23 November 2018

Will the Special Operations Forces (SOF) Survive an Arms Race with Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Daniel Ilie

Image source: Mediafax

People will have to adapt both their mind and body to the changes that will be more and more frequent and quicker. Those unable to get out of the comfort zone and transform will be surprised by the impact that technology will have, including on jobs like the military. Leaders will be overwhelmed by the rapidity of the strategic, operational and tactical environment conditions change, and will not be able to make the necessary quick and coherent decisions. On certain segments, at tactical level, robots and intelligent weapons will conduct the mission under lower risk and with improved efficiency than some human operators, which may therefore not be necessary anymore to accomplish that kind of missions.

There is no more time for improvisations, competent special operations forces (SOF) cannot be created after the emergencies occur!

If there is someone else who believes that the fourth industrial revolution (also used as Industry 4.0) still has a long way to decisively affect us, I would say that he/ she might be wrong and I would ask him/her to think twice.

What is actually the fourth industrial revolution and how will it influence the future SOF?

Klauss Schwab, founder and executive president of World Economic Forum, wrote in his book “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”[i], that we are at the beginning of a new industrial revolution (that the author calls it the fourth) which will fundamentally change how we live, work and relate to one another, and it will not look at all, in its amplitude and complexity, with something the humankind have ever experienced before. And because we do not yet know how exactly it will look like, governments, business, academia and civil society will have the responsibility to work together to better understand the emerging trends.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is everywhere around us, from self-driving cars and drones to virtual assistants and translation software. It has made impressive progresses, driven by the exponential growth of computing power and the availability of large amounts of data, from software used to discover new drugs, to algorithms that predict our cultural interests. This led to new types of “machine learning” and automatic discovery and development, which are allowing robots and intelligent computers to self-program themselves and find new optimal solutions.


Industry 4.0 tends to change the nature of security risks, vulnerabilities and threats and influence the balance of power at regional and global levels, says Scwab. In these circumstances, governmental defence and security structures, and particularly the special operations forces (SOF), are facing some new challenges, in their competence area, whereupon if they will not be able to identify and get adapted to it (beforehand) to counteract the new types of threats, they will lose the competitive advantage which could ensure them a successful accomplishment of the missions.  And, as I said many times, according to the fifth SOF truth[ii], they will not be able to succeed in such an attempt, but cooperating and having the support of all the other actors of society.

The access to lethal technologies became so easy even for many non state actors. Now, with some resources, know-how, 3D print technologies, and regenerable energy, for example, they can produce, assemble and use, very closely to the combat line, different weapons and information collecting systems, or complete their ammunition stocks and exchange weapons, so to direct the power balance in their favour. These are realities which will definitely influence the way armed conflicts will be conducted in the future.

We have to admit that, as Schwab writes in his book, drones[iii], unmanned weapons and intelligent munitions (operated by AI), militarisation of space (hypersonic missiles are planned to equip Russian military by 2020), the so-called “soft exosuits” or “exoskeletons” meant to improve operators’ mobility and force, nanotechnologies (miniaturization and system’s possibility to recreate itself), biological and biochemical weapons (drugs, insects, toxic agents - Novichok), and social media are all emergent technologies that will fundamentally transform, sooner or later, the security environment at a global level.

Furthermore, as Dr. James Giordano, Chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program and Scholar-in-Residence in the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, was mentioning[iv] in front of the students of the West Point Military Academy, even using biodata can become a dreaded weapon through its subtle and insidious manipulation made in a variety of methods by which one can affect key individuals, target groups, or populations by changing, for example, the way these are seen (for instance in a negative way), or treated (incorrectly and actually damaging an agony they might have).

On the other hand, if we think how we can affect ourselves, comparing to how we can affect others, we will see that these technologies can be used also in a positive way, for example to improve SOF operators fight capacity, through positive neural-activation (the use of neurological-medications resulted from advanced development research, for example) to optimize their performances. Obviously, no such methods are free from unwanted risks or side effects. But research and development do not stop here. They are looking for technologies that use a variety of computational brain machine interfaces for magnetic and transcranial stimulation of the vagus nerve, and that can be implanted transdermally, superficially, or deeper into the brains of the target individuals

From Giordano’s point of view, in the following years we will be witnessing the use and integration of brain’s sciences and technologies (neuroscience and neurotechnologies) in the battlefield, and “the brain will become the battlefield of the future”. Will SOF be able to adjust its techniques, tactics and procedures in such circumstances in order to survive? I believe so.

And all this happen at a very high speed, under our very eyes, in a new "arms race" in which each of the major actors tries to hold the supremacy in the development of such revolutionary technologies. If no timely action is taken to regulate, in one way or another, the ethics of using artificial intelligence in weapon development, it could end up calling the shots. And the AI has proven in the past that it was the best chess player, but also the best Go player, globally.

The Russian president Vladimir Putin was stipulating last years that the country which will win the global competition in AI’s domain will conquer the world. In a comment made on social media, one of the most visionary American entrepreneurs, Elon Musk[v], was writing that World War III will probably start from competing over supremacy in AI’s domain. He was also writing that in a couple of years robots will move so fast that we will need a stroboscope to see them moving.

How are others preparing to face the new challenges?

I wrote in my last article[vi] how Danish SOF are getting ready for the use and implementation of some last generation technologies.

The British military has been conducting, starting with 12th of November 2018, the biggest robots exercise in Great Britain’s history, called “The autonomous terrestrial fighter”[vii]. The experiment which wants to be a change of paradigm will last 4 weeks and will test, even in the hardest operational environment conditions (simulated), numerous drone systems and unmanned terrestrial systems which are dedicated to reducing the risks of the fighting force. One of the key objectives is testing the autonomous resupplying concept, called “Last mile”. “Last mile” actually refers to performing logistics support activities in the immediate and extremely dangerous proximity of the combat where the battle is under way and which is critical for supplying the soldiers with food, fuel, munitions and spare parts necessary to maintain a high degree of readiness of combatant structures.

Also, the exercise has the objective to test surveillance, intelligence and data gathering technologies, weapons and long-range smart munitions, mobility enhancement technologies, urban warfare, and the integration of situational awareness.

The US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has requested, through a publicly available request for information, access to applied research and the development of advanced technologies that can be uniquely delivered through a relationship with a dedicated academic partner. The headquarters intends to develop a relationship that enables a nearby academic institution to provide potential internships, classified workplaces, high-level engineering projects, and collaborate with other national academic institutions to explore the following primary concepts / capabilities:

  • Autonomous systems: Research and Development (R&D) in the supporting disciplines of computer vision disciplines, processing natural language, control systems, cartography, navigation and other “machine learning” and AI methods;
  • Improvement of the human performance: support for R&D in different biomedical engineering disciplines including, but not limited to: alimentation and diet; physical education, training and recovery;
  • Cyber and electromagnetic security;
  • Infrastructure for transport and energy: includes R&D of last generation transport capabilities, energy and development, to incorporate managing the transport and transit demand, the afferent operations and research regarding security, connected and autonomous cars technology, renewable energy, along with transport and storage technologies; and other intelligent technologies for intelligent cities and networks;
  • Sensors: includes the development, implementation and support of integrated informatic systems, information technology components, organizational and research components to support technologies which ensure continuous surveillance of unattended ground sensors systems, of tactical surveillance systems and force protection systems;
  • Biometrics/Personnel Identification: Encompasses development, deployment, and sustainment of integrated information systems including the integration of technical components, information technology components, organizational components and documentation in support of technologies used to collect, analyze and distribute various physical parameters used to identify personnel focusing on a small form factor capability to rapidly identify (< 2 minutes) personnel at short to long distances in all environmental conditions;
  • SIGINT Intelligence (Signals Intelligence);
  • Processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED): includes development, implementation and support of the integrated informatic systems;
  • Operational researches and data analytics: involves techniques and methods to solve complex problems in making decisions for the military domain, including, but not being limited to, alternatives analysis, logistics, programming, modeling and simulation, research disciplines of traditional operations, optimization of algorithm and statistical analysis, data analysis using “machine learning” and probabilistic techniques for predictive analysis applications;
  • And several others.

What should Romanian SOF do in the actual context?

Sometimes overwhelmed by the daily routine, we are tempted to believe that such things are so far away from us, in the future and that, naturally, on short and medium term, we are not going to be directly affected. Still, the speed wherewith humanity, society and the environment we live in evolves, may surprise us on the wrong foot, and if we do not take, beforehand, the necessary adjustment and modernization measures, we will have to deal with the consequences. And Romanian SOF are not excepted.

We have seen what measures other FOS actors have taken, at a global scale and sometimes you do not have to reinvent the wheel, but get inspired from the good ideas others materialized.

Building and strengthening links with the academic environment, research development institutes, national defense, public order and national security structures, with the business environment, strategic and security research centers, think-tanks in the areas of security and defense, as well as with other civilian organizations, obviously on the ”need-to-know”, or "need to share" principles, may be the first steps in the doctrinal, organizational, human and ledership, educational, technological, and operational adaptation of the structure to the new challenges of the current security environment.

Partnerships with such actors of society will be able to compensate for the lack of resources "time spent on research, analysis and policy development", will allow the release of human, material and financial resources for the benefit of training and preparation for combat, will truly improve the organizational know-how and will help SOF keep up with the rapid and profound developments of the technological revolution.

Meanwhile, a comprehensive analysis and a more realistic estimation of the implications of Industry 4.0 in changing the risks, vulnerabilities and threats to national security and defense, followed by the development of a new doctrine, more flexible, visionary and which seeks to achieve a more resilient regulatory framework that can be easily adapted to the rapid changes that we are witnessing, will be compulsory. For the most complete analysis, it is necessary to use appropriate and tailored scenarios which, to be said, can not be developed solely by SOF own resources, but by a joint effort, in an interagency framework, together with tactics and strategy specialists, military experts, analysts, researchers, academics, scientists, and of course, representatives of the political, economic and social domains.

The mission needs for such scenarios will change. So are the operational requirements. New policies and strategies in the areas of R&D of new technologies (or access to them), equipping with state-of-the-art weapons systems and AI for shortening information and decision cycles[viii], acquisition strategies and programs, and a serious effort to implement the integrated logistics system throughout the life-cycle of the systems, to ensure the required operational status and enable them to operate in optimal conditions, will be needed. Obviously, without a serious budgetary planning and without the proper resource allocation, these things will be only desiderata.

In the meantime, the mentalities will have to be changed, and people will have to adapt their mind first and then their body to the changes that will be more and more frequent and quicker. Those unable to get out of the comfort zone and transform will be surprised by the impact that technology will have, including on jobs like the military. Leaders will be overwhelmed by the rapidity of the strategic, operational and tactical environment conditions change, and will not be able to make the necessary quick and coherent decisions. On certain segments, at tactical level, robots and intelligent weapons will conduct the mission under lower risk and with improved efficiency than some human operators, which may therefore not be necessary anymore to accomplish that kind of missions.

Today's SOF leaders need to be adaptable, anchored to realities and able to address complex issues for which they have to find creative solutions that sometimes will need to bridge the existing gap, in terms of capabilities, between the needs and constraints ( read resources). They must be the driving force for the implementation in the system, down to the operative and tactical levels, of the critical thinking and innovation.

For this, a proactive attitude and time resource investment is needed to support, by imagining and developing policies and strategies, in the medium and long terms, including reforming the military education and in-service training system in the special operations specialty. The new SOF School and Training Center will need to be the tip of the spear and be prepared to be able to specialize operators in new occupational military specialties in the future, depending on manning needs driven by organizational changes that will occur following the adaptation of the force to the new technological developments and, implicitly, to the new security threats. At least for a transition period, someone will have to take care also of the AI.

And all these are just some of the priorities of the ROU SOF modernization process. These capabilities, defined by the law as being of a strategic level, are not cheap to be  generated and maintained, including also the fact that they must be permanently anchored to the current realities of the security environment and permanently prepared to intervene in to protect the strategic interests of Romania. When it comes to testing and implementing new technologies that came with the 4th Industrial Revolution, SOF should be the tip of the spear.

And to conclude in a very suggestive way, I will paraphrase the current USSOCOM commander General Raymond Thomas, who was saying during the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference[ix] hosted in Tampa, Florida May this year, that in a rapidly evolving environment we should think that the technology and platforms we are still using nowadays are at the "sunset" of their life cycle [obsolete] and some incremental upgrades  [modernization] of the old systems will not provide us with the competitive advantage to succeed in future operations.

“The standard for success in this endeavor is beyond where we are today. Our acquisition processes, the speed of development and timeline from conception to deployment in these critical domains are out-cycled by the trends and speed in the private sector technological development”, concluded Thomas.

In other words, there is no more time for improvisations, competent SOF cannot be created after the emergencies occur!

[i]  http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Fourth_Industrial_Revolution.pdf

[ii]  https://monitorulapararii.ro/cele-5-adevaruri-ale-fortelor-pentru-operatii-speciale-fos-1-4769

[iii]  https://monitorulapararii.ro/fos-sunt-atacate-cu-drone-comerciale-de-mici-dimensiuni-in-teatrele-de-operatii-in-care-executa-misiuni-cum-se-pregatesc-sa-respinga-astfel-de-atacuri-1-7352

[iv]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=98&v=N02SK9yd60s

[v]  https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/18/9-mind-blowing-things-elon-musk-said-about-robots-and-ai-in-2017.html

[vi] https://monitorulapararii.ro/fos-sunt-atacate-cu-drone-comerciale-de-mici-dimensiuni-in-teatrele-de-operatii-in-care-executa-misiuni-cum-se-pregatesc-sa-respinga-astfel-de-atacuri-1-7352

[vii] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/army-start-biggest-military-robot-exercise-in-british-history-defence-secretary-announces

[viii] https://monitorulapararii.ro/fortele-pentru-operatii-speciale-in-campul-de-lupta-modern-1-6072

[ix] https://www.defensenews.com/land/2018/05/22/socoms-next-five-year-plan-will-transform-the-force/