Leading thinkers in technology and warfare picture a transformed infantry in future battles where humans are distant, if not entirely removed, from the fighting.
Lt. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, the deputy commanding general of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, spoke at the third annual “Mad Scientist” conference, a partnership between Georgetown University and TRADOC.
MacFarland emphasized that U.S. adversaries such as Russia are using existing technologies in new applications, such as cyber attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure in conjunction with deploying troops, changing the battlefield tactics.
But those types of maneuvers are child’s play when compared to what many see coming in both the near-term and ensuing decades as autonomous machines are incorporated alongside mounted and dismounted troops, carrying supplies and firing weapons.
A Russian video shown at the conference had unmanned tanks roving a city, destroying tanks and buildings and killing snipers.
The advent of artificial intelligence in combat will radically change the nature of the infantry, experts said.
“We’re standing on the cusp of a fundamental change in the history of warfare,” MacFarland said.
Many of the experts see the role of the infantryman morphing into that of a kind of battlefield coordinator. The individual soldier or Marine leader will receive vast amounts of data via heads-up displays much like a fighter pilot but use that information to command multiple direct and indirect fire systems and recon the battlefield with individual drones.
The main job of the human will be to decide whether to fire. The human will provide context, the “so what,” or how wars will be fought, said Jeffrey Becker, president of Context LLC, a defense consultancy.
That soldier or Marine will be constantly considering, “why he’s there, what’s the purpose of his unit,” Becker said.
The conference aims each year to ask questions, such as the ethical use of autonomous machines in warfare, and seek solutions, such as how incorporating brain research can enhance a warfighter, as both TRADOC and academia develop approaches to “multi-domain battle,” the next wave of warfare that will incorporate sea, air, land with cyber and space battlespaces.
Some experts said humans in the future infantry must look to enhancements, be they chemical or neural implants, to speed up their thinking and reactions to process all the information and make lightning-fast decisions.
Others argued that humans would recede from the bullets-and-bombs fighting on the field to work more surgically in civil affairs roles with civilian and enemy populations or in special operations forces roles rather than the traditional “ground pounder” carrying heavy weapons up hills and around dangerous urban spaces.
The role of the human will be to arrive at the fight in peak readiness, not exhausted from lugging 80 pounds or more of gear for miles over rough terrain before fighting even begins. To accomplish these feats, equipment will get lighter, logistics will become more integrated, robots will carry the load more often and biological feedback systems will constantly monitor the status of the troops.
Alongside those troops will be machines firing directed energy lasers to disable opponents’ systems and robot attach cheetahs capable of running more than 40 mph over any terrain to attack the enemy.
But still others, such as Radhika Roy, an electronics engineer for U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, said those developments, while necessary in the short term, are half measures as battle evolves into artificial intelligence systems fighting each other and learning how to better fight as they go.
“The faster battle rhythm will increasingly push human beings out of the decision-making loop,” Roy said.
Many have serious ethical questions about the devices and methods being discussed at these conferences. But Becker isn’t so gentle when he looks to U.S. adversaries.
“They’re going to put automated systems on the battlefield, they’re going to do what we wouldn’t do,” Becker said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.