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On Hyperwar

Originally published in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine. 

2 January 2018: Abandon Ship

The battle damage was devastating, and constituted the beginning of what the United States soon would discover was a widespread, strategic attack.

The guided-missile destroyer had not recognized that its systems were under cyber-attack before the situation turned kinetic. The speed of the attack quickly overwhelmed the ship’s combat systems. New developments were occurring in seconds or less. Before anyone could even react, the battle was over.

The captain had survived, but he was severely wounded, as were many crew members. Fires were burning out of control, and the ship was listing badly from flooding.

Evidently, the autonomous platforms knew exactly where to strike the ship to both maximize damage and reduce the chances of survivability.

With his capacity to command the ship now seriously compromised and the flooding out of control, the captain did what no U.S. skipper had done for generations.

He issued the order to abandon ship.

The Coming Transformation

On only a few occasions has history witnessed fundamentally transformative changes in the way war is waged, enabled by technological developments.

The employment of cavalry and the advent of the rifled musket are a few examples. The field of battle is where the next great shift will happen, and those who are unprepared will fare poorly.

This time, the shift will be an innovation that warfare has never seen before: the minimization of human decision-making in most processes traditionally required to wage war.

In this coming age of hyperwar, we will see humans largely providing broad, high-level inputs. Machines will do the planning, executing, and adapting to the reality of the mission, and take on the burden of thousands of individual decisions with no additional input.

Explaining Hyperwar

What makes this new form of warfare unique is the unparalleled speed enabled by automating decision-making and leveraging artificial intelligence.

The implications of these developments are numerous and game-changing.

First of all, while human decision-making is potent, it also has limitations in speed, attention, and diligence. Machines do not suffer from these limitations, and machine intelligence can be deployed at scales sufficient to enable an infinite supply of tactical, operational, and strategic decision-making.

Secondly, AI allows for far better coordination and concurrency of action. With machine-based decision-making, sensors, soldiers, and weapons can be coordinated instantaneously. This enables the rapid massing of forces and the execution of kinetic action and subsequent dispersal.

This coordination will far outpace what can be done under human direction.

Thirdly, AI can simplify logistics by enabling robotic soldiers and autonomous drones equipped with synthetic intelligence. The needs of robotic soldiers will not be as varied as those of a human soldier, nor will these machines be as indispensable as human lives.

Finally, AI technology will enable groundbreaking changes in training. Natural language processing systems can ingest hundreds of thousands of manuals and guides to augment human operators.

AI systems can be trained via simulators rather than real-world experience.

The system that evolves the best-performing neural network can then instantly transfer its training and knowledge to as many other systems as needed.

28 May 2027: The First Salvo of the Hyperwar

The artificially intelligent cyber defense system in the guided-missile destroyer was the first to detect what appeared to be an attempt at a major cyber intrusion.

The initial attack and successful defense occurred within microseconds. The ship then detected a massive incoming swarm attack and forwarded threat information to the rest of the fleet, enabling other units to prepare for an impending attack.

The captain moved quickly. He donned the AR headgear and gauntlets to assimilate with the ship and react to the totality of the battle.

With a sweep of his hand in virtual reality, he initiated the anti-swarm batteries. In that instant, naval warfare changed forever.

Hours later, after checking diagnostics that showed the health of his ship and crew, the captain reflected on the engagement. The attack had come seemingly from nowhere. The cyber defense system had detected the initial intrusion, and not only had it protected the ship, but it also had reasoned the attack was a precursor to something larger.

This hypothesis had been formed, researched, and validated in less than a second. Within 10 seconds, the ship initiated battle stations on its own, and the captain donned his augmented reality ensemble.

The entire battle had unfolded and ended in minutes.

AI systems had foiled a coordinated, complex cyber and autonomous swarm attack. The captain realized that the ship was at risk at nearly every point that required human decisions.

Though he was a master of the combat systems of the USS Infinity (DDG-500), he just experienced the mind-numbing speeds of AI-driven warfare.

He became the first U.S. commander to fight in the environment of hyperwar.

Is This the Military Revolution?

The scenarios and discussion here provide a window into only a few ways in which AI will fuel the next great shift in warfare.

The hyperwar these technologies will enable is a new paradigm we need to plan for. Near-peer opponents are already investing heavily in these technologies and have obtained operational AI-powered weapon systems.

If we are poised at the edge of hyperwar, we must explore the changes necessary to adapt. This situation will require understanding the moral dimensions of these advances, educating a new generation of leaders, and developing the AI-powered analytical systems and autonomous weapons platforms.

The mental, moral, and physical challenges of hyperwar demand analysis and a searching conversation.

Other nations are moving forward aggressively in this area. We must invest in our ability to wage hyperwar before we’re surprised by it.