“Amateurs talk about strategy and tactics. Professionals talk about logistics and sustainability in warfare.” - General Robert Hilliard Barrow, 27th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps
It is a truism, even cliché, for military officers to paraphrase this long-held adage throughout their careers. However, General Barrow famously made these remarks in 1979 when the United States could reasonably expect unhindered, persistent access to strategic seaports and airfields through which to deploy personnel and equipment for military operations. As the United States’ strategic focus shifts to the Indo-Pacific region, the challenge General Barrow describes has become more acute. The region’s terrain and increasingly advanced adversarial capabilities have laid waste to old assumptions about gaining access to and setting the theater. Operational forces in the Indo-Pacific will likely operate in more distributed formations over restrictive terrain. Sustaining these forces will be a significant challenge since extended supply lines and persistent logistics hubs are vulnerable to long-range fires. Fortunately, autonomous systems are uniquely positioned to solve some of the complex logistical problems that will constrain operations in the Indo-Pacific.
In light of these new realities, the Department of Defense (DOD) is working hard to adapt its capabilities and technologies. This historic modernization effort includes trusted AI and autonomy, one of the DOD’s 14 critical technology areas. However, as if on cue from General Barrow himself, most of the debate about integrating autonomous systems into the Joint Force revolves around combat systems, not how autonomy enables core military activity such as logistics, engineering, and medical support. This is dangerous given that any operational force, regardless of its mission, is constrained by its capability to plan and deliver the personnel and material required to get the job done. Simply stated, the world’s most technologically sophisticated combat systems are useless without an equally capable logistics force getting them into action and sustaining them.
Autonomous systems are uniquely positioned to solve complex logistical problems that will likely constrain operations on tomorrow’s battlefields. These technologies are available today and offer several advantages to logistics operations in all domains, including increased speed, carrying capacity, and the ability to dynamically re-purpose elements to support constantly-changing priorities. For example, autonomous systems can de-risk and increase the efficiency of operations, such as the delivery of logistics packages (LOGPAC) in contested areas, by using fewer human operators. Autonomous systems also offer solutions to high-risk battlefield engineering operations. Enormous capacity exists for human-machine teams to reconnoiter, deploy, or reduce battlefield obstacles.
While tactical use cases for autonomy in sustainment operations are evident, technologies like computer vision (CV) also have immediate applicability at the strategic level. CV is foundational to autonomous system technology and widely used by the DOD. Beyond using this technology to develop autonomous vehicles, the DOD made several investments in CV as a means to reduce the cognitive burden on intelligence analysts and commanders in previous conflicts. As the United States shifts its attention to preparing for conflict with peer and near-peer adversaries, the DOD should capitalize on the lessons it learned from previous investments in CV over the past decade and apply them to today’s challenges. For example, the DOD could use CV models to determine if aerial and maritime ports can support operations more rapidly than with current processes. By harnessing CV algorithms that use government and commercial satellite imagery, analysts can access a continuously updated database of ports. Having access to this kind of information will enable commanders to make faster and more accurate decisions and get inside the adversary’s decision-making loop.
The use of autonomous systems in sustainment operations would give the United States and its allies many potential advantages over less technologically-advanced adversaries. Human-machine teams can conduct critical missions together, including sustainment operations. These teams represent an economy of force that allows commanders to prioritize using their service members for other tasks. The use of human-machine teams in sustainment operations also enables the operationalization of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) concept. Data collected through distributed and networked platforms used for sustainment operations enhances situational awareness and allows commanders to make decisions faster than their adversaries. Collectively, a network of human-machine teams tasked to carry out sustainment operations offer far more capability than a fleet of manned platforms designed to carry out the same mission. The good news for commanders and sustainers is that the technologies required to develop these autonomous systems aren’t a figment of our imagination, but are available for use today.