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Fighting for Time: Conflict in the 22nd Century

This week GPCAPT Phil Arms offers a prospective glimpse into the ‘New Generation Force’ of the 2100s in the latest instalment of our #AirForce2121 series. His sci-fiesque vignette explores several issues, from the integration and use of AI in far-future warfighting to asking the question: is Time the 6th Domain to be contested in future warfare? But his storytelling also includes timely messages for the Air Force of today, particularly around reframing ‘failure’ into a culture of growth.


Destiny surveyed the continual stream of data that scrolled before her. She recognised this data feed as one of the many lines of signals intelligence that contributed to the common operating picture of the enemy’s information networks – a maze of tactical and operational decision nodes and communication feeds. Nested within a Time Control Module on board the state-of-the-art E-17D airborne battle management platform, Destiny was not aware that she was flying at 80,000ft, high in the Earth’s stratosphere cruising at greater than 20 miles a minute. The height was needed to elevate her sensors out of the radio frequency clutter that dominated the lower altitudes, and the speed essential to survive the numerous enemy threats trying to target her platform.


Today’s was a special mission as it was the final training sortie of the 12-month Aerospace Weapons Controller Course (AWCC). Over the last six months her class had progressed through a series of tactical multi-domain scenarios culminating in this mission. This was also her course’s fifth attempt, the previous four having been unsuccessful and reported as ‘progressive learning iterations’ – what used to be called ‘failures’. The old-school philosophy of ‘three strikes and out’ had long since been abandoned as the Air and Space Force embraced its ‘Growth Culture’; one of the cultural foundations of the Service drummed into cadets during basic training advocating risk acceptance, multi-skilled diversity, and disruptive innovation. For Destiny, this mission was the last ‘box to tick’ before she could claim to be mission ready.


The mission however was not an easy one. Destiny’s team were to provide the initial attack, setting the conditions for an assault against a superior opponent – a Tier 1 threat equipped with advanced information, nuclear, biological, offensive-space and cyber capabilities. Her role in this mission was simple – decapitate the enemy’s cognitive capabilities while preserving her own. The sequence and speed of her actions were critical as she had to disable the enemy’s ability to respond before they had time to act. A millisecond delay, or out of sequence move, would result in her being denied access to the enemy’s command and control system that currently lay bare before her. If executed correctly, Destiny’s actions would provide a temporal window sufficient to allow follow-on actions by her classmates. Having gotten the sequence of attacks wrong during the last four missions, she was acutely aware of the consequences of not successfully executing her part of the mission.


Her classmates were poised (once again) with an inventory of highly classified space based, cyber, and kinetic strike effects rarely available for training missions. Swarms of autonomous strike drones were in position to attack during the brief time-window of decision paralysis created by Destiny, designed to deliver a crippling cyber and directed energy attack across the multiple layers of the enemy’s defences. This would set the conditions for the air and space insertion of land forces to secure the objective and deliver the knock-out blow – all while Destiny continued to monitor the information networks and enemy artificial intelligence (AI) signature to identify and shut-down any attempts to rally following the initial attack.


Contesting time, recognised as the 6th Domain, had been an emerging priority in Western force design over the past five decades. It was the evolution of the 21st Century’s fascination with Information Warfare – an attempt to influence the decision processes and cognitive biases of your enemy. The relationship with John Boyd’s Theory of Strategic Paralysis (an airpower strategist from the late 20th Century) wasn’t identified until the mid-2070s. Boyd’s decision loop, Observe-Orientate-Decide-Act (or OODA Loop), provided the architecture within which hypersonic and directed energy weapons, cyber effects and AI could provide a means to generate effects faster than an adversary could cognitively process and provide a response. This facet of warfare was stumbled across in the largely forgotten Gulf War 1 over 100 years ago – now a core element of academic analysis on AWCC. In what was then known as Network Centric Warfare, a coalition led by the USA was able to defeat a significant land force by attacking it so swiftly across critical decision-making nodes that it was left incapable of responding. The effect was staggering; Saddam Hussain’s Republican Guard capitulated within hours, with troops abandoning their posts.


When coupled with the recently developed series of ‘temporal weapons’ the Air and Space Force now had the means to create decision paralysis through the coordinated employment of high-speed fires, and effects designed to control the acquisition and movement of information - this was manoeuvre in the era of information warfare. The tactical aim was simple; deny the enemy the ability to observe then orientate in order to generate decision paralysis while preserving your own capacity. In its simplest form, this was a competition for time.

An advanced form of AI integrated into the highly classified 9th Generation network architecture, Destiny was an avatar designed specifically to contest time. This was the sole purpose of her existence!


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Desiree Watkins, affectionately known as ‘Dee’ to her friends, was sitting comfortably in her favourite leather armchair, coffee in hand. From her secure home office she gazed out at the pristine Tasmanian wilderness presented before her in a stunning panoramic display. Until activated, it wasn’t obvious to the casual observer that the monitors on her desk were linked via multiple quantum-encrypted networks to the AI-run Multi-Domain Effect Centre (MDEC) at Bungendore, nearly 1000nm away. Her office was one of only four human-on-the-loop interfaces that monitored the performance of the course of avatars that made up the AWCC class of 2121.

Having undergone a rigorous screening process, Dee had been selected from 1000s of candidates based on her genetic, cognitive and emotional attributes to provide ‘personality blueprints’ for the Destiny series of avatars. She ‘owned’ four avatars in this course, the latest in a line of over 150 operational Destiny-bots, each customised for different mission sets by tweaking elements within her personality blueprint.


These avatars were essential elements of the Air and Space Force workforce. Following the infamous ‘Retention Crisis of 2030’ the Australian Defence Force had been unable to grow and maintain its desired workforce numbers, experiencing significant shortfalls across all employment categories. Unable to compete with industry as a preferred employer in terms of both remuneration and conditions of employment, the Air and Space Force had sought alternative workforce solutions that better balanced the demands of family and personal interests, attempting to remain competitive within a rapidly changing societal context. As AI capabilities had grown substantially in the late 21st Century, the Air and Space Force had invested heavily. The New Generation Force (NGF) was the first true acceptance of AI into what had historically been human roles. By employing AI-bots, the Air and Space Force was able to significantly reduce its human workforce from 20,000 in the mid-21st Century (and growing) to less than 3,000, with an AI force of over 50,000 avatars providing the mass of its combat capability.


Dee was tingling with anticipation and excitement over this mission attempt as she’d spent the best part of the last two months working closely with the psych team to tweak the Destiny bots, incorporating lessons from previous attempts. When not working for the Air and Space Force, Dee enjoyed her second job as a software engineer, but nothing could beat the thrill of planning and executing these missions. She was proud of the part she played in Australia’s Air and Space Force. Today she was refreshed and ready.


Dee took a large gulp of coffee as a final preparatory gesture before keying the mike to transmit: “Fight’s on”.


“Destiny commit” came the digitised reply - the mission had started.


GPCAPT Phil Arms joined the Australian Defence Force Academy in 1989, graduating Pilots Course in mid-1993. During his flying career he has flown over 3000 hours in more than 30 aircraft types, with more than 2300 hours as captain on the F/A-18. He is a graduate of the United States Navy Test Pilots School, has extensive experience in flight test operations, and held command of No. 75 Squadron, RAAF Tindal from January 2010 until December 2012. His current role is Director Joint Experimentation within Force Design Division. In this role he is responsible to the Joint Force Authority for the conduct of experimentation and wargaming in support of the ADF’s force design process.