Marine Warbot Companies are a Right of Boom Solution for a Left of Boom World
Sixty-eight years after the last large-scale amphibious assault by U.S. military forces, many are questioning whether such “forced-entry operations” are remotely realistic. In an era of proliferating military capabilities that allow states to deny access to large swathes of the seas and airspace near their territory, it is hard to imagine something like the landings at Normandy or Okinawa. This has led to some disquiet in the U.S. Marine Corps, which for many years has placed amphibious landings at the center of its identity.
But this problem of purpose is not confined to the Marines. Last year the U.S. Air Force reported its first air-to-air kill since 1999, and no modern commissioned U.S. Navy ship has sunk another vessel in anger. A similar debate is happening in my country — Australia. The last time Australian tanks saw combat was in Vietnam. However, as any Armored Corps officer will tell you, this does not mean tanks are irrelevant.
There is an inherent tension at play. Great power competition is back, and the US military is preparing for the possibility of conflict with a near-peer competitor for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet due to the logic of nuclear deterrence, major conventional operations against another great power seem unlikely.
Near-peer competitors, however, have faced a similar strategic dilemma ever since the U.S. military decisively dismantled Iraqi forces in just 100 hours during the First Gulf War. Chinese and Russian strategists heeded the lesson and have since been circumventing overwhelming US dominance in conventional warfighting (hereafter “right of boom”) by achieving strategic objectives using all means short of war (hereafter “left of boom”). In doing so, they have seen similar successes: In seizing the Crimea, Russia needed just 24 hours to break the morale of the Ukrainian military and seize an area twice the size of Northern Ireland with hardly a shot fired.
Shifting left of boom moves beyond simply challenging how soldiers fight; it challenges how strategists and policymakers think about fighting. It challenges the relationships between soldier and civilian, between the Pentagon and State Department, between war and peace.
It is in this light that a recent War on the Rocks article outlining the concept of “Warbot” combat teams should be assessed. It is certainly creative, but it is a right of boom solution for a left of boom world, and consequently risks ceding strategic ground.
The Enemy’s Vote in Asia
The case for “Warbots” rests on the hypothetical “Great Indo-Pacific War of 2025,” in which “many thousand adversary assault troops” seek to occupy the territory of a treaty ally containing undersea network nodes. The implicit adversary is China, although this is by no means the only applicable interpretation. In this scenario, the authors envisage companies of 200 marines augmented by AI-enabled autonomous weapons and loitering munitions, in-situ or able to be deployed within hours, that are able to blunt the adversary assault if needed. This ensures U.S. policymakers negotiate from a position of strength and increases the deterrence value of conventional forces. It is not dissimilar in purpose to NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) elements deployed to the Baltics to deter Russian aggression.
The concept has clear value. Forward-deployed Warbot companies would offer a targeted deterrence capability that could swiftly change an adversary’s cost/benefit calculations without the need for widespread mobilization and the resultant potential for escalation. Moreover, the distances over which a Warbots company could project power (possibly out to 500 miles) elevates the concept beyond the “trip-wire” function of Baltic VJTF elements and into an independently credible deterrent.
Yet the Warbots concept raises questions about the problem it intends to address. Just as U.S. marines are unlikely to conduct a large-scale amphibious assault against a nuclear-armed competitor, that competitor is equally unlikely to conduct a sudden large-scale amphibious assault against a state under Washington’s nuclear and military protection. In this sense, Warbot companies present a creative solution to a scenario the United States is unlikely to encounter.
Consider the battlefield from the adversary’s point of view. A war forecast by RAND shows that while China is steadily increasing its conventional military power, it remains highly unlikely to win a war with the United States of any duration or severity, even by 2025. Studies have also found that China has “little prospect” of mounting a successful amphibious assault against its neighbors thanks to the timeless challenges of moving large numbers of troops over water, particular across seas as typhoon-prone as those of East Asia, the military capabilities of regional states (particularly in precision-guided munitions), and the U.S. Navy’s ability to sink 40 percent of a hypothetical amphibious fleet with as few as eight submarines. It is safe to assume the PLA knows this. In short, even in a world without Warbots, China’s leadership is unlikely to embark thousands of soldiers onto ships and risk open war to seize network nodes on an island somewhere in the Indo-Pacific. This strategic calculation is unlikely to change by 2025.
To be clear, the issue here is not the Warbots concept itself, but the assumptions of the problem it targets. There remains a clear gap between the deterrence value of overall military power, the “trip-wire” deterrent of high readiness task groups, and the existential deterrence of nuclear weapons that the Warbots concept addresses. It is also true that the usefulness of small, rapidly-deployable forces augmented by AI-enabled platforms is not limited to deterring conventional invasion, particularly in a region as prone to natural disasters as the Indo-Pacific. Finally, conflict can erupt for numerous reasons beyond cost/benefit equations and the perceived likelihood of victory. China may still move troops towards territories covered by American defense obligations (the Senkakus, for example) despite the risk of starting an unwinnable war. These points all demonstrate that Warbots, the Marine Corps, and conventional forces more broadly are necessary. They do not, however, demonstrate that these solutions are sufficient for countering left of boom measures that may be aimed at the same strategic goals.
The Empiricism of Extinction
The most recent Warbots article opened with an interesting quote from Robert Leonhard: “The purpose of theory is to change current doctrine through intellect rather than the bloody empiricism of extinction.”
The scenario painted by the “Great Indo-Pacific War of 2025” — the hostile occupation of an island proximate to valuable undersea communications cables — has already occurred on many occasions in the East and South China Seas without the use of amphibious assault troops. Numerous reefs that China has already occupied in the Spratly archipelago (within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone) — Mischief, Fiery Cross, Subi, as well as Scarborough Shoal — sit atop at least seven cables connecting the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Australia, the United States, and Europe.
To achieve this, China has consistently operated left of boom. It has systematically focused multiple arms of state power towards targeted objectives whilst staying below a reaction threshold that might bring an adversary’s conventional military assets into play. It has used fishermen and oil rigs in contact with coast guard vessels and domestic law enforcement agencies to contest specific territories, often followed by permanent PLA installations. Vessels belonging to Beijing’s Academy of Fisheries Science have “rescued” Chinese fishermen as far south as the Natuna Islands, north of Indonesia, and similar Chinese vessels have rammed Vietnamese vessels contesting the presence of a Chinese deep-water oil rig off the Paracels. In fact, the chairman of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation once tellingly referred to oil rigs as “mobile national territory.”
In tandem, state-owned media have followed Beijing’s “Four Pillars of Media Warfare” — remain consistent with national strategy, establish parameters of coverage, adapt to changing conditions, and pursue cooperation with military and commercial interests — to influence foreign news coverage of occupations as they occur. Chinese diplomats have used “lawfare” to challenge the jurisdiction of international legal institutions, and economic measures have co-opted other states into withdrawing military forces from the territories in question. Demonstrations of offensive cyber capabilities have also acted as a deterrent against escalation. These measures may not always be tactically successful, but as Adm. Philip Davidson, the commander Indo-Pacific Command, has admitted, China now de facto controls the South China Sea and has the potential to project power “deep into Oceania.”
This is not to say that China is overrunning East Asian seas with fishermen and law enforcement. There are obvious limits to a strategy that relies on “fait accompli.” First, the aforementioned reefs are uninhabited. It is difficult to imagine a successful occupation of Taiwan, for example, that does not involve large numbers of PLA troops crossing the sea. Second, other states have implemented counter-measures. Indonesia has reportedly blown up Chinese fishing vessels on national television under the nose of armed Chinese ships. Third, there are questions about the sustainability of China’s efforts to occupy an enormous maritime environment. Yet the fact remains that China has already seized territory from other states, and it has done so without starting a war.
Beijing is therefore unlikely to move right of boom to achieve objectives it has already won using left of boom measures. Moreover, its general success so far in spite of the close presence of local militaries, U.S. troops in Guam and Okinawa, and the increasing tempo of freedom of navigation operations by American and allied warships suggests that right of boom solutions are not wholly sufficient for solving left of boom problems. Warbots may blunt an amphibious assault, but will they blunt news stories and oil rigs?
A Wider Pattern of Adaptation
The measures China has used to expand its control over the South China Sea are one example of a broader pattern of adaptation to a world that is still characterized by US military dominance. The Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 is another.
Whilst the Russian invasion of Crimea brought the adaptation into the spotlight in 2014, preparatory measures began up to a year earlier when state-owned media began spreading false information to foster pro-Russian sentiment on the peninsula. A NATO report found that this effort was instrumental to the tactical successes that followed. There is also an argument that Russia’s use of false information, repeated allusions to nuclear weapons, and offensive cyber activities dissuaded NATO from assisting Ukraine as much as it might have. These efforts were followed by a sudden occupation using a mixed force of unidentified soldiers, nationalists, motorcycle gangs, and local criminals. The result was a swift, virtually non-violent victory in Crimea occurring under the threshold of plausible deniability. As Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu summed up afterwards, “it is hard to search for a black cat in a dark room.”
The left of boom activities of different arms of state power at work in both the Russian and Chinese examples now come with different names: hybrid warfare, new generation warfare, political warfare, diathetical warfare, non-linear warfare, memetic warfare, and gray zone warfare are some examples. This raises the issue of overusing the word “warfare.” If left of boom activities are only viewed through right of boom lenses, we will continue to reach for the same insufficient solutions. Moreover, the basic principles underneath this pattern of adaptation are not new. The notion of achieving victory without fighting dates back to the maxims attributed to Sun Tzu and is almost certainly even older than that.
There is also a risk of equating left of boom strategies with foreign policy given the vast array of measures used and the many dimensions to conflict. The difference is that operating left of boom occurs within narrower parameters. Measures are targeted at limited goals and are not replicable across the full range of foreign policy objectives. This is not necessarily a new global cold war, although it does require political-military coordination. Rather, it is the art of blurring the boundary between war and peace in a geographic space.
Some might also point out that the concept is not easily equated between different adversaries and not easily replicable in different geographic, political, and social environments. It is true that operating left of boom is a broad pattern of adaptation, and what worked for Russia in Crimea evidently did not work in eastern Ukraine. Yet that does not mean the concept has low analytical utility. This is a preconceived doctrine (in both Russia and China) rather than an opportunistic response to favorable local circumstances. In addition, the multitude of tactics in play are all recognizable by the questions they ask of how U.S. and allied policymakers think about conflict. Where is the line between war and peace? Between war and politics? Between amphibious assault troops and strategically placed oil rigs?
Asking the Right Questions
These questions, at heart, challenge the relationships between different arms of democratic governments. If occupying troops are a problem for the Pentagon and wayward fishermen are a problem for the State Department, which should solve the problem posed by occupying fishermen? Large organizations have a track record of inertia in response to innovations that challenge relationships between their internal components, and government is no different. Left of boom tactics, particularly the targeted use of state-owned media and false information, also raise further questions about the vulnerability of comparatively open democracies.
It is one thing to point out a problem, but another to find an answer. If right of boom tools are evidently proving insufficient for solving left of boom problems, perhaps asking the right questions about our internal structures and ways of thinking about conflict is a first step. After all, it is preferable to change doctrine through intellect rather than the empiricism of extinction — bloody or otherwise.
Ewen Levick is the online editor for the Australian Defence Magazine. His writings focus on ‘left of boom’ conflict and have also appeared in the Lowy Institute Interpreter, the ASPI Strategist, the East Asia Forum, and others. He previously served in the Australian Army. Ewen can be reached at ewen.levick (at) gmail.com.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jonah Baase