St. Barbara, Patron Saint of Artillerymen
June 2035. Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland.
General Smith stands in a crowd. He’s in a drafty mid-20th century hangar, looking up at a stage. The Ghost stands next to him. A middle-aged man in an expensive suit is speaking at the lectern. Weapon displays flank the stage, ranging from Remotely-Operated Ground Unit for Expeditionary Fires (ROGUE-Fires) vehicles mounted with GBASMs to modified steel containers, housing pods of Land Based-Tomahawk cruise missiles and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems. There is nothing to distinguish the weapons from anything he’s seen before as CG III MEF and at Marine Corps Combat Development Command. The general recognizes the Raytheon product that combines the fourth-generation missile capabilities of the SM-6 (surface-to-air) with Tomahawk cruise missile (surface-to-surface) capabilities into the fifth-generation NSM. This new missile uses the Autonomous Target Recognition (ATR) seeker to ensure that the correct target is detected, recognized, and hit at sea or on land. Stacked pelican cases holding ruggedized laptops (Weapons Control System), ROGUE-Fires leaders kits, and Tactical Communications Adapters seem to outnumber the audience.
The ROGUE-Fires Vehicle
Non-surface-based platforms are the hot topic. Loitering and palletized munitions are being displayed, demonstrating launch capabilities on a variety of platforms. Loitering munitions allow the Marine Corps to pre-launch munitions into a designated area for extended periods of time. This autonomous system searches for targets, then decides which and when to engage targets in such a way that no human can intervene.
Loitering Munitions at Work
The general also sees himself, albeit with grayer hair and more wrinkles, seated comfortably on the stage next to other well-dressed men and women. He knows that every other VIP on stage is a former military officer. This is one of the more distasteful elements of the military-industrial marriage. He hates coming to these dog and pony shows but they are necessary. You never get the actual price tag, and you never get what you pay for, but it all serves a purpose.
General Smith listens to the speaker.
“…this represents the pinnacle of warfighting and another step to ensuring the security of America and her allies. Though the models we’re displaying here are designed for the Army, the maritime variants are already fielded in the Marine Littoral Regiments for their Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations. Marines got a head start on the Army, you might say." The man chuckles. "But you might be asking yourself, ‘these look identical to the systems we already have’, and you’d be right. They do look the same, but the difference with the new systems will change how we fight, forever. These missile suites are the first out-of-the-loop multi-domain weapon systems designed for conventional forces. We have responded to the challenge of the kill-chain in a truly impressive way. This is the technological offset from our adversaries that we’ve been working towards. Not only are these systems more accurate and reliable than earlier models, but they’re also faster and more discriminating in targeting. By removing the threat of human error and empowering the narrow artificial intelligence within our suites, war just became easier and security more assured. We worked closely with the folks at DARPA to implement state-of-the art encryption that virtually ensures no one can fire these that shouldn’t - so there is no risk of hacking. The best news for the Pentagon, from a budgetary angle, is we don’t need four separate systems for air, land, sea, and subsurface, just one! Working closely with the Army and Marine Corps, we’ve fielded a system that knows what to launch even before we do. Just like some of us remember as lieutenants at TBS or down in Benning, it’s as simple as supplying target engagement criteria and engagement zones. That’s it. This innovation frees commanders and the guys on the ground to worry about more pressing things.”
“You’re still impressed” asked The Ghost, “even though you know what happens next?”
“Well, we need to do this before the Chinese do. Every analyst and intel report confirms the Chinese and a few others are willing to push boundaries for an advantage. We’re far from perfect, but to deter aggressors you need to give them a reason to fear you no matter how distasteful. Without crossing an ethical line, of course.”
The Ghost is silent.
“How is this any different than moving from horse calvary to tanks? Was it unfair that we invented stealth technology before the Russians in the Cold War? If we don’t push autonomous systems to the frontiers, someone else will.” General Smith turns to The Ghost and says with conviction, “No one wants to imagine the consequences of falling behind!”
“Someone did think through the consequences, general. The problem is you did not. Every new system that prioritizes speed, accuracy, and security is a zero-sum proposition for human operators. This speech says the quiet thing aloud: The goal of military hardware is no longer to enable the warfighter; it is to make the warfighter redundant. Why? Because the experts say humans are unreliable, prone to errors, and slow.”
General Smith is confused by this. “I don’t understand, if there is a better way to do something, why wouldn’t we do it? If autonomous systems are better options, it’s malpractice to reject them! All we need to do is make sure the Marines have a backup if a system fails. It’s simple: We need robust redundancies for everything.”
The Ghost smiles. “Your redundancies, general, are always the first to go.”
The bright flash takes General Smith again.