The U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) has an eye towards the future, with its Mad Scientist Initiative conducting regular conferences and providing grants to experts and technologists forecasting how warfare will change over the century. One of the papers produced by a recent Mad Scientist Conference was featured on the Modern War Institute’s podcast, and its authors (retired Maj. Gen. David Fastabend and Ian Sullivan) described their vision of how the operational environment will change over the next 32 years. They foresee a shift from forces fighting for cities, to forces fighting in cities as the proliferation of “finders,” or sensors both overhead and on the ground, drives militaries to try to be better “hiders.”
They envision three basic options to safeguard key forces and systems—mobility, dispersal, and dormancy. Notionally, if systems and key forces are mobile, they are harder for the enemy to hit in the opening salvo of a war, but in a pinch, nations can limit the damage of an initial attack by dispersing their forces and systems around their territory. The best option, especially for systems that don’t require constant human interaction, is dormancy—a dispersed series of weapons systems that don’t produce waste or activity and can blend in seamlessly with their surroundings because they don’t operate until called upon to strike. Regardless of which route nations take, Maj. Gen. Fastabend believes that the urban environment provides the overhead cover that systems and forces will need to escape detection.
Don’t tell that to another of the Mad Scientist Initiative’s speakers, Frank Prautzsch, who described his belief that “there’s [no] chance for the element of surprise in the megacity,” in a March 2016 address about the future of urban warfare. The sensors that Mr. Prautzsch cites are the commercially available, networked devices that constitute the internet of things (IOT), which he reckons could be deployed even by asymmetric adversaries to gain an improved picture of the battlefield within the megacity. He’s hardly alone in his assessment. Alfred Crane and Richard Peeke also presented a paper at the 2016 Mad Scientist Initiative, in which they argue that the data analytics technologies being developed by commercial entities could be used by a variety of actors to exploit IOT both offensively and defensively during urban operations. The belief that IOT will enable a Dark Knight-esque perfect surveillance of a massive city for forces on the ground overlooks its disadvantages in the face of its competition—miniaturized, survivable drones.
First, as Mr. Prautzsch acknowledges, the GIS community does not have a very good grasp on what cities look like either underground or inside buildings, and even if information warfare units can access IOT devices inside a building and determine whether there are people near them, that information is not actionable intelligence until you can assign a distinct location to the device. That would involve building out a floor plan, which no PlayStation camera or coffee maker will help with, by establishing the locations of individual devices on a single router, which will be difficult unless the router is operating on a multi-antenna, timing-advanced system, which would be overengineered for an indoor space, and repeating the process for every single IOT device in the building.
Compare asking a brigade-level information warfare asset to exploit the IOT devices in a building versus sending out a pocket-sized drone to map the corridors in front of you as you go. Which of those options do you think the average infantryman would choose? The one that involves waiting for geeks to do something that could take hours or days and not be accurate, or the one that projects what’s around the corner right onto his heads-up-display without having to ask for permission? IOT devices could be useable for the Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield and establishing patterns of life for High Value Targets, but its tactical application will never beat the efficiency of squad or even team-level drone technology. As for those of you hoping to take Maj. Gen. Fastabend’s advice and hide ICBMs or MLRSs inside urban structures, maybe just don’t get Alexa.