Robert O. Work and Shawn Brimley of the Center for a New American Security in January 2014 published 20YY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age calling upon the United States to prepare for war in new era in which “unmanned and autonomous systems will play central war-fighting roles for the United States, its allies and partners, and its adversaries.” Excerpts from the executive summary below:

Over the past several decades, the United States has been an aggressive first mover in a war-fighting regime centered on guided munitions and integrated battle networks. These innovations have allowed U.S. forces to operate relatively uncontested in space, in the air, and on and under the sea, and to dominate conventional force-on-force land combat. For a variety of reasons – the geopolitics of rising powers, the global diffusion of technology and counter-reactions by its adversaries chief among them – the preeminence enjoyed by the United States in this regime is starting to erode.

As a result, U.S. defense strategists and force planners are confronted by a rapidly approaching future in which guided munitions and battle networking technologies have proliferated widely and are employed by both state and non-state actors across the full range of military operations. While senior force planners and policymakers at the Pentagon, White House and Capitol Hill increasingly recognize the potential challenges and costs of operating against adversaries with such sophisticated weapons, much remains to be done to prepare the U.S. military for fighting against adversaries capable of firing dense, accurate salvos of guided munitions.

But the shift to something resembling guided munitions parity is only a predicate challenge to a potentially deeper revolution afoot – a move to an entirely new war-fighting regime in which unmanned and autonomous systems play central roles for the United States, its allies and partners, and its adversaries. U.S. defense leaders should begin to prepare now for this not so distant future – for war in the Robotic Age.

Unmanned systems are familiar to the U.S. military, which has employed them in extensive and sometimes dramatic fashion during the last decade in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But these largely remotely piloted air and ground vehicles will soon be replaced by increasingly autonomous systems in all physical operating domains (air, sea, undersea, land and space) and across the full range of military operations. The United States will be driven to these systems out of operational necessityand also because the costs of personnel and the development of traditional crewed combat platforms are increasing at an unsustainable pace.

While defense companies are pursuing advanced stealth systems, electric weapons and protected communications, companies focused on producing consumer goods and business-to-business services are driving many other key enabling technologies, such as advanced computing and “big data,” autonomy, artificial intelligence, miniaturization, additive manufacturing and small but high density power systems.

All of these technologies – largely evolving in the thriving commercial computing and robotics sectors – could be exploited to build increasingly sophisticated and capable unmanned and autonomous military systems.

…fully proliferated and unmanned and autonomous systems have become central to combat it will take some time to manifest fully. Accordingly, we call this the “20YY” regime to avoid needless debate over what decade or year it might occur. Nevertheless, some of its implications are already becoming clear.

The new systems will have different characteristics than their manned counterparts and will reshape how the U.S. military postures and bases its forces around the world and how senior decisionmakers consider decisions about the use of force. Managing stability during periods of tension may become far more difficult. The integration of manned and unmanned systems in the armed services will spur profound debates regarding U.S. military roles and missions, the operational concepts necessary to take full advantage of new technologies, and the ethical and moral implications of doing so.

The 20YY war-fighting regime is not the realm of science fiction. This report outlines why we believe this shift is coming, what it heralds for U.S. defense strategy and national security, and why and how the Department of Defense (DOD) should take advantage of this inevitable transition. There are profound opportunities to properly posture the U.S. armed services for this future if policymakers can make smart choices during the ongoing defense downturn. There are equally great risks, however, that poor decisions and a slow recognition of these powerful trends will put tomorrow’sU.S. military at unnecessary risk.


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