Robo-recruits to the army's rescue?
Victory goes to the big battalions - does it matter if they're human?
‘How many divisions has the Pope?’ – Joseph Stalin is said to have asked, sneeringly. Vladimir Putin might be asking the same of the British army. That possibility certainly seemed to be on the mind of Patrick Sanders, Chief of the British General Staff this week, when he called for a citizen army and a ‘whole of nation undertaking’ to prepare for possible war in the next few years. He stopped short of the dreaded word 'conscription', but his speech certainly set that hare running in the newspaper columns. All this in the context of a recruitment crisis for the armed forces, including the army, which looks set to undershoot its already modest headcount target.
But what’s that coming over the hill? Is it a robot? Perhaps autonomy could provide a way to offset the shortage of willing humans – in defence as in other parts of the British economy.
In an earlier speech on technology, Sanders, then heading Strategic Command, described AI the ‘one ring to rule them all’. The Chief of the Defence Staff, Nick Carter, at much the same time, imagined a British army of the 2030s with 30,000 robots. Since then, there’s been plenty of enthusiastic noise about autonomy and robotic systems. Rare is the seniors’ speech that doesn’t mention it. We’ve had strategy papers aplenty, and new structures within the MoD dedicated to AI. There are increasingly numbers of companies eager to offer their innovative products and services to defence too. And yet…. The ‘valley of death,’ as it’s known to defence-tech afficionados, seems real. Traversing the gap between innovation and capability is evidently far from straightforward. Small-scale experiments on Salisbury plain are one thing – large-scale deployments as part of the ORBAT are quite another.
This month the House of Commons Defence Committee is conducting an inquiry on exactly this topic – exploring whether the UK has the right approach to innovating and procuring kit for this new AI-powered era. And whether, as part of that, it has the right people with the right skills. Full disclosure - I’m advising the committee on its work. Keep an eye out for the report in a few months; I’m quite sure there’s plenty to be said.
The stakes are high. In Ukraine, war with Russia has evolved into a largely static, attritional affair. This week, one Ukrainian operator explained to the Guardian that the problem was ubiquitous tactical drones, a novel feature of this war. These are employed in huge numbers by both sides as spotters for artillery and as loitering munitions. Cheap, disposable, and linked to sophisticated targeting systems, they’ve been a game changer. The operational defence, for the moment, appears dominant, with both sides chewing through equipment and soldiers at a fearsome rate in a frustrated effort to gain some momentum. It looks like a stalemate and is often reported as such. But that’s illusory – the struggle is all about the relative rate of consumption and replenishment. In that context, disposable uncrewed systems are proving invaluable.
Meanwhile, in America, where everything is bigger and shinier than here, similar problems are being tackled with gusto. Matters there are far from perfect. There’s plenty of debate along similar lines about the barriers to next-generation capabilities. This week, for example, the Pentagons’ advisory Defense Innovation Board said that the Department needs to do much better at pulling innovations through into capabilities – a clear echo of our own problems.
Still, the scale of ambition in the US is arresting. Developments appear on my social media timeline with increasing frequency. This week, for example, I saw that Air Force Special Operations Command had flown three Reaper drones with a single crew for the first time. Then, of course, there’s the new Replicator programme, announced a few months ago, which aims to field thousands of disposable, swarming robots within a couple of years. Warp speed, in procurement terms. The goal is ‘small, smart, many’ – according to Kathleen Hicks, the Deputy Secretary. US Air Force LTG Alexus Grynkewich weighed in with an even more striking quote this week:
"Thousands is nothing. Tens of thousands gets a little more interesting. What we need is hundreds of thousands up to a million autonomous intelligent drones and that is where we are going."
A million autonomous robots! Chew on that, Nick Carter. What might they mean for the sort of attritional, industrial-era slugfest in eastern Ukraine? If Replicator comes off, I can see the tactical balance shifting back to the offensive – a million swarming strike-robots would saturate many defences. Quantity would indeed have a quality all its own. Well, talk is cheap. Will General Grynkewic's swarms make it through the Valley of Death? Perhaps not as envisaged, but the scale of his ambition is out of all proportion with ours. If the Americans get anywhere close, where would that leave the UK, mired in recruiting crisis, with strained public finances and low levels of R&D investment?
(This is my monthly column for the Wavell Room - Edge of Defence. You can and should subscribe to that too!)