Today, I listened to a number of senior leaders discussing the status of robotics and autonomy within their services and the joint force writ large. I was heartened to hear that a few of them are finally looking beyond tools that require direct control, to developing integrated teammates capable of following commands. The discussions were constantly peppered with the discussion of the complexity and cost of validation and verification in the test and evaluation stage as wells as the ever present concerns of trust.
Robot - A system to which humans shed a physical burden
Autonomous system - A system to which humans shed a cognitive burden.
For autonomous robotic systems that are being developed to be members, the time frame for them to reach operational status is still estimated to be a decade or more away. This is due to a number of issues, both in the development of technology and to the disastrous budget situation. What is puzzling however is that there are a number of "low hanging fruit" in the autonomy tool box that have already been validated in the commercial space.
Before we start however, let us assume that the system to be described is able to operate in a degraded EMS environment with an acceptable level of cyber resiliency.
An easy use of autonomy that does not require the same extensive V&V that systems that carry humans of fire weapons would, is autonomous logistics command and control. Currently, each level of command contains a logistics component whose responsibility it is to process logistics requests from subordinate commands and distribute available resources based on commander's intent. In the commercial space, global companies used to operate in a similar way, but with the advent of data analytics and simple autonomous cloud based systems, they have changed to become far more effective and efficient. The opportunity exists to do the same thing within the military logistics system.
Commanders can input the priorities, supply level requirements, and consumption velocity alerts etc. into the cloud logistics system as a surrogate for commander's intent. As platoon in the field consumes their various classes of supply, that consumption is burst into the cloud. That data is then processed within the cloud and the requirement is pushed down to each level of supply. Within the structure of each commander's intent, supplies are autonomously prepped for delivery to the subordinate command to ensure supplies are where they are needed before they are needed.
This could, in theory (although expensively) be extended all the way down to the soldier's weapon. Supply monitoring sensors could be in the ammunition magazine in the weapon, and as the weapon fires it is updating the soldier's data tracking system on a round by round basis. This would allow higher command to know that a unit is in contact without ever hearing verbally from them. The system could see their consumption velocity and know they are in the thick of it and bump up their priority. More realistically it would be at the Platoon Sergeant level.
To be clear, this is not "Just in Time" logistics. It is not manufacturer direct to end user. This is using analytics and commander's intent to get the sustainment where it is needed before it becomes critical. This would allow for a significant percentage of the personnel within the logistics components of each level of command to be freed up to complete other tasks and specialties.
Just a simple example of how cloud analytics could alter the way the warfighter is supported.