This article is part of CEPA’s “Age of Autonomy” series, which looks at the growing use and implementation of autonomous technologies on the battlefield and its implications for transatlantic defense and security.
The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war has shown how challenges in demography and geography pose serious problems for NATO’s security. At the same time, new and established enterprises in industry are providing precise, inexpensive, and lethal technologies to compensate. Preparing for the next war means embracing the mass application of autonomous systems that are comparatively easy to engineer, produce, and employ. Fielding such forces, however, will require profound changes in military procurement, logistics, organization, and the very people they recruit, train, and retain.
Demography and geography are conspiring against security.
Ukrainian troops are fighting with difficulty against Russia’s capabilities in surveillance, firepower, and field engineering. Despite their continuous stream of tactical successes, Ukrainian missiles and mechanized assaults are still not quickly penetrating defenses. Over great distances, with one’s logistics constantly under attack, even the enemy’s thin opposing lines can be formidable.
Part of the difficulty is that Ukraine is already experiencing the military labor constraint overhanging almost every industrialized country. Very low birth rates will provide in the future far fewer troops. With much lower force densities than in World Wars I and II, and lower tolerance for casualties, massing manpower for the attack has become challenging, and frankly distasteful.
Even so, as the ongoing, slow-going counteroffensive shows, maneuvering under modern conditions may be very difficult, but it is still necessary for reversing the advances of smash-and-grab autocrats. NATO needs forces capable of patrolling and defending large areas against ingressing drones and troops, and then fighting forward to regain whatever might have been lost.
Industry is already producing the offsetting technology.
In economic terms, this means substituting physical and human capital for massed labor. The Ukrainian efforts in this shift are already legendary. The army of drones is storming trenches. Drone boats and coastal missiles have largely swept the Black Sea of capital ships. Echoing three-decade-old successes of the Persian Gulf War, precise missile strikes are eliminating bridges, depots, and too-obvious headquarters.
Enthusiasm has spread to the United States, where a stepped-up pace of work is being shared by upstart firms of novel scope and established contractors built for scale. The deputy defense secretary herself is personally overseeing a “Replicator” initiative to reproduce and improve upon such capabilities, en masse. The undersecretary for acquisition confidently noted recently that the effort to expand artillery shell production sixfold is ahead of schedule, and it will stretch past sevenfold. Add on-the-shelf and inexpensive precision guidance kits to each, and in two years, US industry could be producing 100,000 smart weapons every month.
The next steps are designing and building loitering, self-guided, collaborating weapons with heterogeneous payloads. This unfolding success shows how quick program starts, fast learning curves, and a restructured arms industry can produce future effect.
The economy of autonomy shows how to rethink the military.
Of course, all this requires money, and only so much of domestic product is available for any military. Across much of NATO, slow economic growth has rendered problematic the push past two percent of a member’s gross domestic product devoted to defense spending. Even in the more dynamic United States, spending again may be tightening.
US military forces are offering a range of reactions. The Army has plans for an Army of 2030, and an Army of 2040, after three decades of incremental modernization. The Air Force wants a pair of drones alongside every manned fighter, but it is trying to justify a future fighter at hundreds of millions of dollars each. Echoing the Ukrainian effort on the Black Sea, the US Navy has a flotilla in the Persian Gulf now substantially based on unmanned boats, but it still spends the bulk of its money on huge manned warships. The Marines, in contrast, are openly discussing robotizing everything they can.
This last path is the sensible one. Under future labor and cost constraints, and with technological alternatives available today, continuing to fight with legacy fleets of expensive, labor-intensive systems is an economically dubious proposition. It may already be a war-losing strategy, as enemies target concentrations of power and people with their own masses of precision weapons.
Fortunately, the Ukrainian way of war is daily providing pathways for rethinking the military. This new model army depends more on cumulative strategies than sequential schemes of complicated maneuver. Highly dispersed, mobile infantry, splendidly supported by robotics and standoff weapons, inflict enough attrition and restrict enough movement to enable local advance and clearance. Air and sea power are exercised more through denial than overinvestment in easily targeted islands of firepower. Ubiquitous sensing from space identifies anything large and obvious, preventing easy concentration and large-scale surprise. Across the force, the unmanned, mobile, and dispersed are emphasized over the manned, static, and concentrated.
Across the alliance, this will mean rediscovering and updating an old US way of war: industrial-scale attrition, but with information-age technology. Rethinking the military for the age of autonomy means thorough changes in multiple ways of doing business. Perhaps painfully, this requires reducing procurement of the largest and most labor-intensive systems—the heavily manned capital ships and aircraft squadrons that provide alluring targets for modern weapons. Instead, robotic aircraft, ships, logistics, and process automation will move humans toward the decision loops of battlefield action. Information technologies will make flatter organizational structures more efficient at higher echelons, and they will demand command schemes with fewer ranks.
The technological intensity of modern warfare recommends recruiting the technologically adept. It further indicates relying on reserve forces, in constant commercial contract with the new, for more functionality. And at the tip of the digitized spear, every scarce soldier will merit fighter-pilot-level investment in training, and accompanying robotics to extend his or her reach.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.