Sustaining machines – logistics and autonomous systems

By David Beaumont.

This article is adapted from a presentation given at the Williams Foundation seminar on ‘Next Generation Autonomous Systems’ delivered in Canberra in April 2021.

The popular discussion on autonomy in warfare is constrained to either describing the advantages of introducing autonomous systems for ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ work, or articulating the limitations of their use (including ethical limitations). In terms of ‘logistics’, we can focus on how automation promises to distribute more things to more combatants more quickly, replaces forces in the field, or help us to be more productive and economical with our resources.  Automation offers military logisticians tremendous advantages and has to be a part of their future.

The opportunities for automation in logistics are virtually limitless, only requiring technology and entrepreneurship to deliver a generational change to military technology.  It becoming easier to find such opportunities given the vibrancy of the industry sector, and the enthusiasm robotics presently generates in defence circles. Rather than go through all of these opportunities, this article and the one which follows describes the capability that brings all of the pieces of an autonomous logistics system together – what we call the control network. This is a strategic capability which must be invested in.

Part two discusses the ‘logistics of autonomy’. What does the introduction of autonomous systems mean with respect to generating and deploying military forces? This is an important topic because to properly introduce autonomous systems into the military, we best be prepared for organisational change, cultural change and necessarily closer relationships between the military and industry.  In other words, I’m going to talk briefly on how we might make the capabilities we intend to develop practically useful and sustainable.  

Automated and autonomy in logistics

The military use of autonomous systems conjures the vision of multi-domain technologies connected together in a mutually-supporting ‘kill web’. Swarmed drones, larger UAS, submersibles and other capabilities operating automatically and nominally without human influence (maybe even interference). Though the technology is revolutionary, the idea is not; the “kill web” is to combat operations what the logistics control network is to framework which sustains the operations. This network uses sensors to make decisions about what is moved where. As militaries introduce more and more autonomous systems into service, many of them to fulfill logistics tasks, the importance of this network cannot be understated.

We’ve had an automated logistics control network for decades. Logistics information systems – with all their benefits, liabilities and risks – have been essential to commercial and military logistics since the invention of computers. They have allowed the archetypal complex system – the commercial supply chain – to be analysed to excruciating detail. There is nothing stopping militaries becoming an ‘Amazon’ given the technology that is on offer; provided it is militarised and reflects the needs of fully deployable system that can function in a crisis. Naturally, as armed forces explore the use of autonomous systems, they will also have to explore the use of automation to truly leverage the opportunities autonomy will deliver.

Let’s militarise the idea. Effective logistics information systems enable these forces to more efficiently prioritise and allocate resources by leveraging sensor-based analytics, thereby creating additional capacity in the military supply chain and other logistics functions. When greater logistics capacity is found, this naturally means more options open up for the strategist, tactician or capability manager. Incorporate scalable, swarming, logistics UAS or autonomous convoys into this system and a remarkable level of efficiency might be possible.

The use of information-age technology has helped address what has been described as ‘the logistics snowball’ – the propensity of poorly planned and executed logistics to expand logistics requirements as more and more people, and more and more resources, are directed to problem solving. The opportunities on offer to us with future forms of autonomous systems are tremendous and will undoubtedly continue to be exploited. But we must ensure that whatever logistics autonomous systems are introduced that they are introduced with a backbone control network that makes the whole effort worthwhile.

Automated, not autonomous, logistics is probably where the best return of investment of the defence dollar lies.

Automated systems remove the guesswork out of logistics – militaries can get a truer sense of our capability and capacity at any given point in time. Vehicle ‘health and usage monitoring systems’ and other similar technologies are exemplars of this. They enable decisions about capabilities to be made at a faster tempo than ever. It’s been a rocky journey with the systems – for example, the ‘Autonomic Logistics Information System’ for F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has received a significant upgrade to overcome highly-publicised problems – but this really is a new era of information management and problems are inevitable. For these systems to offer the most to military logisticians, there is the issue of data management that we must eventually come to terms with – who owns it, when it can be used and for what reason – including ownership of the algorithms that may ultimately make decisions which were formerly the purview of military commanders.

Information, extrapolated into data, provided by these systems, is strategically vital. The complexity of military supply chains has expanded with globalisation, increased civilianisation and outsourcing of logistics capability, and with the sharing of capability across coalition partners. Automated logistics, appropriately secure, will help us garner where risks lie such that timely plans can be developed. Shortages could be better avoided. Costs could be better understood. Supply through multiple levels of producers and manufacturers can be accurately tracked thereby alerting the military to risks relating to the manufacture of capability. Secondly, autonomous systems may have the computational power to predict and automatically react to ensure the right product is at the right place at the right time. This will assist in signalling industry as to where supply deficiencies lie, and can support mobilisation processes when strategic crises first appear.

It is important to be aware of the risks. Cyber threats are persistently targeting global businesses, so Defence must prepare itself during the transformation of its logistics capability. In a 2018 testimony to the US Senate, the Commander of US Transportation Command General Darren McDew, highlighted the cyber threat to logistics as ‘being the greatest threat to our military advantage.’ Malicious state and non-state actors are already targeting vulnerable, largely unprotected, commercial systems linked in with barely protected military logistics systems. This threat was verified in the Defence Science Board 2019 report on ‘Survivable Logistics’. Why would a hostile target a hardened, highly classified decision-support and command and control network, when a soft underbelly is already presented to them?

Though there are threats to the automation of our military supply chains, the positives clearly outweigh the negatives. It is unequivocally the best solution to the logistics problem of our time – productivity. Logistics autonomy fundamentally gives armed forces greater capacity to do more with less, or better still, much more with the same.  It simplifies something that would otherwise be highly manpower intensive. But think of what can be done when an advanced predictive AI is aligned with a scalable autonomic distribution system? It can provide new vectors to deliver battlefield resources to the point at need, at a lower risk to human life. There are considerable financial advantages to Defence and Government if such capabilities are programmed and funded, and military advantages that might just contribute to the elimination of the large logistics footprint within an operational area.

Part two follows shortly. The second part moves on to the ‘logistics of autonomy’, describing how autonomous systems will not only change logistics, but change the very way militaries operate.

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