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

November 3, 2014 Topic: Military StrategyDefense Region: United States

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."


Perhaps worst of all, many platforms are often created as unique, integrated systems with proprietary software. When a new weapon system is created, too often it is designed wholly new, rather than leveraging existing technologies and building incrementally. This increases costs and increases technology risk. As a result, DoD tends to build “Death Stars:” exceedingly complex, expensive wonder-weapons (in limited numbers) that too often have a lurking hidden vulnerability.

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify


If the enemy is long timelines and complexity, then the solution is short timelines and simplicity. The cancer can be killed by breaking systems down into smaller components developed on shorter timelines, disaggregating their functionality and controlling technology risk.

One typical way in which this is done is to disaggregate modernization across time by building modular platforms with incremental improvements in each procurement “block.” Each procurement “block” builds on the last, incorporating new technologies as they mature, reducing technology risk and cost.

There are tremendous benefits to modularity, and for major platforms like ships, aircraft or ground vehicles that have long service lives, modularity is key to ensuring they can maintain technological relevance over time. This is particularly relevant for staying ahead in rapidly advancing information technology, where technology changes in months and the latest software can mean the difference between survivability and defeat. Major platforms must be viewed as “trucks,” valuing payloads over platforms, and software over payloads.

Another approach is to disaggregate a system spatially into many components, adopting a family of systems approach. A family of systems consists of a number of single-mission systems optimized for specific roles working together to accomplish a task, rather than a single, exquisite multimission system. Because single-mission systems are required to do less than multimission systems, they can be produced with lower technology risk and at lower cost. In addition, provided that network architectures are designed with sufficient interoperability up front, such an approach is inherently modular. Concerns about size, weight and power that traditionally bedevil modular design approaches no longer matter when combat functions are disaggregated spatially among many platforms. Provided it can plug into the network, new systems are inherently “plug and play.”

Enter the Swarm

Disaggregating complex, multimission systems into a family of lower cost single-mission systems has not been particularly appealing to-date, because,without automation, any major platform must be ultimately controlled by a human operator, either physically onboard the platform or remotely. People cost money, and rising personnel costs have placed steady downward pressure on end-strength for all of the military Services. In a world where the military will have fewer aircraft, ships and ground vehicles anyway because there are fewer people to control them, making those vehicles as capable as possible makes sense.

Autonomous, uninhabited systems offer the potential for a different approach. They can be used to augment existing human-inhabited systems, putting additional sensors and missiles into the fight at relatively low cost. This is possible because a variety of cost-savings advantages of uninhabited and autonomous systems: Greater endurance means that fewer platforms are needed in the force to sustain the same number forward in the fight. Increased automation reduces the need to train human operators for some tasks, and is particularly attractive for expensive training like pilot flying hours. Survivability can be balanced against cost, building larger numbers of systems and replacing the concept of platform survivability with swarm resiliency.

Swarms have other advantages. A larger number of assets imposes costs on adversaries, dramatically expanding the number of targets an enemy must strike. Distributing assets can not only make them harder to target, but more resilient in combat. If some are destroyed, the remainder can carry on the mission, allowing graceful degradation of combat capability, rather than risk the catastrophic loss of a single expensive platform. Distributing functionality among heterogeneous mixes of systems also increases resiliency against vulnerabilities or failures in any one system and imposes additional costs on adversaries, as they must counter multiple diverse approaches. Finally, large numbers of cooperative systems can harness the advantages of swarm intelligence for greater coordination and speed on the battlefield.

Human-Machine Teaming

Uninhabited systems need not be able to perform every function of a human-inhabited vehicle in order to replace them for some missions. Indeed, the point is that they would not! Rather, a diverse mix of lower-cost, single-mission systems, built in large numbers to be attributable in combat and controlled by smaller numbers of personnel, could accomplish some tasks better and at lower cost. In many cases, this will be in conjunction with manned platforms, supplementing their combat power. Uninhabited “loyal wingman” aircraft could augment manned fighter aircraft with additional sensors and missiles. Robotic ground vehicles could act as long-range scouts, conduct feints and deception maneuvers, or form the front line of a movement to contact. And uninhabited arsenal ships, on the sea surface or undersea, could massively expand the striking capacity of existing surface combatants and submarines.

Uninhabited systems could be sent deep into enemy terrain on dangerous or even suicidal missions that would be impossible for human-inhabited systems. Swarms of expendable vehicles, like the miniature air-launched decoy (MALD), could create an electronic storm of jamming, decoys and high-powered microwaves. Small air vehicles could autonomously fly down roads searching for mobile missiles and, once found, relay their coordinates back to human controllers for attack. Networks of air, sea surface and undersea vehicles could track enemy ships and submarines. And robotic ground vehicles could be air-dropped behind enemy lines, like D-Day’s “little groups of paratroopers,” to sow confusion and wreak havoc on an enemy. These systems need not be capable alone of winning the fight, but merely of augmenting human-inhabited systems, giving the force as a whole greater range and persistence, daring, mass, coordination, intelligence and speed.

Commanding the Swarm

Just as uninhabited vehicles need not perform every function of human-inhabited ones in order to be useful, automation need not be intelligent enough to replace human operators entirely in order to save costs. Many tasks in warfare require judgment based on context and ambiguous information, and will be difficult to automate at best. Instead, onboard automation need merely be sufficient to reduce the cognitive load for a human controller such that he or she can control many vehicles at one time, thereby expanding the number of vehicles a person can control. This breaks the current relationship between people and platforms, and allows a force small in personnel to field and control potentially a very large force in platforms.

Multivehicle control has already been demonstrated in limited forms. In August of 2014, the Navy demonstrated a swarm of thirteen small boats operating under the control of a single sailor. The Air Force has used multiaircraft control in very limited operational settings, although it is not common practice. By harnessing the power of swarming, a military can field and control large numbers of systems, bringing mass to the fight in a significant way, even with constrained personnel end-strength.

Flooding the Zone

As the United States begins to grapple with possible responses to the anti-access challenge, a “flood the zone” approach should be an option in the U.S. toolkit. Large numbers of low-cost, uninhabited and autonomous systems can overwhelm enemy defenses and act as decoys, scouts and “missile trucks” for human-inhabited systems. Because of their greater persistence, uninhabited systems could be seeded into the battlespace weeks or months ahead of time where they lurk unseen, allowing an early toehold in gaining access.

Swarms of uninhabited and autonomous systems will open up new ways of fighting, and new doctrine, training and organization will be needed. Uninhabited and autonomous systems need not replace every function of a human or human-inhabited system in order to be useful. Rather, they can help warfighters perform their missions better by absorbing some tasks, so that warfighters can focus on what only humans can do. In some cases, this may mean some military jobs are eliminated or changed beyond recognition, just like we no longer field archers today, and infantrymen, sailors and cavalrymen all look very different from their counterparts of old who shared the same names. While this may generate some discomfort, there is an imperative to moving quickly. Much of the innovation in robotics comes from the commercial sector, and will be widely available. 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.

Paul Scharre is a fellow and Director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security. He is a former infantryman in the 75th Ranger Regiment and has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. This article is adapted from CNAS’ recent report, “Robotics on the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm.”

Image: Courtesy of Raytheon