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by Dr. Gordon Cooke 

Science fiction becomes science fact.

To build and buy the right things for the future, the Army’s developers and planners need to be able to envision it. Science fiction or what’s sometimes called speculative fiction can be a useful jumping-off point. Below, a few sketches of what warfare could look like in the future, from a researcher at the Tactical Behavior Research Laboratory. 

2023

A Soldier is on a foot patrol during an advise-and-assistance mission in a Middle Eastern nation. The trail ahead explodes in a brown blast of dirt and machine-gun fire opens up. He drops to the ground and looks through the S.M.A.R.T. sight on his rifle. Ahead is a wall of brown dust, but his sight overlays blue boxes showing the locations of the four allied soldiers in front of him on the trail. He doesn’t need the red arrow on the left edge of the screen to tell him which side the machine-gun fire is coming from. On orders from his sergeant, the Soldier takes a position up the hill to lay down support fire. He counts five white boxes in his viewer, likely enemy locations, based on imagery analysis and acoustic signature of the enemy weapons. The boxes quickly turn yellow as the data confidence increases. He knows not to worry about all of the targets and focuses on the one flashing box. That’s his priority target as his rifle coordinates with the rest of the squad to distribute targets in the most efficient way. Suddenly, Sparky, the squad’s mechanical pack dog, runs over and drops a stack of fresh magazines on the ground. The Soldier looks at the counter on the side of his rifle; he hadn’t noticed how low on ammo he was.

2034

A first lieutenant is on her first deployment as a cavalry platoon leader in a troubled North African nation. On the radio, her platoon sergeant calls, “Blue 6, this is Blue 7. Net sensors are detecting a lot of movement along the three-seven grid line.” She launches a hawk, a small aerial drone, and can hear the tight whine of the motor as it takes off. The sound fades as the drone climbs higher and speeds forward. Soon the first lieutenant has a video feed as the hawk circles over the target area. Twenty or 30 Chinese-made enemy robotic tanks speed across the desert. Her platoon only has two Odierno manned battle tanks, one armored command vehicle and 12 semi-autonomous robotic battle tanks. They’re outnumbered, but the American-built robots are faster and better armed. The first lieutenant taps the screen to direct her robots to initiate movement toward the approaching column and turns to the crew in the command vehicle. She orders her platoon sergeant to start entering targets from the hawk feed so that the computer can start analyzing and prioritizing indirect fires. As soon as the tanks make contact, they will require permission for lethal fires.

2056

The colonel entered the military way back when the “synths,” or synthetic entities, required human permission to do anything of serious consequence. Especially in a military context. When he was a boy, his father would repair machines by trying to re-create a reported problem—back then, if a machine made an error and you gave it the same set of inputs, it would actually repeat the same error over again. All that’s changed. The United Nations treaty banning fully autonomous military synths had to be scrapped after terrorists in Africa were able to mass-manufacture them by hacking civilian synths with custom code and bolting on rifles. Fact was, training that kind of artificial intelligence software was so basic that any high school kid could have done it. Those first killer synths didn’t care if they killed civilians and were so effective that human soldiers couldn’t put them down. They were too fast. The only way to stop the genocide was to give military synths full autonomy. So here the colonel stands with his staff of coalition planners from the host nations in this region of Asia, ready to give a mission briefing to 800 synths. They’ve already got the battle plans loaded in memory, but his oral brief (the parts he includes in the brief and the inflection of his voice) will influence the synths’ weighting of the instructions. It’s their final programming to help them make sense of ambiguous situations they might encounter or to decide on changes to the plan once they deploy over the border. So the colonel spends about five paragraphs telling them the situation, his intent, the expected outcomes and the goals for each company. He makes sure to emphasize avoiding human deaths. These days, civilian casualties are extremely rare anyway, but best to emphasize the point. He wishes them luck and dismisses them to get on the trucks.

The Tactical Behavior Research Laboratory looks to understand and improve human and machine performance in combat situations through close collaboration between human behavioral scientists and engineers and developers who build armaments and other tools for Soldiers. The lab is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC), and has operated since 2004.