Sustaining machines – the logistics of autonomy in military organisations

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. Part one can be found here.

In part two of ‘Sustaining Machines’, the discussion moves onto the ‘logistics of autonomy’. Or, in other words, how are forces that include autonomous systems generated and sustained. Militaries using autonomous weapons will, if we are optimistic about the technology, necessarily look very different in twenty, thirty years in the future. It is largely self-evident that bringing new technology into military organisations is challenging. What isn’t often acknowledged is how impactful this technology may be on the characteristics of the military organisation. The introduction of technology can have hidden consequences which are rarely apparent until the technology is in use. New ways of doing business will be needed, organisations redesigned and policies created. Naturally, it’s important that these outcomes are prepared for.

Firstly, military logistics in war will be different – it is going to change in a way that hasn’t been seen since the combustion engine was introduced. Motorisation, mechanisation, rocketry and flight have already elevated the importance of specialist mechanics, petroleum operations, munitions specialists and supply specialists. So too has the act of providing better materiel and training to each combatant – the battlefield has been ‘thinned’ with each able to bring greater firepower to bear on the enemy than the previous generation, but the logistics per unit cost of the combatant has also increased. Conventional military forces are not getting logistically ‘lighter’, and despite the desires of hopeful force designers, are unlikely to do so with automation. The centre of gravity for military forces is inextricably moving from the battlefield and to the supply depots, bases, ports and defence infrastructure – the ‘rear echelons’ – as new technologies such as autonomous systems beckon. We’ve got to appreciate what this means in the context of opportunities, risks and vulnerabilities.    

Secondly, the introduction of complex systems and machines will transform the way militaries will organise.  

I wrote here, citing Chris Demchak, of the introduction of the M1A1 Abrams tank to the US Army forty years ago as an illustration of the problem. It’s good analogy on the impact of technology on military logistics systems and organisations writ large. This was a tank designed to leverage technology and be less personnel-intensive, with a lower maintenance bill, simple to operate and decisive in combat. It was simple to operate, but proved difficult to repair and sustain. It could not be repaired without the OEM involved, and the technology often mystified even them. The US Army responded by procuring new testing equipment, and created new technical specialities to handle repair. The level of technology required for the tank made the supply of parts for it challenging. Unexpected costs and the insufficiency of repair parts to support the tank ensured supply was handled with such scrutiny that an entire logistics bureaucracy was created. This generational change in equipment meant that US Army now has an incredibly effective tank with no real peer, but it was not an easy introduction into service.

Militaries will have to prepare for the same with the introduction of autonomous systems. This will not be a venture without significant implications for the transformation of the militaries over coming decades. It will not be a venture that can be rushed into without understanding the risks, and we must recognise that we’re at the beginning of this challenge. This challenge will require Defence to experiment, discuss about and tinker with these truly revolutionary capabilities, but it must also consider new concepts and policies to better integrate these capabilities into the organisation.

Thirdly, the logistics liability for operating these systems must be understood. Separating military robots and battlefield automation from the rest of the discussion, it’s pretty clear that we’re at the infancy of tactically useful systems that can be employed en masse. At the moment, and especially in the Land Domain, many battlefield systems are ‘brittle’, not particularly adaptable and easily break down. This reflects the difficulty for machines that lack the maneuverability of a human being, or have difficulties operating in close proximity to them. The situation is better for military aviation and in the maritime context. It will be some time yet before the ‘medic’ is replaced with the ‘mechanic’. But when they are, militaries will have to be respectful that the act will be transformational in the military workforce – especially with Army where this problem will be acute. It may even be aggravated by a human-machine ‘teaming’ approach where both forms of combatant are employed.

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 robots can be abandoned when it is damaged or no longer in use; it appeals to our sense that there is a real possibility that humans can be removed from danger and replaced with something of lesser value. It’s patently a present day unreality save in very small-payload logistics operations. 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 autonomous systems with the same level of care we do any other form of exquisite technology. Nonetheless, it is likely that this problem will be overcome with time, technology and effort.

Fourthly, the link between the military and industry partners will necessarily be closer than ever. Larger logistics requirements do not always require larger military logistics organisations, but it does mean militaries need to be better at incorporating civilian resources into their operations. Military logistics always extends into the economy – more specifically the nation’s industrial base – and autonomy necessarily means that the integration of industry into the routine sustainment of new capabilities will remain important. It is quite clear that industry partners will have to continue to work closely, if not intimately, with armed forces to provide the technical support and expertise that is traditionally difficult for the military to generate independently. The workforce both generate is one that is shared irrespective of whether a uniform is worn or not. It is also clear that a conversation about how skills may be transferred into the military workforce if needed in a crisis must be had, or how autonomous systems might be sustained and repaired in conflict zone.

This leads onto the final topic I wanted to cover on the logistics of autonomy. It is not lost on most readers that there is a tremendous opportunity for defence industry to step into an electronics industry gap is only beginning to be filled. If we are to embrace the use of autonomy in militaries such as the Australian Defence Force 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 components and construction can become a strategic risk – especially as global supply chains are contested or limited resources shared. I suspect that electronics and componentry join ammunition and fuel as a marker of strategic resilience in due course. In the meantime, all will need to be careful about accelerating into autonomy else we embark upon a costly sham with unviable capabilities in combat.

Perhaps this necessitates us having a conversation about innovations and their identification as a matter of strategic value and a target of regulation. Most innovations in autonomic systems will come from the private sector, and in many cases, will be available to the highest bidder. This could even discount any investments that Governments may make into the sector. 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. Australia’s stake in autonomous systems development is an important one, with strategic implications. With autonomy firmly on the horizon for the ADF and other advanced militaries, it seems clear that we must initiate this discussion now.

This article, I admit, is a smorgasbord of ideas. Logistics is first and foremost about practicality, and it is important to ensure autonomous systems that are introduced do what is intended. There’s good reason for an investment in autonomous systems in the short term; they certainly offer a way to overcome some of the structural shortcomings faced by the military in terms of ‘mass’ and an ability to operate as efficiently and effectively as we need to be. But we must not race to failure. Militaries cannot afford to let autonomous systems become a capability ‘drag’ by not being diligent. Automation 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 and a long track-record of innovation as a nation. Western militaries, in general, prepared for change and actively seeking partners to overcome many of the challenges, and take advantage of new opportunities, that have been raised here.

We all know how rapidly the technology around automation is evolving. The all work on overcoming the logistics limitations of autonomy the better. Technical and conceptual discovery must occur at pace. This way the potential of the technology will be realised, rather capabilities or systems that are too exquisite to be practically employable, unsustainable, or offer little in being part of a strategic offset, result. 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 make expedient decision and mortgage the future as a consequence.     


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