Wednesday, December 21, 2011


The Future of Drone Warfare

Over half of Air Force UPT (undergraduate pilot training) grads are now assigned to pilot drones rather than a real aircraft.*  The big question is why are drone pilots, guys that fly robots remotely from a computer terminal, going to a very expensive year of pilot training?  I can understand why the Air Force has chosen to send drone jockeys to pilot training:
  • A shift to piloting drones rather than real aircraft is an assault on organizational culture of the Air Force.  In the Air Force, pilots do the fighting and as a result take most of the leadership positions.  
  • A transition to robotics upends that arrangement, and is why the USAF has strenuously resisted taking control of the drone mission until recently.  
  • In this light, sending these drone jockeys to a very expensive year of UPT is an attempt to ease the cultural transition.  
However, culture aside, is it the best training?

Drone Pilots Today

I suspect it isn't.  Here's why.  The assumption that combat with drones is going to be the same as combat without them is flawed.  It's going to be VERY different.  So far, it's hard to see that.  Most engagements today involve:
  • a drone flying leisurely over a village in Pakistan controlled by a pilot at a terminal in Las Vegas/Nellis, 
  • waiting for five or more armed men to assemble in a single house (which is a terrorist "signature" that green lights authorization to eliminate the threat), and 
  • then pushing a button and holding a cursor over the house until it disappears.  
That's not going to last long.

Drone Combat

How does the addition of drones change the nature of combat/conflict?  Why?  The tech is moving too fast.  Here are some of the characteristics we'll see in the near future:
  • Swarms.  The cost and size of drones will shrink.  Nearly everyone will have access to drone tech (autopilots already cost less than $30).  Further, the software to enable drones to employ swarm behavior will improve.  So, don't think in terms of a single drone. Think in terms of a single person controlling hundreds and thousands.
  • Intelligence.  Drones will be smarter than they are today.  The average commercial chip passed the level of insect intelligence a little less than a decade ago (which "magically" resulted in an explosion of drone/bot tech).  Chips will cross rat intelligence in 2018 or so.  Think in terms of each drone being smart enough to follow tactical instructions.  
  • Dynamism.  The combination of massive swarms with individual elements being highly intelligent puts combat on an entirely new level.  It requires a warrior that can provide tactical guidance and situational awareness in real time at a level that is beyond current training paradigms.

Training Drone Bonjwas

Based on the above requirements, the best training for drones (in the air and on land) isn't real world training, it's tactical games (not first person shooters).  Think in terms of the classic military scifi book, "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card. Of the games currently on the market, the best example of the type of expertise required is Blizzard's StarCraft, a scifi tactical management game that has amazing multiplayer tactical balance/dynamism.  The game is extremely popular worldwide, but in South Korea, it has reached cult status.  The best players, called Bonjwas, are treated like rock stars, and for good reason:
  • Training of hand/eye/mind.  Speeds of up to 400 keyboard mouse (macro/micro) tactical commands per minute have been attained.  Think about that for a second.  That's nearly 7 commands a second.
  • Fight multi-player combat simulations  for 10-12 hours a day.  They live the game for a decade and then burn out.   Mind vs. mind competition continously.
  • To become a bonjwa, you have to defeat millions of opponents to reach the tournament rank, and then dominate the tournament rank for many years.  The ranking system/ladder that farms new talent is global (Korea, China, SEA, North America, and Europe), huge (millions of players), and continuous (24x7x365). 
Currently, the best Starcraft bonjwa in the world is Flash. Here's his ELO rating.
Nearly all of the above would likely apply to cyber warfare too.

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