The Digital Battlefield

Effects of Digitisation on Planning and the Conduct of Operations

The digitised battlefield—traditional military operations planned and conducted in an optimised manner with state-of-the-art digitised technology—is already a thing of the past. The digital battlefield of today and especially of tomorrow makes completely new demands on the Bundeswehr and on society. Under the overarching topic of “Mission-Ready Forces”, a working group of the National General/Admiral Staff Officer Course at the Bundeswehr Command and Staff College intensively investigated the effects of digitisation on the armed forces.

Challenge: Asymmetric Wars

Today the cyber and information space is already defined as a dimension of military action. The great challenge consists in dealing with the hybrid operations that are now possible in asymmetric wars. The working group came to the conclusion that the threats posed by such hybrid warfare cannot be countered by military means alone. The Bundeswehr can only contribute its share to this effort. Alongside authorities and organisations with security tasks, civilian companies and the citizens themselves will also have to do their bit. The study participants assessed that, due to the unpredictability of digital attacks, 100 percent protection of the state is already no longer possible nowadays.

In this context, artificial intelligence (AI) plays a key role, as large and ever more complex amounts of data (“Big Data”) are of crucial and increasing importance even for military operations. They cannot be evaluated manually or even by means of classical algorithms any more. This is where artificial intelligence comes into play, and the question arises as to what extent the conduct of military operations can and should be determined by AI.

Tool for Operational Planning

Artificial intelligences are used to analyse “Big Data” in order to achieve situational awareness. In a subsequent phase of development, AI can then be used as a tool for operational planning – as a support tool. Nowadays, the Federal Ministry of Defence is already pursuing a project at the strategic level where, through employment of AI, early recognition of militarily relevant crises will be possible in the future. However, the command and control of operations, that is decision-making, will remain in human hands.

It is foreseeable that the number of platforms and thus the number of sensors on the battlefield will increase. The sensors themselves will become more and more sophisticated and cover all spectra, which will increase the demands on artificial intelligence regarding the evaluation of the data collected. In view of the highly complex reality to be dealt with, the actual operational planning and especially the operational command and control will still have to be executed by humans, because this requires creativity, which AI will not be able to deliver in the foreseeable future.

Development not Foreseeable

However, the further development cannot be foreseen. For, if, somewhere in the world, decision-making authority were completely transferred to AI, this would lead to an entirely new kind of moral situation. There is the possibility that the principle of having man as the ultimate decision-making authoritya fundamental element of our value systemcould be infringed by other actors with a view to gaining advantages in hybrid operations in future.

The Federal Ministry of Defence defines autonomous weapon systems as follows: A weapon system which is primarily designed to use deadly force only against persons and which, without any human influence and control, perceives its environment and its internal condition, assesses the situation, takes decisions, acts rationally, evaluates and learns as it does so.

The current social consensus in Germany and thus the Federal Government’s position is that man has to retain the power to decide on life and death. Nevertheless, questions remain with regard to the concrete implementation of this ethical principle.

Information Space Highly Contested

From the working group’s perspective, we must accept the fact that the information space is already highly contested nowadays. This is already set out in Bundeswehr concepts. Cyber operations and the fight in the electromagnetic spectrum will become more and more prevalent. Due to increased networking of C2 and information systems, the dependence and vulnerability of the systems will increase, too. The changing security challenges and, in particular, the increasingly blurred dividing line between peace and war in case of hybrid threats force the armed forces to act with maximum flexibility. They have to operate in a multidimensional environment and be capable of deploying on a modular basis.

Information operations, in particular, will not be aimed exclusively at the military. Therefore, the military cannot handle this risk in an isolated manner. A core conclusion of the working group of the National General/Admiral Staff Officer Course is that the problem must therefore be considered in the context of national security provision.

Questions Remain

This raises the following major issues:

If the armed forces integrate new technologies, such as AI systems, into their planning and command and control processes, how decisive will it be to ensure the availability of these systems? Due to the functionality and complexity of such systems, diversification and redundancythat is replaceability by alternative systemswill neither be possible nor sufficient in the foreseeable future. If used for the armed forces, the AI systems must therefore be resilient to ensure maximum availability.

The outlined threat scenarios resulting especially from hybrid warfare pose new challenges to the existing security architecture. We must critically examine and analyse whether the established structures and procedures meet such hybrid threats or whether the security architecture should be reviewed.

Author: Michael Jonn; Photo: Fotolia