The U.S. Army's chief of staff said Wednesday the service's future combat vehicles and helicopters will need to serve in both manned and unmanned roles to meet commanders' needs.
Gen. Mark Milley, speaking at an Association of the United States Army's Institute of Land Warfare breakfast, fleshed out his vision for an Army of the future that depends on robotics, artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies that do not yet exist.
A large part of the success the service enjoyed in the 1991 Gulf War and more recent conflicts, he said, was the result of the focused modernization vision of leaders in the 1970s that created the Army's "big five" -- the Abrams tank, Bradley fighting vehicle, Apache attack helicopter, Black Hawk helicopter, and the Patriot air defense missile system.
The service now faces a similar challenge of modernizing its major weapon systems that are quickly becoming obsolete, Milley said.
"If we, the United States military, do not recognize the need for change, and if we do not adapt and pivot to that change then, in my mind, that will be a grave strategic mistake," he said.
For months, Milley has been pushing his modernization strategy, which prioritizes long-range precision fires, next-generation combat vehicles, future vertical lift, sophisticated command network and soldier lethality.
"I am not interested in a linear progression into the future that will end up in defeat on a future battlefield," said Milley, describing the mistake of depending on incremental improvements to existing combat platforms.
"We are talking about 10X capabilities that don't physically exist in the real world right this minute, but they will," he added.
More than a decade ago, Army leaders touted the need for "leap-ahead" technology in the service's Future Combat Systems effort -- a multiyear, multibillion dollar program that consisted of 14 lightweight manned and unmanned systems tied together by an extensive communications and information network.
But the technology FCS depended on simply did not exist. The Army spent billions on FCS, only to see it fail when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed the 27-ton Manned Ground Vehicles portion of FCS in the 2010 budget while criticizing the advanced design as ill-suited to survive current battlefield threats.
After the demise of FCS, Army officials quickly took aim at the Ground Combat Vehicle, an effort to replace the Bradley fighting vehicle with a technologically advanced fighting vehicle that would last far into the future.
Five years later, Congress cut most of the funding for the overweight, over-budget vehicle program in the face of mandatory budget cuts under sequestration.
Milley acknowledges the failures of FCS but maintains that the Army must embrace emerging technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence if the service wants to keep pace with its adversaries.
"Robotics is here; it is real," he said. "We are talking about vehicles that are both manned and unmanned ... every vehicle is going to have the capability to be robotic."
Within 10 to 15 years, ground forces are going to have robotic vehicles for ground and air operations, Milley said.
"So If the commander on the ground can make an evaluation of his mission, enemy, terrain, time and troops available, and he can estimate the situation, he can make a determination as to whether he wants this assault to be manned or unmanned," he said. "Does he want to attack Hill 101 with robots or does he want to do it with manned vehicles?"
Artificial intelligence is another example of a key emerging technology that the Army must recognize, Milley said.
"Whether we like it or not, artificial intelligence is coming," he said. "I am willing to bet on it with programs and money."
In terms of decision-making, "we want capabilities in the network that are taking advantage of significant advances in information technology to include artificial intelligence", Milley said.
"I don't know if artificial intelligence is going to mean robots and machines replace humanity ... but I do know the quantum computing and some of the IT technologies that are out there today are so significant and can help you [with] rapid decision-making in complex decentralized environments -- that if we don't take advantage of that in things like the network -- then we would be fools because others are moving out quickly on that," he said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.