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Deep Maneuver, Robot Warfare, and You

July 19, 2016


In a previous post, I proposed that people who are seen as purveyors of ideologies which give support to armed conflict are increasingly becoming targets in modern warfare.

Technology allows this to happen. The revolution in artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomous weapons systems coupled with big-data analysis has the potential to create a digital panopticon which also has the ability to reach out and strike.

This also has the potential to give states an edge against decentralized networks in 21st century warfare.

Robot Warfare

Fielding a fully autonomous robotic army will likely be possible only for a major power. This could make robot warfare the future of war between major powers. Such wars will be limited conflicts fought primarily for interest rather than ideology.

Two scenarios could play out. The first would be a limited struggle over disputed territory such as the Spratly Islands, where each side could feed robot weapons into battle at a steady rate with little risk to any of its own personnel and little chance of serious domestic opposition to the war. Such conflict could go on forever, or at least until the equipment losses for one side or the other became prohibitively expensive.

The second would be a clash between automated armies over some inhabited territory such as the Korean Peninsula or the Baltic states. This is a much more dangerous kind of robot warfare. Once one side’s army is destroyed they now have two options: Surrender, or continue the fight with a human army (likely using lesser quality equipment due to cost, or waging guerrilla tactics).

If they choose to fight on, there will be a strong incentive for the party with an intact robot army to launch a countervalue strike, that is, to attack whatever the enemy values the most. This would serve to minimize their own losses and compel the enemy to quickly surrender.

Possible targets of a countervalue strike could include the civilian population, civilian infrastructure, the food supply, or symbolic, ideological or cultural sites.

Deep Maneuver Warfare

The other possibility involves a tactic called Deep Maneuver. Deep Maneuver refers to the ability of an autonomous system to position itself for an attack weeks, months or years in advance and then activate at just the right moment.

One example of such a weapon is the famous Stuxnet virus. The virus propagated itself through computer systems and removable media, remaining benign until it installed itself on a specific type of computer which controlled the centrifuges used to enrich uranium for Iran’s nuclear program. At this point the virus activated, took control of the system, and spun the centrifuges until they broke down.

Another was the Soviet Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, which was originally designed to put a nuclear warhead in orbit where it could circle the earth with unlimited range and be suddenly de-orbited onto a target with no advance warning. This weapon was judged to be so potentially destabilizing that it was banned from space under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and finally deactivated from earth under the SALT II agreement.

Deep maneuvering could allow robotic weapons to penetrate all aspects of an enemy country and position themselves for a surprise attack against everything at once.

Such an attack would likely target key infrastructure and economic nodes in order to trigger an economic collapse. Cultural heritage sites of tourist or economic importance could become targets, just as they are for terrorist attacks today.

Cultural heritage sites also form nodes in an ideological economy. Destroying sacred sites causes extensive social disruption and furthermore makes statement proclaiming the superiority of one’s own ideology over that of whatever was destroyed.

Such an attack could take several forms:

  • Drones loaded with explosives position themselves days or weeks in advance. At a designated time they swarm cultural and historic sites during peak tourist hours and detonate their payloads. Unlike a suicide bombing or mass shooting, this does not require a commitment to death from those who carry out the plot.
  • A virus is programmed which propagates across the internet and erases material which is ideologically opposed to the organization which created the virus. This could include attacking projects seeking to digitally recreate or preserve cultural heritage objects which the group has destroyed. A similar program designed to scrub the internet of ISIS propaganda has been proposed by the Counter-Extremism Project and has received White House backing.
  • Micro-drones loaded with small explosive charges identify all the ideological leaders of an opposing group, track them, and then strike all at once. The group is instantly decapitated.

Unlike robot warfare between great powers, all of these scenarios may well be within the capabilities of non-state actors within the next fifty years.

(Photo credit: U.S. Air Force)

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

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