A senior Pentagon official on Monday said the United States must pull out all the stops to change the weaponry and future battlefield landscape in order to remain ahead of Russia and China technologically.
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, speaking at a national defense forum in Washington, D.C., said a successful U.S. strategy to deter military challenges will depend on human-machine air and ground combat systems -- weapons systems that "learn" in real time and operate autonomously.
And they must be hardened against cyber-attacks, including to GPS systems, Work said.
"Believe me, there is a lot of skepticism right now in the Department of Defense that we'd be able to perfect and protect such a network," he said, "but if you do the smart design up front, coupled with learning defenses, we believe it is not only possible but is a requirement."
Both Russia and China already are working on programs for combat on a robotic battlefield, he said.
Work described a battlefield "in the not-too-distant future" where "directed energy beam" weapons operating at the speed of light will come into play.
Among "five building blocks" that must make up the U.S.'s edge going forward, he said, are "autonomous deep-learning machine systems" that can warn of changes in a combat zone in real time, cue analysts on certain things, but also act autonomously in some instances.
He gave as an example the Israeli Iron Dome system, which can gauge where incoming missiles are headed and ignore those headed toward unpopulated areas to focus on actual threats.
Another building block is human/machine collaborations, such as the F-35 helmet that takes in and crunches a wide range of data and presents it on the helmet's head-up display. It speeds up the flow of information to the pilot and, with it, the pilot's decision and response time.
The last blocks are human/machine assisted operations, such as exoskeletons; combat teaming, in which a human will work with a machine system; and, lastly, autonomous weapons systems that may adapt and respond to attacks without a human giving the order or taking the action.
In the speed-of-light battlefield of the future, Work said the autonomous weapons system will be necessary.
The Pentagon has been considering these problems and trends for the past 18 months, and launched a new long-range research and development program into how technology may be exploited to create new operational advantages, he said.
The group is drawing on the Defense Science Board and the Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency, or DARPA, to study challenges to the U.S. space defenses and ability to project power, and has also conducted a review of overall defense programs to determine where capabilities may be lacking and where new capabilities are needed.
Work called the program ahead the "Third Offset" -- that is, a technological leap, new operational and organizational defense concepts on how they would be employed, and a way to demonstrate their effectiveness in a way that would deter potential adversaries from challenging the U.S.
The First Offset emerged in the 1950s, he said, when the U.S. developed small nuclear bombs for use on the battlefield, and considered giving regional commanders authority to use them. The Second Offset occurred in the 1970s, as the Soviet Union achieved a similar capability, he said.
At that point, the U.S. developed and perfected precision strike capability that allowed for hitting targets with conventional weapons at nearly 100 percent accuracy.
But that advantage is no longer a reliable deterrent, Work said, and the Russians -- with their recent annexation of Crimea -- have shown capabilities to take down enemy drones and rockets by interfering with their GPS and targeting systems.
Additionally, he said, precision strike technologies are proliferating and may be used by Iran or even non-state actors such as the Islamic State and Hezbollah.
"Whether it's the 1,000-nautical mile access challenge ... the intra-theater aerial denial challenge or the challenge of closing the last tactical mile, all while operating under intense cyber-and EW [electronic warfare] attacks, we're going to have to have technical solutions to these problems," Work said. "And it is the identification and prioritization of those new technologies and capabilities ... that is the first step you have to do in going after a third offset strategy."
One of the challenges is the fact that emerging technologies come from the private sector.
"We know advances in AI [artificial intelligence] and autonomy are driven by the commercial world, not government, which means they'll be available to everybody," he said.
So the drive for a third offset will require strong "top-down governance and, initially, war gaming experimentation and demonstration."
"So don't expect the  budget to see $30 billion in this," Work cautioned, "but you're probably going to see closer to the order of $12 ... to $15 billion on war gaming experimentation and demonstration to verify that our hypotheses on these five components is sound."