America's Secret Weapon for Battlefield Dominance: Build the Swarm

"If the U.S. military is to maintain its technological edge, it will need to harness the advantages of the robotics revolution and build the swarm."

The U.S. military is at a crisis point. We are staring down the barrel of a future where U.S. military technological superiority may no longer be a given where the military strength that has undergirded global security since World War II may be in question. The technologies that have given the U.S. military its edge stealth, long-range sensors, communications networks and precision-guided weapons are proliferating to other actors. As a result, so-called “anti-access” challenges threaten traditional modes of power projection. While individual U.S. ships, planes and tanks remain more capable one-on-one, the pernicious “death spiral” of rising costs and shrinking procurement quantities means that the United States has increasingly fewer and fewer assets to bring to the fight. The U.S. military will have to fight significantly outnumbered, and even the qualitative advantages U.S. assets have will not be sufficient. Quality matters, but numbers matter too. At a certain point, U.S. aircraft and ships will simply run out of missiles.

In the face of this waning military advantage, Secretary Hagel has called for a renewed investment in military technological superiority. Deputy Secretary Bob Work has launched a long-range research and development planning program to identify new, potentially game-changing technologies. As the Department of Defense (DoD) begins to craft a new technology dominance strategy, a key component should be harnessing the advantages of the unfolding robotics revolution to field large numbers of low-cost systems.

Swarms of low-cost robotic systems can overwhelm enemies, saturating their defenses. Cooperatively, they can operate with greater coordination, intelligence and speed on the battlefield than manned systems. Perhaps most significantly, they can help to bend the cost curve downward, allowing the United States to field large quantities of systems that, in aggregate, retain qualitative superiority. Disaggregating complex, multimission systems into larger numbers of lower-cost systems is a potential way to increase resiliency, diversity and impose costs on adversaries—and to do so affordably. But harnessing the advantages of this approach will require a new paradigm for how we build next-generation military systems.

“Imposing Costs” on the Enemy, or on Us?

What DoD leaders are looking for is a technology dominance strategy that “imposes costs” on adversaries. If we put our minds to it, this shouldn’t be hard to do. The current U.S. defense system is excellent at imposing costs on ourselves. We have been steadily pricing ourselves out of the business of defense.

In 1984, Norm Augustine observed as one of “Augustine’s Laws” that the cost of military aircraft was growing exponentially, while the defense budget was only growing linearly. He humorously noted:

In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one tactical aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.

We need not wait until 2054 for Augustine’s Law of rising costs to take its toll. The crisis in rising costs and shrinking quantities that he warned about is here today. A 2008 RAND Corporation study that analyzed a U.S.-China air war over Taiwan made the bold assumption that every air-to-air missile fired from a U.S. F-22 hit a Chinese fighter (100 percent kill rate) and that every Chinese missile missed the U.S. F-22s (0 percent kill rate). In their simulation, the United States still lost the fight. The F-22s ran out of missiles and the Chinese fighters were able to go after vulnerable tankers and command and control aircraft. A far more detailed simulation the following year showed the same results. Even though U.S. F-22s were pegged with a 27-to-1 qualitative advantage over Chinese fighters, their diminished numbers and the fact that they had to fight from long range meant the Chinese had vastly superior numbers and won the fight.