20YY: The Future of Warfare


The U.S. military is at a critical juncture. With the end of two wars and a sharp drawdown in defense spending, investments over the next several years will set the military’s course for decades to come. The Pentagon can make smart investments now to prepare for the future, or it can continue to cling to “wasting assets,” legacy platforms and concepts that will be less and less survivable in a future of widely proliferated precision-guided weapons. Without a clear vision of what future force to build, however, bureaucratic inertia and existing programs of record will carry the day.

A new report from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) articulates a vision of unmanned and autonomous systems as the centerpiece of an emerging warfighting regime dominated by robotics. The proliferation of anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) technologies to both state and non-state actors is only a precursor to an even more lethal regime characterized by swarms of networked, intelligent machines. Because many of the underlying technologies behind robotics are driven by commercial sector innovation in information technology, the U.S. defense community does not have a monopoly on this technology. Unlike previous innovations like GPS, stealth technology, or advanced sensory capabilities, the robotics revolution will happen whether the U.S. moves first in this arena or not. While the United States enjoys a small lead in unmanned and robotic systems today, other actors are moving aggressively. Scores of states have unmanned vehicles, as do some non-state actors. Autonomous drones can be purchased off-the-shelf, allowing a single terrorist to field a swarm of kamikaze drones. Last month, a hacker demonstrated the ability to use a drone to hack and take control of other drones, raising the specter of a “zombie drone” air force. The robotic warfighting regime is barreling down upon us at an alarming rate, and the U.S. military will need to be more adaptive and innovative or risk falling behind.

20YY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age is the first report in a multi-year initiative that CNAS has launched examining the impact of emerging technology on the future of warfare. Rapid changes in robotics, autonomy, networking, and computer processing have the potential to dramatically change the character and speed of armed conflict.

Rapidly advancing information technology is leading to a world with greater transparency, connectivity, and more intelligent machines. Advanced sensors will make it increasingly difficult for U.S. platforms to hide from states possessing sophisticated reconnaissance-strike battle networks, while ubiquitous smart phones will make hiding large force elements in populated areas impossible. Smartphones and social media empower citizens with ad hoc command-and-control networks, allowing non-state groups to operate makeshift battle networks. The proliferation of precision-guided weaponry, from long-range ballistic missiles like China’s DF-21 to guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles (GRAMM) in the hands of non-state actors, will increasingly allow adversaries to accurately hit what they find. These trends in the democratization of information and the democratization of violence will result in a future operating environment that is more contested, transparent, and lethal.

Unmanned and autonomous systems have enormous potential to help U.S. forces not only survive in such an environment but prevail decisively over adversaries. Unmanned systems can operate with greater range, persistence, and endurance than comparable manned systems, extending the reach of U.S. surveillance and strike forces into contested and denied environments. Ship-based assets can provide low-cost reconnaissance and close-air support to better enable expeditionary operations. Long-endurance air vehicles can operate as relays for navigation information and communications, acting as a resilient airborne command-and-control network in the face of satellite disruption. Unmanned scouts can operate on land, in the air, on the ocean’s surface, and undersea for weeks or months at a time, providing commanders a persistent reconnaissance network to track and observe adversaries.

But that is not their revolutionary potential.

Unmanned systems can take greater risks than manned systems, enabling new concepts of operation. They can be made cheap, expendable, and numerous, reversing the current paradigm of ever-smaller numbers of increasingly expensive platforms and bringing mass back into the warfighting equation. Platform survivability will be replaced by swarm resiliency, where survivability is a function of the swarm as a whole, rather than a single platform. Rather than suffer the catastrophic loss of a single expensive platform, a swarm can degrade gracefully and continue to fight as assets are attrited. Swarms of unmanned systems can protect manned platforms by extended their sensors and defenses. Picket lines of unmanned surface vessels and aircraft can defend U.S. ships from swarming small boats. Unmanned “loyal wingmen” can augment the capabilities of manned aircraft, providing stand-in jamming, forward reconnaissance, and additional strike capacity. Unmanned surface and undersea pods loaded with vertical launching system (VLS) cells can augment the strike and missile defense capacity of manned ships and submarines. On the ground, expendable robots can be dropped behind enemy lines to scout out positions and call for fire. Unmanned vehicles can take point, drawing fire and flushing out enemy forces while manned vehicles follow safely behind. Tiny micro drones can swarm buildings to identify and neutralize enemies while troops wait safely outside. Across the entire battlefront, the leading edge would be unmanned.

But that is not their revolutionary potential.

Swarms of networked, autonomous systems could operate with greater coordination and speed of maneuver than possible with human-controlled systems. The resulting reconnaissance-strike swarm could saturate and overwhelm enemy defenses, being everywhere and nowhere at once. Low-cost systems can soak up enemy missiles at favorable cost-exchange ratios. Autonomous non-kinetic weapons could jam, spoof, and disable enemy sensors, sowing confusion and raising the electromagnetic noise level to hide follow-on U.S. strike platforms. Air-mobile swarms could revolutionize ground maneuver warfare. Self-coordinating airborne reconnaissance networks could hunt mobile missile launchers, relaying coordinates to human controllers for strike approval. Humans would provide mission-level command-and-control and strike authorization, but at the tactical level, autonomous speed and networking would dominate.

These developments will not happen automatically, however, and the current path the Department of Defense is on will not take full advantage of unmanned systems’ potential. Technology is nothing without the right concepts of operation, doctrine, training, and organizational structures to use it. What command-and-control structures are needed to take advantage of swarms? What doctrine should be adopted to employ them? How should human-machine interfaces be designed and how should human controllers be trained to yield appropriate levels of trust in automation? How will networks be made resilient against degradation and insertion of faulty data? How will we harden systems against adversary cyber attacks to prevent a zombie robot army turned against us? What is the right mix of human and machine cognition to manage the deluge of data our sensors will collect? What is the right balance of autonomy and human control?

CNAS’s 20YY Warfare Initiative will examine these and other critical issues as we explore the contours of the emerging warfighting regime. Developments in secure communications, energy density, cyber defenses, human performance optimization, and other enabling technologies will be essential to fully achieve the potential of a robotics revolution. How technology matures in materials science, rail guns, and high-energy lasers could change key contests in stealth, armor, and cost-exchange ratios in offensive and defensive operations. Advancements in military technology will also intersect in hard-to-predict ways with long term megatrends in the evolution of the Internet, synthetic biology, empowered citizenry, shifting demographics, the diffusion of power across the international system, resource scarcity, and environmental degradation. Institutional changes will be needed to foster a defense bureaucracy and culture that is more agile, adaptable, and receptive to innovation and change. In an era of rapid, disruptive change, the Pentagon risks being too slow to adapt to the future if it continues to take decades to design and field new systems and resists the new concepts of operation that unmanned and autonomous systems might enable.

Beyond the military operational implications, emerging technologies will raise profound questions of policy, strategy, ethics, and morality. How will unmanned systems influence decisions about use of force, war powers, civil-military relations, or deterrence and crisis stability? What principles and norms should guide the development of weapons in space or cyberspace, or weapons with autonomous functions or employing directed energy? Policy makers must begin to grapple with these challenging issues today as the foundations for the future are being laid. In the words of technologist and futurist Bill Joy: “We can’t pick the future, but we can steer the future.”

Technology will never make war clean, bloodless, or easy. War will remain a human endeavor, but the tools of warfare matter. As Max Boot wrote in his sweeping history of revolutions in warfare: “Fighting will never be an antiseptic engineering exercise. It will always be a bloody business subject to chance and uncertainty…. But the way punishment gets inflicted has been changing for centuries, and it will continue to change in strange and unpredictable ways.”

Sustaining America’s military advantages requires peering into a dim and uncertain future to understand, as best we can, the contours of the emerging warfighting regime. In launching the 20YY Warfare Initiative, we at CNAS aim to build a community of interest to explore these and other possibilities and how best to prepare the U.S. military for whatever developments lie ahead. Our goal is a spirited debate that can better illuminate the general shape of the future and develop actionable recommendations to help today’s leaders ensure tomorrow’s U.S. military is prepared to fight and win. We hope you will join us. The time to invest in the future is now.


Paul Scharre (@paul_scharre) is Fellow and Director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security. Shawn Brimley (@shawnbrimley) is Executive Vice President at CNAS, and co-author of the new report, 20YY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery