Updated: Nov 23, 2022
When Clausewitz wrote that war is the realm of uncertainty and chance, he did not envision a 21st century where uncertainty is advertised as an option. Though the nature of war has not changed, advances in automation are convincing many that we are less bounded by it. Retired General John Allen’s “Hyperwar” envisions warfare largely devoid of human decision-making. Machines will “do the planning, executing, and adapting”(1). The Department of Defense (DOD) holds that “broad investment in the military application of autonomous systems” is a strategic imperative (2)(3). The character of war has changed and the US cannot afford to fall behind. Whether Artificial Intelligence (AI), autonomous and semi-autonomous systems, or networked databases, automation is enabling things to happen for which we are not ready and have neglected to understand. By failing to account for the human cost of automation, the US risks constructing a 21st Century Maginot Line. To prevent this disaster the Marine Corps must confront the cost of automation and create units designed to fight without it.
Broadly defined, automation arises whenever a machine assumes a function once performed by humans. Automated systems have replaced all, or part of, the traditional components of human intelligence: sensing; processing; acting; and learning (4). The complexity of automation lies in its variance across processes and systems. “To be autonomous, a system must have the capability to independently compose and select among different courses of action to accomplish goals based on its knowledge and understanding of the world, itself, and the situation”(5). Desired outcomes from automation drive modern concept and doctrine development. These outcomes are measured in efficiency, speed, and accuracy in task execution independent of the humans who use, or rely upon, the technology (6). As a result, the effect of automation on the warfighter is either ignored or underemphasized. Such a gross form of consequentialism - wherein the ends justify the means - carries catastrophic risk.
General David Perkins, Commanding General of Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), spearheads the development of Multi-Domain Battle (MDB) for the US Army. Much like General Allen’s “Hyperwar”, MDB envisions a battlespace framework that requires rapid movement between and through domains. Rather than seek competitive advantage over adversaries with specific weapons technology, MDB emphasizes rapidity of decision-making and tighter kill-chains (7). The speed of decisions will depend upon autonomous systems unburdened by limited human cognitive capacity (8). Hyperwar and MDB are only possible if the military considers human cognition the enemy of rapid decision-making.
Outsourcing cognitive labor to machines increases speed and efficiency. “The major effect/result of all these capabilities coming together will be an innovation warfare has never seen before: the minimization of human decision making the vast majority of processes traditionally required to wage war” (9). In some cases, such as factory assembly lines, automation frees humans from mundane tasks. When decision-making is liberated from humans the effects are profound.
When humans use internal cognitive resources to generate solutions or ideas, the results are encoded for later use (10).“True knowledge, particularly the kind that lodges deep in memory and manifests itself in skill...requires a vigorous, prolonged struggle with a demanding task”(11). When machines replace human decision-making and skill the need to exert internal resources diminishes, causing reduced human cognition (12). When humans are passive observers or simple consumers of data, cognition does not remain in stasis - it degenerates (13).
The Defense Science Board specifies that human operators are a liability on the battlefield: “The inability of a human to suddenly change mental gears and successfully diagnose a complex problem currently being addressed by the automation is well documented" (14). Human limitations within some automation loops tempt leaders to substitute men with machine in all of them. Automation results in increasingly vestigial manual redundancies.
Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS) is the fire support command and control system employed by the Army and Marine Corps to provide automated support for planning, coordinating, controlling, and executing fires (15). AFATDS is faster and more accurate than manual gunnery. By removing the potential for human error and increasing response time with computing power, artillery is more lethal while the artillerymen are less so.
Manual gunnery is slow and fallible, yet it’s value cannot be reduced to accurate fires. The value is how an artilleryman understands the world in which his particular skill set is applied. Manual gunnery requires maintaining a mental framework incorporating physics, terrain analysis, and trigonometry. A map, compass, and plotting board compliment cognition whereas GPS and algorithmic systems compete with it. Remove a map and compass from a Marine and he retains the residual cognitive imprint of terrain and direction. The same is not true with GPS and AFATDs (16).Without skill and training, automated systems make Marines accessories to computers.
De-skilling and Automation Complacency
The goal of skill building is the exercise of actions without conscious thought (17). The Marine Corps holds that skill building is the product of progressive and repetitive training designed to “develop forces that can win in combat” (18). The trouble with automation is that, regardless of task complexity, it de-skills. “The progressive effect of automation is first to relieve the operator of manual effort and then to relieve him of the need to apply continuous mental effort” (19). If the future operating environment features more automation and a tsunami of autonomous systems (20), Marines will have less need to develop skill. They will also work harder to stave off complacency.
Human complacency is magnified by bias towards automated systems (21). The June 2017 collision between the USS FITZGERALD and a container ship was due, in part, to automation complacency. The Officer of the Deck plotted a digital radar track on the wrong vessel and refused to believe eyewitness warnings of the impending collision (22). The OOD’s bias was to the radar system - choosing to believe the screen over anything else.
Automation is a Catch-22. Machines replace unreliable humans; as machines and systems grow more capable, humans become less reliable. Limited diligence and attention span cause humans to “give undue weight to information coming through their monitors” (23). As systems improve, we become convinced of their infallibility and prone to aloofness. Compounding this crisis are generations of future recruits raised in an automated world. Described as digital natives, these future Marines are inherently disadvantaged for skill building by nature of growing up inundated with technology. “As the brain grows dependent on technology, the intellect weakens” (24). Not only are future generations likely to be physically weak, they will be cognitively limited in comparison to previous eras. Without bold action the future Marine Corps may become more lethal, but it’s Marines will be less so.
The Solution: Hedging Hyperwar
The DOD is least prepared for a war neutered of technology. If, for instance, an adversary unleashes an atmospheric electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or destroys every orbiting satellite, the pernicious impact of automation on human cognition disadvantages a force designed for MDB.
There is an apt economic concept that should be applied to future war: hedge. A hedge is an investment made to offset potential losses incurred by a companion investment (25). The Marine Corps must become the DOD’s companion investment when MDB fails or technology is denied. There should be permanent analog units within each Marine Expeditionary Force to diversify readiness for future fights. Analog units reject autonomous systems and perfect manual procedures in lieu of automated ones. This is not a Luddite or Amish force – some automation is necessary – but a force tasked with fighting without networks, drones, satellites, or computers. It is not enough to assign infantry and artillery battalions with this task; every warfighting function must be viable and potent.
The analog force will be tasked with developing tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for fighting in tech-denied environments. Experimentation is not enough – this force should not compete for resources and training; it must be a mirror by which the rest of the Corps – and DOD – is measured. In some cases, old manuals and TTPs can be a starting point – but in many other areas the Corps lacks of institutional memory to execute tasks without computer systems. For example, GCSS Marine Corps and supply-chain logistic functions are vast, automated networks. In some cases, automation is unavoidable and necessary – the Marine Corps must recognize what is essential and what is superfluous. The Corps must require excellence in skill and demand manual redundancies for all equipment. It must grow comfortable being slower without autonomous systems if it means Marines are prepared to fight when systems fail. This will not be easy – nor should it be. When the lights go out, which era Marine Corps would succeed? If the answer is not the current era (and it isn’t), the Corps is unprepared.
Beyond the dedicated analog forces, the Marine Corps must holistically question the value of technology if the cost is capable Marines. The crux of this issue is not merely the value of human agency in warfare; it is the value of human agency. Technology has not yet freed humans from the brutish reality of combat but it has tempted some to anticipate the day we are liberated from it (26). Recent history proves otherwise. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, defense experts anticipated easy war borne of sophisticated technology only to be reminded that war is human (27). The rules will not change for future fights. If the Marine Corps hedges “Hyperwar” a day will come when it is the force most ready when the nation is least.
History suggests that automation positively transforms economies and civilizations (28). Likewise, automation within militaries has produced valuable offsets from competitors – after all, precision-guided munitions are automated. Automation increases decision speed, lessens complexity, and reduces risk to humans (29). The pursuit of these qualities will change humans and skilled professionals will grow rare. If technology fails, the scarcity value of military skill and matured cognition will be unsustainable. When the lights go out on future battlefields, the most skilled force will be the competitive advantage.
The 2018 NDS signals an acceptance that autonomous systems are the future (30). “The question is not whether the future of warfare will be filled with autonomous, AI-driven robots, but when and in what form” (31). Though the US is in an international arms race it cannot afford to lose, balancing risk requires diversification of the force. The possibility that “Hyperwar” is a 21st Century Maginot line is sufficient reason for skepticism. In a DOD defining future war as absent of humans, the Marine Corps must think differently. No one else is.
History is replete with militaries erased from battlefields for refusing the spirit of the age. Knowing when to adapt - to change - is as important as understanding when to hold the line. The Marine Corps is caught in a technological riptide. Over time, the compounding effect of an automated society and the adoption of autonomous technology will produce less capable Marines. The MOC states that the “21st Century MAGTF conducts maneuver warfare in the physical and cognitive dimensions of conflict to exploit…advantages over the adversary” (32). To achieve this end, the Marine Corps must become the force prepared for what the country is least prepared for. Because the magnitude of failing technology supersedes the probability of it occurring, the Marine Corps must be the force to fight when the lights go out.
1) Gen John Allen USMC (Ret) and Amir Husain, “On Hyperwar”, Proceedings, July 2017. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2017-07/hyperwar
2) US Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (Washington, DC, January 19, 2018), 9.
3) Defense Science Board, Summer Study on Autonomy. DSB Report for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (Washington, DC: Defense Science Board, June 2016), 43-45.
4) John Danaher, “Is Automation Making Us Stupid? The Degeneration Argument Against Automation,” Philosophical Disquisitions, April 29, 2015.
5) Defense Science Board, Summer Study on Autonomy. DSB Report for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (Washington, DC: Defense Science Board, June 2016), 4.
6) Ibid., 24-25.
7) Amble, John. “Ep. 40 – The Future Multi-Domain Battlespace, with Gen. David Perkins”. Modern War Institute. Podcast audio, Dec. 5, 2017. https://mwi.usma.edu/mwi-podcast-future-multi-domain-battlespace-gen-david-perkins/
8) Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human In The Age of Artificial Intelligence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 133.
9) Gen John Allen USMC (Ret) and Amir Husain, “On Hyperwar”, Proceedings, July 2017. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2017-07/hyperwar
10) Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 74.
11) Ibid., 74.
12) John Danaher, “Is Automation Making Us Stupid? The Degeneration Argument Against Automation,” Philosophical Disquisitions, April 29, 2015.
13) Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 74-80.
14) Defense Science Board, Summer Study on Autonomy. DSB Report for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (Washington, DC: Defense Science Board, June 2016), 26.
16) David Krakauer, “Will AI Harm Us? Better to Ask How We'll Reckon With Our Hybrid Nature", Nautilus (Blog), September 6, 2016. http://nautil.us/blog/will-ai-harm-us-better-to-ask-how-well-reckon-with-our-hybrid-nature
17) Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 81.
18) Commandant of the Marine Corps, The Marine Corps Training and Education System, MCO 1553.1b, May 24, 1991, http://www.marines.mil/Portals/59/Publications/MCO%201553.1B.pdf?ver=2012-10-11-163611-727
19) Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 111.
20) US Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (Washington, DC, January 19, 2018), 9.
21) Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 69.
22) Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Memoranda for Distribution, Navy Collision Report for USS FITZGERALD and USS JOHN S MCCAIN Collisions. November 1, 2017.
23) Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 69.
24) Nicholas Carr, “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds,” The Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2017. https://archive.is/AAPL7#selection-2347.245-2347.338
26) Mick Ryan, "Building a Future: Integrated Human-Machine Military Organization." The Strategy Bridge. December 11, 2017. https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/12/11/building-a-future-integrated-human-machine-military-organization (accessed January 19, 2018).
27) H.R. McMasters, “The Pipedream of Easy War,” New York Times, July 20, 2013.
28) Defense Science Board, Summer Study on Autonomy. DSB Report for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (Washington, DC: Defense Science Board, June 2016), 4.
29) Ibid., 4.
30) US Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (Washington, DC, January 19, 2018), 9.
31) Mick Ryan, "Building a Future: Integrated Human-Machine Military Organization." The Strategy Bridge. December 11, 2017. https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/12/11/building-a-future-integrated-human-machine-military-organization (accessed January 19, 2018).
32) Headquarters US Marine Corps, The Marine Corps Operating Concept: How an Expeditionary Force Operates in the 21st Century, 2016, 12.