The logistics of autonomous systems – the consequence of transformed logistics

By David Beaumont.

‘Logistics and autonomous systems – the promise of transformed logistics’ concluded that the prospective use of autonomous systems for military logistics was a matter of the imagination. Western militaries, including the Australian Defence Force (ADF), have been exploiting semi-autonomous systems for years. It is only a matter of time before robotics and other associated technologies revolutionise warfare to the point the militaries must transform. The article, however, also concluded with the observation that the biggest problem to face militaries is not in the choice of the systems to employ, and where to use them, but from the increasing reliance militaries will have on their technology. This reliance will not only transpire into changes to the logistics needs of armies, navies and air forces, but could very well lead to substantive organisational change.

There has been very little conversation as to what the implications of this robotic revolution will be on the logistics of modern militaries – the ‘logistics of autonomy’. Many writers have effusively seen robotics as changing the characteristics of militaries and transforming in the way they go to war. There are ample discussions on the ethics in the use of autonomous weapons, and volumes of promising statements on how robotic weapons and equipment will create new opportunities and risks. Just as the invention of the internal combustion engine changed the logistics needs of armies, and the invention of power flight created an entirely new military domain of war, technological-induced transformation always comes with significant changes to way such military forces are sustained.

Motorisation, mechanisation, flight, rocketry and computing elevated the importance of mechanics, petroleum operations, munitions specialists and supply specialists to the wars of the last 120 years. Better materiel and training to the soldier, sailor and airman helped to ‘thin’ the battlefield; technology allowing each combatant able to bring more and more firepower to bear on the enemy than the previous military generation. However, this increase in the use of technology has created a commensurate increase in logistics support; creating an ‘interminable contest’ between the teeth and ‘tail’ that the ‘teeth’ is losing.[1] The centre of gravity for military forces is in the process of moving from the battlefield and to the supply depots, bases, ports and defence infrastructure in ‘rear echelons’ and what the Australian Defence Force calls the ‘national support base’.

The shift from the human to machine will only accelerate this transformation. Militaries using autonomous weapons will, if we are optimistic about the technology, look very different in twenty, thirty years in the future. But there’s a dark side to technology-centric transformation. It can create tremendous complexity for forces that rush to bring in service capabilities. If the goal is to remove humans from ‘dull, dirty and dangerous work’ in the combat zone, the cost will be likely be borne in the establishment of new organisations and systems to sustain autonomous weapons on the ocean, in the field and in the air.

The military workforce will also have to change to reflect the technical need. Although we might want to call the future an ‘age of automation’, we could also call the coming period the ‘age of the engineer’. This situation is somewhat ironic in that one of the primary goals for automating logistics is to lower the number of personnel invested in logistics tasks. It is instructive that the invention of computers – so essential for modern military logistics – has not achieved much in stemming the growth in the ‘tail’ of modern militaries. We are far from removing logisticians from the battlefield.

Militaries will need engineers, uniformed or civilian, in abundance. The current generation of autonomous battlefield systems are ‘brittle’, not particularly adaptable and easily break down. In the context of armies, this problem reflects the difficulty for machines that lack the manoeuvrability of a human being. The situation is better for military aviation and naval uses where the impact of environment is much less. All systems are at presence sensitive to conditions, and need routine attention – and most aren’t capable of self-care.

This is not to say that militaries need to expand their organic logistics capabilities at this point. Military logistics always extends into the economy – more specifically the nation’s industrial base – and the integration of industry into the routine sustainment of new autonomous systems will remain important. It is quite clear that industry partners will have to continue to work closely, if not intimately, with Army, Navy and Air Force to provide the technical support and expertise that is traditionally difficult for the military to generate independently. It is also clear that we need to have a conversation about how skills may be transferred into the military workforce if needed in a crisis, or how autonomous systems might be sustained and repaired in conflict zone.

Army Autonomous Systems Demonstration

Perhaps we can combat the ‘less-positive’ effects of automation by focussing on the notion of disposable military robots. It’s tempting to think that we can abandon a robot when it is damaged or no longer in use; it appeals to our sense that there is a real possibility that we can remove humans from danger and replace them with something of lesser value. We must, however, be realistic with our aspirations. Until production lines run so large that costs are driven down, or newer technologies are found that dramatically lower costs, it will be inevitable that we treat autonomic systems with the same level of care we do any other form of exquisite, and expensive, technology.

It will not only be militaries that will need to transform as autonomy supplants humans. There is a tremendous opportunity for defence industry to step into a gap that has been unfilled since the dying days of the national electronics industry in the 1980s. If we are to embrace the use of autonomy in the ADF as a credible alternative to the human combatant, it will be highly advantageous for the military to have a national industry behind it. A dependency on foreign componentry and construction can become a strategic risk – especially as global supply chains are contested or limited resources shared. I suspect we will find electronics and componentry join ammunition and fuel as a marker of strategic resilience in due course. In the meantime, we will need to be careful about accelerating into autonomy else we embark upon a costly sham with unviable capabilities in combat.

Perhaps this will necessitate us having a conversation about Australian innovations and their identification as a matter of strategic value and a target of regulation. Most innovations in autonomous systems will come from the private sector, and in many cases, will be available to the highest bidder. A pessimistic view of the future suggests we need preserve whatever advantage we can, and – as a nation – we might have to balance our commercial and strategic interests. With autonomy firmly on the horizon for the ADF and other advanced militaries, it seems clear that we must initiate this discussion now.

The point of this article was not to dismiss technology, but to elicit discussion. Autonomous systems will be essential to the ADF of the future. It will create new options at all levels of war, improve the capacity of a defence force pressured by its relative size, and give us new opportunities to exploit. The technology behind automation is an area where Australia can generate a strategic advantage if it chooses to; we have a high standard of education, a population thriving with high stands of technology use, and a long track-record of innovation as a nation. We have an ADF prepared for change and actively seeking partners to overcome many of the challenges, and take advantage of new opportunities, that are raised in this article.

We all know how rapidly the technology around automation is evolving. The sooner Defence, industry and the wide range of technology partners work on overcoming the logistics limitations of autonomy the better. This way we will realise the potential of the technology, rather than bring into being capabilities or systems that are too exquisite to be practically employable let alone sustainable. This is an enduring problem with introducing new technology into defence forces in a time of relative peace, where there is always a temptation to made expedient decisions to introduce new capabilities without the funding or capacity to support it. Provided comprehensive plans are developed well in advance, the ‘logistics of autonomy’ is another area of opportunity to give the ADF a new advantage.


[1] Macksey, K., For want of a nail: the impact on war of logistics and communications, Brasseys, UK, 1989, p 1

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