Featured photo courtesy of Boston Dynamics
Little noticed amid the daily news bulletins about the Islamic State and Syria, the Pentagon has begun a push for exotic new weapons that can deter Russia and China.
Pentagon officials have started talking openly about using the latest tools of artificial intelligence and machine learning to create robot weapons, “human-machine teams” and enhanced, super-powered soldiers.
It may sound like science fiction, but Pentagon officials say they have concluded that such high-tech systems are the best way to combat rapid improvements by the Russian and Chinese militaries.
These potentially revolutionary U.S. weapons systems were explained in an interview last week by Robert Work, the deputy secretary of defense, and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their comments were the latest in a series of unusual recent disclosures about what, until a few months ago, was some of the military’s most secret research.
“This is how we will make our battle networks more powerful, hopefully, and inject enough uncertainty in the minds of the Russians and the Chinese that, you know, if they ever did come to blows with us, would be able to prevail in a conventional [non-nuclear] way. That, for me, is the definition of conventional deterrence,” Work explained.
Within the Pentagon, this high-tech approach is known by the dull phrase “third offset strategy,” emulating two earlier “offsets” that checked Russian military advances during the Cold War. The first offset was tactical nuclear weapons; the second was precision-guided conventional weapons. The latest version assumes that smart, robot weapons can help restore deterrence that has been eroded by Russian and Chinese progress.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced an early warning during his confirmation hearing in July when he said that Russia posed the greatest “existential” threat to the United States. Work said in a recent speech that because the United States has focused on the Middle East since 2001, “our program has been slow to adapt as these high-end threats have started to re-emerge.”
The Pentagon’s 2017 budget includes some money to prime the high-tech pump: $3 billion for advanced weapons to counter, say, a Chinese long-range attack on U.S. naval forces; $3 billion to upgrade undersea systems; $3 billion for human-machine teaming and “swarming” operations by unmanned drones; $1.7 billion for cyber and electronic systems that use artificial intelligence; and $500 million for war-gaming and other testing of the new concepts.
The Obama administration, sometimes chided for being slow to respond to Russian and Chinese threats, seems to have concluded that America’s best strategy is to leverage its biggest advantage, which is technology. The concepts are reminiscent of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative, but 30 years on.
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