General document | Semi-Autonomous Combat Team Dismounted Infantry 2030 Concept
The Defence Science and Technology (DST) Land Capability Analysis (LCA) Future Technology Concept Exploration (FTCE) programme focusses on designing novel ways of operating to exploit and counter emerging technologies, and assessing the potential operational effectiveness of the conceptual and structural transformations. The results of these studies are provided to Army as recommendations for consideration of:
- research effort priorities
- shaping the future force
- thought and debate stimulation
- future warfighting challenges.
In conjunction with the Australian Army Dismounted Combat Program, LCA conducted a FTCE study in support of future soldier development. The study aimed to develop post 2030 exploratory concepts that would guide the long-term development of the soldier system and associated force structures and capabilities. The study was guided by the research question:
How will combinations of new and emerging technology transform the battlefield engagement capability of Dismounted Infantry in Close Combat?
The study applied a systemic design approach that combined several analytical research methods with a creative, participatory co-design exercise to generate novel initial concepts for the post 2030 close combat force. This report provides a complete description of the Semi-Autonomous Combat Team (SACT) concept developed using the systemic design approach.
The SACT concept emphasises the integration a variety of unmanned systems (UxS), primarily aimed at substantially boosting capabilities at section level; linked, controlled and cued via a 'combat cloud'.
Key tenets of the concept are:
- A shift to human-machine teaming relying on levels of supervised and delegated autonomy. This carries with it the need for appropriate levels of supervision and follow-on implications on human cognitive load and a range of outstanding legal, ethical, moral, and political questions.
- A significant change in approach to close combat where humans are no longer ‘first, last, and always’. The concept features humans acting extensively through other platforms to direct the close-fight, before engaging in it themselves where necessary.
- Several steps towards an abundance mindset facilitated by more risk-tolerant UxS platforms, compared to casualty averse and scarcity mindsets present today.
- An increased offensive operations ratio from 3:1 to 1:3 through the addition of UxS versus conventionally equipped forces. This is in tandem with an increase in survivability achieved through greater standoff and dispersion.
- The reality of an increasingly observed and sensor saturated battlefield means a necessary shift in tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs). Operating above the general detection threshold is unavoidable due to the size and the number of platforms employed. Instead, the concept aims to stay below the ‘targeting solution’ threshold through inducing and sustaining ambiguity.
In terms of structure, a SACT combat team (CT) remains largely comparable to a present-day dismounted combat team. The syndicate considered a ratio of one human supervisor to approximately three platforms or systems serves as an appropriate yardstick given current expectations for autonomous capability.1 Each fire-team holds approximately three dedicated (unmanned ground vehicle) UGV platforms and its own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) cluster capable of undertaking three consecutive tasks (i.e. general local awareness, a specific investigation, and overwatch over key terrain). This structure then scales upwards throughout the CT with a 1:3 ratio as guide.
Participant subject matter experts assessed that SACT provided a substantial capability and survivability boost when compared against an equivalent conventional formation. Increased awareness, lethality, standoff, dispersion, responsiveness of organic fires, and coordination enabled by combat cloud dramatically increased expected performance – particularly against the challenges posed in highly complex terrain. The shift to an expected 1:3 offensive operations ratio mentioned above indicates the scale of the improvement.
These benefits, however, do not come without their share of risks and issues. First, the cost, sustainment, and lift factors of the SACT concept are considerable. The attritable and semi-attritable components only compound this issue. Second, the functional levels of autonomy core to the concept do not presently exist. While substantial progress is widely anticipated, there are no guarantees. Third, the prevalence of autonomous and networked assets that are increasingly dependent on combat cloud for their functionality carries with it considerable risks from cyber and electronic attack. High-powered radio frequency (HPRF) attacks, similarly, pose a major threat. Finally, the increased number and sophistication of platforms combined with the communications requirements for SACT to function effectively will significantly increase signature. TTP and management measures can alleviate this somewhat, but only partially.
Nevertheless, the SACT concept offers an indicative guide to future possibilities. Pointedly, participants noted that without comparable increases in capability—whether in the form of SACT, or by another road—a conventional CT would find itself hard pressed against even ad hoc equipped adversaries repurposing COTS equipment.
1 Participants assumed a ‘teammate’ level of functionality capable of effective operation with low levels of supervision is achievable within the timeframe addressed by the study.