rely on that spectrum? Before it pours money into the exotic capabilities of the offset strategy, the Pentagon should pursue the more mundane task of getting its electromagnetic house in order. Congress could focus more strongly on what the military is doing to address the electromagnetic risks before allocating funds to systems that depend on the spectrum. If these two issues are not addressed, the robotic, networked, and intelligent systems of the future may unintentionally put the human element of the ‘centaur’ at greater risk.