Swarms, Drones, and Decoys

14 October 2013


The Escalation of Integration

in Combined Arms Operations

In separate posts that made no attempt at a comprehensive treatment I have written about the past, present, and possible future military use of swarms, drones, and decoys. I realize now that a tactical doctrine that could integrate swarm, drone, and decoy weapons systems and their tactics would be a powerful conceptual tool for future combat scenarios, and possibly also would point the way to an extended conception of combined arms operations that transcends that concept as it is known today.

If the reader is familiar with some of my other posts, you may be aware that I have some interest in what I call extended conceptions and have written about them on several occasions, most specifically in relation to an extended conception of ecology that I call metaphysical ecology and an extended conception of history that I call metaphysical history. You can readily understand, then, the intrinsic interest that I find in an extended conception of combined arms operations. From a philosophical point of view, we have an intellectual obligation to push our ideas to the very limit of their coherency and applicability to order to explore their outermost possibilities. That is what I have suggested (or attempted to suggest) in relation to ecology and history, and that is what I am suggesting here. But even a sketch of an extended conception of warfare — call it metaphysical warfare, if you like — would be beyond the parameters of a blog post, so at the present moment I will confine myself to mostly practical consequences for combined arms operations in the light of an extended conception of warfare, but I hope to return to this topic in more detail later. In fact, I hope someday to literally write the book on metaphysical warfare, but that remains a project for the future.

One of the distinctive aspects of combined arms operations is to recognize both the individual strengths and weaknesses of a given weapons system and its particular doctrine of employment in the battlespace and to integrate individual weapons systems in their doctrinal context with other weapons systems that can, in combination, uniquely facilitate the strengths of a given weapons system while compensating (to the degree possible) for the weaknesses of the same. This is a principle that admits of generalization both to smaller scales and to larger scales. It brings a certain unity to our conception of combined arms warfare when we can see this single principle expressed at different orders of magnitude in space and time.

An illustration of what I mean by combined arms warfare “expressed at different orders of magnitude in space and time” (and, I might add, integrated within and across different orders of magnitude, diachronically and synchronically) can be seen at the microscopic level with the trend toward integrated avionics in the F-22 and F-35A, which seamlessly bring together mission systems and vehicle systems in a tightly integrated package — this is combined arms (better, integrated arms) within a single weapons system. At the macroscopic level, combined arms warfare goes beyond the integration of many distinct weapons systems and naturally seeks the integration of distinct forces — this is usually called “inter-operability” — so that inter-service rivalries and differences in training, doctrine, and tactics among the services of one nation-state (in the case of the US, this means Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and the Coast Guard) and among multi-national forces do not become obstacles to unity of command and clarity of the objective.

Neil Warner provides a clear definition of inter-operability that illustrates this macroscopic sale of combined arms that converges on the interoperability of distinct forces:

“Interoperability can be defined as the ability of systems, units or forces to provide to and accept services from other systems, units or forces and to use the services so exchanged to enable them to operate effectively together. Interoperability cannot solely be thought of on an information system level, but must include doctrine, people, procedures and training.”

Neil Warner, ADI Limited, Interoperability – An Australian View, 7th International Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium

Given the realities of interservice rivalries and the disproportionate control that each service may have over particular classes of weapons systems (e.g., the Air Force has more jets than the Navy, but the Navy still does have jets), ideal interoperability must not only integrate the forces of distinct nation-states but also the various forces of a single nation-state.

Between the polar extremes of microscopic integration of individual weapons systems and the macroscopic integration of entire armed forces there lies the middle ground, which is what most people mean when they talk about combined arms operations — the integration of soldiers on the ground with man-portable systems, mobile fire, armored assets, air assets and so on in a single battleplan in which all act in concert under a unified command to achieve a clearly defined objective.

Combined arms operations are as old as warfare, which is in turn as old as civilization. The most famous examples of combined arms operations were those of mobile mechanized units with close air support that came of age during the Second World War and which are still the basis of military doctrine in our time. Rapid technological advances in weapons systems in recent decades, however, points toward a new era of combined arms operations.

In terms of air power, we are all aware of the rapid success of drones both for surveillance and combat roles, there have been many recent discussions of swarm warfare (something I have attempted to contribute to myself in The Swarming Attack), and decoys are, like combined arms operations, as old as war itself. I think that these three elements — swarms, drones, and decoys — will come together in a very power way in future military operations. Drones are more effective when sent out in swarms and accompanied by decoys to increase the numbers of the swarm; decoys are more effective when accompanied by drones and flying in a swarm; swarms are more effective when they combine drones and delays into an indistinguishable whole that descends upon an enemy like a plague of locusts.

Already we have seen the utility of drones, and many have forecast that the F-35 will be the last generation of human-piloted fighter aircraft. Just recently, an F-16 was fitted out as a drone and was flown without a pilot. It ought be possible, in theory, to do exactly the same thing with an F-22 or an F-35. Drone warfare is not something that is coming soon; it is here now. But drones are vulnerable (as are all pieces of hardware), and the best drones are expensive and complex pieces of equipment. It would make sense to deploy a few expensive drones with offensive capabilities with a much larger number of cheaper drones that would be indistinguishable from the drones with offensive capabilities. A few combat capable drones together with a much larger number of decoys would constitute a swarm of drones and decoys, and a swarm has combat advantages of its own that would make this combined arms weapons system of drones and decoys all the more powerful.

Combined arms operations of swarms, drones, and decoys need not be limited to air assets. Most of the considerations above I mentioned in relation to aerial swarms, drones, and decoys are equally true for naval swarms, drones, and decoys — something that I discussed in Small Boat Swarms: Strategic or Tactical? and Flying Boat Swarms? Recent reports have also discussed the DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, which includes a variety of distinct robots for land-based warfare (cf. Pentagon-funded Atlas robot refuses to be knocked over by Matthew Wall, Technology reporter, BBC News) including both two- and four-legged robots, some built to carry heavy loads and others built for speed. Land-based robots could also be deployed according to the combined arms principles of swarms, drones, and decoys.

While the robotization of warfare — drone aircraft, drone naval vessels (both surface and subsurface), self-driving vehicles, robots on two legs and four legs — presents significant opportunities for the most technologically advanced nation-states, their deployment would require a highly robust control architecture, without which unity of command would be impossible. The growing acronyms to describe the kind of control architecture necessary to automated combined arms operations have gone from command and control to command, control, and computers to C4 to C4I to C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). What this culminates in is now called the networked battlespace or netcentric warfare (something that I discussed in Epistemological Warfare).

Future wars will always be parallel wars, with one war being prosecuted in the actual battlespace and another war being prosecuted in parallel in the virtual battlespace (i.e., cyberwarfare or netcentric warfare). There has always been a parallel prosecution of wars on the homefront and on the front line, with the homefront being a war of propaganda, information, and ideology, while the front line is a war of men and machines thrown up against each other.

The opening of a virtual front is closely analogous to the advent of air power, which added the need for command of the air to the already familiar need of command of the ground and command of the seas. Douhet’s visionary treatise, The Command of the Air, set this out in astonishing prescience. It is impossible for me to read Douhet without being impressed by his clarity of vision of the future. This is a rare ability. And yet we know that by the time of the Second War War (and even more so today) the command of the air is not merely another front: command of the air is central to warfare as we know it today.

The fact that I wrote that it would be the virtual battlespace that hosts a parallel fight betrays my now-archaic point of view: the primary battle may well be in the virtual battlespace, while the actual combat in the actual battlespace is that which is fought in parallel. A first strike could come in the virtual battlespace; an ambush could come in the virtual battlespace; a war of attrition could be fought in the virtual battlespace. Command of cyberspace may prove to be as central to future warfare as command of the air is to contemporary warfare. This introduces yet another conception of integrated warfare: the integration of actual and virtual battlespaces.

Each party to a conflict will see to secure its own C4ISR capabilities while compromising the C4ISR capabilities of its adversary or adversaries. Each will develop its own strategies, tactics, and doctrines for this new front, and it is to be expected that in the attempt to overwhelm the enemy’s computer and communications systems that we will see that electronic equivalent of B. H. Liddel-Hart’s “expanding torrent” in cyberspace seeking the disruption of enemy computer networks.

It may be taken as axiomatic that computing power is finite. Although the upper bound of computing systems is not known, and may not be known, the fact that there is an upper limit is known. (I will observe that this is a non-constructive assertion, which demonstrates that non-constructivist thought is not abstruse but often has a direct applicability to experience.) A finite computing system can be overwhelmed. If a system is 99% effect, a swarm of a total of 100 drones and decoys may result in one getting through; if a system is 99.9 % effective, a swarm of 1,000 may result in getting through, etc. If you know the limitations of your enemy’s targeting computers, you can defeat them numerically.

In many cases, the operational parameters of a computerized targeting system may be known, or can be estimated with a high degree of accuracy. Continuous improvements in technology will continuously augment the parameters of updated or newly designed computerized targeting systems, but even the latest and greatest technology will remain finite. This finitude is a vulnerability that can be exploited. In fact, Leibniz defined metaphysical evil in terms of finitude. We can to better than a definition, however: we can quantify the metaphysical evil (i.e., the finitude) of a weapons system. More importantly — and this is one of those rare cases in which comparative concepts may be more significant than quantitative concepts — we can introduce comparative measures of finitude. If one party to a conflict can simply get the better of its adversary in a comparative measure of computing finitude, they will win the C4ISR battle, though that does not yet guarantee a win on parallel fronts, much less winning the war.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A Flock of Drones

17 August 2011


Unfurling the Panopticon for

Total Battlespace Situational Awareness

The idea of the panopticon is due to the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarians were the “modern” and “progressive” thinkers of the 19th century, ready to dispense with tradition and replace it with radical ideas of their own. While the basic idea of utilitarianism — that we should do what is best for the greatest number of people — is very much with us today, a lot of the other utilitarian ideas have fallen by the wayside. One of the interestingly eccentric ideas of the utilitarians was that of the panopticon, which Bentham described as follows:

“A building circular… The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference — The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence — The whole circuit reviewable with little, or… without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.”

Jeremy Bentham, Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts, London, 1798

The spirit of the idea of the panopticon was thus that of an advanced concept in penal reform — reformers are always focusing on the penal system, since this is filled with the people most perceived to need reform — but the reason that the idea of the panopticon is so well known today is that it was taken up by Michel Foucault and prominently discussed in his book Discipline and Punish.

In Foucault’s context, the panopticon is only secondarily a humane concept of penal reform. For Foucault, the panopticon is primarily a central exhibit in the development of the modern surveillance state in which bodies are observed, managed, regulated, and subordinated to regimentation and control that may be superficially humane but is at a deeper level a form of “bio-power.”

Here is how Foucault described the panopticon:

“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.”

Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Vintage Books, 1995, pp. 195-228, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (translation 1977)

Several actual prisons were built on the panopticon model, but the larger point that Foucault is making is one of universal surveillance. This universal surveillance — the nation-state as all seeing eye, divinely omnipotent — is coming true in other ways — for example, the ubiquitous presence of cameras in public spaces — so that no one expects privacy any more as soon as they step outside the door of their home. People assume they are being watched, so by and large they conduct themselves as obedient citizens. (However, some comments on the recent riots in London have suggested that this policing-by-camera is ultimately ineffective.)

Another concept that has emerged from the milieu of surveillance is that of situational awareness. I was interested to discover that Wikipedia has quite a long and detailed article on situational awareness, which is, in that context, treated after a quasi-scientific fashion. Foucault would have been fascinated by this.

I won’t go into the details of situational awareness, but I will cite one definition specific to the strategico-tactical nexus: Fred Burton and Scott Stewart of Strategic Forecasting define situational awareness as follows: “Situational awareness is the process of recognizing a threat at an early stage and taking measures to avoid it.”

In Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon is has already gone these more recent discussions of situational awareness one better by recognizing that in the panopticon, “in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.” This condition I will call asymmetrical situational awareness. Once we are aware, as it were, of asymmetrical situational awareness, we can immediately see the role that perpetuating this asymmetry plays in successful military operations. Asymmetrical situational awareness is to recognize and avoid threats while posing an unrecognized and unavoidable threat in turn. If one can establish and maintain this enviable state of affairs, one can act with impunity, and acting with impunity, while unpleasant in the ordinary business of life, is the difference between life and death on the battlefield — as well as the difference between winning and losing.

The panopticon is a structure conceived to realize asymmetrical situational awareness, favoring guards at the expense of prisoners. What if we could unfurl the rigid structure of the panopticon and enjoy its surveillance benefits in the real world? I suggest that the technology to do this is not far away. A perfect realization of asymmetrical situational awareness is not likely, but something close to totality of surveillance would make an enormous difference.

A couple of days ago in Vulnerabilities of Vertical Lift I suggested that the vulnerability of large helicopters could be partially addressed by deploying drones in a miniaturized version of the combat air patrol that surrounds a carrier strike group, protecting the vulnerability of large, slow, and valuable aircraft carriers. After I suggested this, I realized that this idea would be generalized, extrapolated, and detached from any particular weapons systems, such as a large, slow, complex and therefore vulnerable helicopter.

Imagine, if you will, a flock of drones deployed throughout a battlespace. With technological improvements of the not-too-distant future, miniaturization could make these small enough to be difficult to see, and still have a high degree of sensitivity that even sophisticated radar systems now used to monitor the battlespace do not possess. A sensor network of this kind might hover over the ground between, say, ten and fifty feet — obviously, it could move, reposition itself, and realign itself as events within the battlespace dictated.

A robust suite of sensing technologies could include ordinary visible spectrum cameras, as well as infrared cameras (to detect body heat), “sniffers” that could (if close enough) detect various chemical, bomb, and propellent residues, microphones of several specialized types, motion detectors, and anything else that scientists could think of to monitor events on the ground. This would be like an “early warning system” for the more traditional battlespace agents of tactical engagement, by which I mean individual soldiers, troop carriers, fighting vehicles, tanks, helicopters, and fixed wing aircraft.

The first iteration of such a technology would be vulnerable and clumsy, but it should be easy to see how something like this, refined and miniaturized, could deliver something like total battlespace situational awareness, and since a sensing network like this could only be produced by technologically advanced nation-states, it would possess the same kind of asymmetry that nuclear weapons once had and fifth generation jetfights now possess in regard to air superiority. In the case of such an asymmetry, this flock of drones would give nearly absolute asymmetrical situational awareness.

The greatest vulnerability of a sensing network of this kind would be its networking and control, which if hacked and hijacked could be rendered useless, or, worse, turned against those who built it. Thus information security would be paramount in constructing such a sensing network. If any clever young hacker with a radio control system could break in, it would be useless. Presumably advanced encryption would be employed in the control network, with safeguards built in that would render the entire network useless if compromised.

The next step beyond a sensing network would be to arm the network itself, so that the flock of drones would not only be the surveillance equivalent of an all seeing eye, but the eye could eliminate any threats that it discovered.

A sensing network of this kind would not only be useful for purely military missions, but would also have obvious applications in peacekeeping operations.

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Note Added 14 August 2012: Given what I wrote above almost exactly a year ago about the possibility of a flock of drones, it was with the greatest of interest that I read Bugs in the sky: Boeing showcases hard-to-detect drones that behave like a ‘swarm of insects’ from the Daily Mail. It seems that defense contractors were already working on something pretty similar to what I suggested. That is to be expected.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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