General Robert Scales argues that it’s time for the West’s armies to face-up to the full implications of the irresistible rise of robots in warfare

“In war, boots on the ground are necessary, but we can do much more to reduce the body count”

Robert Scales, 8 March 2017

The Past

Retired US Army general Robert Scales is one of the West’s most distinguished soldier-scholars. But his advice hasn’t always been welcomed by his colleagues. There seems to have been two main problems.

The first has been an apparent reluctance by many senior Army commanders to accept that Clausewitzean-derived warfighting concepts such as mass (as in very large numbers), taking and holding ground as an end in itself, close engagement, and attrition, have a strictly limited application in the 21st century. (A notable exception to this recidivist mindset has been the leadership of Special Forces, whose application of precision, speed, minimising friendly casualties, and a fleeting footprint have been the antithesis of Clausewitz’s 19th century understanding of warfare.)

The second problem, which is a corollary of the first, has been the wilful determination of the West’s generals to persist with the intellectually unsustainable notion of “counterinsurgency” warfare, typified by massed invasion, extended occupation, and hollow slogans such as “war amongst the people”, the “three-block war”, and “winning hearts and minds”.

US soldiers in Afghanistan, 2003. Credit: US Army

US soldiers in Afghanistan, 2003. Credit: US Army

It took fifty years and five defeats (Vietnam, Iraq twice, Afghanistan twice) before the model was finally abandoned in Syria/Iraq, where most of the fighting on the ground has now properly been left to indigenous armies (mentored by Western specialists) who actually can fight amongst the (their) people.

Fifteen years before the West’s generals finally accepted reality and quietly abandoned the fiction of counterinsurgency warfare, General Scales had proposed an alternative operational concept in an article titled “Checkmate by Operational Maneuver” (Armed Forces Journal International, October 2001).

Drawing on his analyses of the successful US-led air campaigns in Iraq in 1991 and the former Republic of Yugoslavia in 1995 and 1999, Scales developed a plan for the employment of highly-mobile land forces defined by speed, precision, knowledge dominance, and a fleeting footprint. As Scales acknowledged, he wanted armies to replicate the characteristics of advanced air power.

Scales concluded that, because of the dominance of Western air power, future opponents would be unlikely to fight in mass, which would leave them vulnerable to punishing air strikes, but would instead seek to follow the classic guerilla tactic of operating in small groups and making high-value, high-publicity, hit-and-run attacks against civilian as much as military targets. Consequently, land forces would need a different mindset and structure from those that had previously characterised armies.

Against that background, Scales proposed a combined arms methodology in which armies “would not need to occupy key terrain or confront the mass of the enemy directly”. Implicit in his concept was the judgment that in many circumstances it would be preferable either to destroy an enemy’s assets, or to strike briefly but decisively against one vital point, rather than routinely try to occupy and seize his territory.

Under Scales’ model, doctrinally and technologically advanced land forces would use fast-moving air and surface vehicles to make rapid and unexpected manoeuvre one of their primary characteristics. They would also work as an integrated whole with air strike forces, with the lead element at any one time being decided by the enemy’s disposition.

Should the enemy concentrate he would be identified and attacked with precision weapons launched from air platforms operating at standoff distances. Should he disperse and go to ground, not only would he negate his own ability to concentrate force, but he also would leave himself vulnerable to attacks by numerically and qualitatively superior land forces exploiting their rapid manoeuvre capabilities.

Prototypes of this kind of operation were evident on occasions during the American-led campaigns in Afghanistan in 2001-2 and Iraq in 2003.

A crucial feature of Scales’ model was the brevity of the occupation and warfighting phases, noting that it has only been when Western armies have overstayed their (strictly limited) period of usefulness and tried to become something they are not that they started to experience serious problems in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is a matter for regret that General Scales’ prescient concept received little attention in Western military academies, where it seems to have been neither read nor debated. No reference to his article can be found, for example, in the professional journals of the US Army and the Australian Army from 2002 to 2016 (see Parameters, The US Army War College Quarterly; and the Australian Army Journal), both of which by contrast are replete with earnest discussions rationalising the continuing failures of counterinsurgency warfare.

The Present

Fast-forward sixteen years, and General Scales has presented another compelling analysis of contemporary warfare, this time in an op-ed piece in National Review, “What Ryan Owens Can Teach Us about Crushing ISIS” (March 8, 2017).

Ryan Owens was a USN SEAL chief petty officer who was killed in Yemen in January 2017 while on his fifth combat tour.

The key points made by General Scales are as follows:

  • Own casualties have properly become a centre of gravity for the West
  • Enemies like Daesh and al-Qaeda – and, indeed, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese before them – are well aware of this
  • In recent years, Western commanders have sensibly exploited their incontestable advantage in the air and in cyberspace to contain and then to inexorably degrade al-Qaeda and Daesh, and to minimise our land forces’ exposure to close-contact fighting
    • That is, they have “saved lives by substituting firepower for manpower”
  • And they have also, again properly, required their indigenous allies to accept prime responsibility for fighting on the ground

But as Scales goes on to note, “killing from the air has limitations” and, as the war against Daesh moves into the urban settings of Mosul and Raqqa and the extremists adapt by hiding amongst civilians, dispersing, and digging in, those limitations will be exposed.

Consequently, at some stage, more Western boots on the ground will be needed to advise and to fight alongside indigenous soldiers. And “as long as soldiers like Ryan Owens are compelled to ‘lead with their bodies’, they will continue to die in unacceptable numbers”.

The Problem

This leads to Scales’ key observation:

The only way to radically lessen the cost is to replace bodies with unmanned surrogates such as drones and robotic vehicles.”

Thus, in General Scales’ opinion, the time has come for Western armies to fully embrace robotics in close combat. Two immediate applications were recommended.

First, the West must “proliferate” armed drones, which will be controlled by forward combat elements and will fire missiles at the push of a cellphone button to kill enemy soldiers only metres away.

And second, clusters of small, autonomous, machine-gun firing robots must be introduced to lead close-up assaults. “Just imagine”, Scales writes, “how differently Ryan Owens’s raid would have played out if … robots [had been] available to lead the assault.”

A "Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System". Credit: US Army

A “Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System”. Credit: US Army

General Scales concluded his article with a disturbing question: “If the greatest impediment to winning wars over the past many decades is the specter of dead Americans, why hasn’t the nation done more to keep alive those most likely to die?”

The Point

Thus far, the debate over the use of robotics in war has largely focused on RPVs/UAVs/drones, and on air power; and a fair case can be made that progress has not been as fast as it could have because of the reflexive resistance to unmanned aircraft of the pilots who run air forces.

But if General Scales is right – and there’s every reason to believe he is, just as he was sixteen years ago when he challenged the-then predominant Army way of war – the point is arguably even more important for armies.

The question then becomes: Given that the technology has existed for some years, why hasn’t more been done, sooner?

Dr Alan Stephens is a Fellow of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation