About August Cole

August Cole is director of the Art of Future Warfare project at the Atlantic Council and writer-in-residence at Avascent. He is the author with Peter W. Singer of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.

The Fighting FAANG

Just as AI and robotics will transform warfare, these technologies will lead to profound changes in the defense industrial base. What might it look like, and what might it be called? How about the strategic innovation base?

Check out my new piece in DefenseOne with SparkCognition colleague Amir Husain:

Look across the Potomac River toward Rosslyn, where the corporate logos of government contractors crown a parade of office towers that follows the river past the Pentagon. The skyline, like America’s defense industrial landscape, is changing. Soon, 25,000 Amazon employees will be climbing the Metro escalators to work in Crystal City each morning along with the tens of thousands of workers from military, intelligence, and the defense industry organizations.

The arrival of Amazon’s HQ2 in the cradle of U.S. government contracting comes at a portentous time for the Defense Department. Technology is altering what makes us strong, prosperous, and secure. The defense industrial base is becoming the strategic innovation base. Today’s leading digital companies have disrupted every industry they have touched, from publishing to automotive. Could Amazon and the rest of the “FAANG companies”—Facebook, Apple, Netflix, and Google—or one of a handful of pure-play artificial-intelligence companies, such as the authors’ SparkCognition, become fixtures of this new industrial base?

Read the essay at Defense One.

OMEGA

Earlier this year, I published a short story, OMEGA, co-written with Amir Husain, CEO and founder at SparkCognition. The narrative explores the nature of strategic surprise in the AI era, and how the US, as well as its European allies, might respond to such an upset in Europe. Exploring setbacks and failure is just one way such FICINT writing can help.

“Incoming!” shouted Piotr Nowak, a master sergeant in Poland’s Jednostka Wojskowa Komandosów special operations unit. Dropping to the ground, he clawed aside a veil of brittle green moss to wedge himself into a gap beneath a downed tree. He hoped the five other members of his military advisory team, crouched around the fist-shaped rock formation behind him, heard his shouts. To further reinforce Ukraine’s armed forces against increasingly brazen Russian military support for separatists in the eastern part of the country, Poland’s government had been quietly supplying military trainers. A pro-Russian military coup in Belarus two weeks earlier only served to raise tensions in the region – and the stakes for the JWK on the ground.

An instant later incoming Russian Grad rocket artillery announced itself with a shrill shriek. Then a rapid succession of sharp explosive pops as the dozen rockets burst overhead. Nowak quickly realized these weren’t ordinary fires.

Read more at the US Army Mad Scientist program’s blog.

Angry Trident

Right now NATO is in the midst of Trident Juncture, its largest military exercise in Norway since the Cold War. This is an exercise for a new era of warfare, featuring battlefield 3-D printing, tactical cyber ops, and remotely operated armed ground vehicles, among other technologies that have emerged in the decades since Tom Clancy and Larry Bond wrote RED STORM RISING.

But what if this was not an exercise, and Norway was indeed under threat from a dynamic and unconventional Russian incursion designed to redraw the borders on NATO’s northern flank?

Based on a trip to Norway last fall, including visiting the strategically vital Arctic region bordering Russia, I wrote a future-war short story in the spirit of GHOST FLEET, ANGRY TRIDENT, that imagines such a scenario…

Read ANGRY TRIDENT at the Atlantic Council’s NATO Source blog.

RUSSIA-NORWAY BORDER

Small mountains of bicycles marked the Norwegian-Russian border at the Storskog crossing, piled high like shimmering haystacks in the November moonlight. Alongside them on the Russian side were cars and buses dusted with days of dirty snow, abandoned by refugees pressing toward safety without a backward glance. Norwegian police and Border Guards watched warily as the tens of thousands of people flowed into the Norwegian town of Kirkenes . The canvas tents at the airport reached capacity 12 hours ago, so the refugees carefully sought out the nooks and alleys amidst the Arctic town’s traditional brightly painted homes and bland modern buildings. The crowd’s panic dissipated in the cold and dark, replaced by resolve to not only escape but to stay away, perhaps forever.

The coffee was cold and bitter, as if brewed right out of the barren Arctic plain’s dirt and rock. US Marine Corps Sergeant Sylvia Hammer drank it out of a tiny black plastic cup that she balanced between sips on the rangefinder in front of her. She studied the refugees, moving with a river’s unstoppable energy between the rolling hills. They moved with steady urgency and few belongings, all on foot or on bicycles now, as they pushed through the dark along the Russian E105 road to its terminus where land and fjord met in Norway.

“You take your pills?” said Hammer.

“Think we are going to get sick?” said Harald Solberg, a corporal in the Norwegian Border Guard who was four months in to his six-month rotation at the nearby Sør-Varanger Garrison.

“Yes,” said Hammer.

Read the full story at the Atlantic Council’s NATO Source blog.

The Next NATO Standard? AI

Thinking about the future is important. Thinking about the future from other perspectives than our own is critical. Especially when it comes to the impact of emerging technologies on conflict and security. I recently wrote an essay for the Royal United Services Institute Newsbrief with SparkCognition colleagues Amir Husain and Wendy R. Anderson that considers the internationalized context of artificial intelligence and its impact on transatlantic security. NATO faces many urgent fiscal, political, and operational issues that, while pressing, should not eclipse planning for the AI era.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is becoming a decisive force in the international security environment, with the potential to transform everything from information operations to intelligence analysis to mission planning. Whether NATO takes a unified approach to AI or not is a crucial question for the Alliance to consider.

Read the full essay at RUSI Newsbrief. (paywall)

Short Stories, Long Conversations

On the latest US Naval Institute podcast, I had a great time discussing my latest short story, AUTOMATED VALOR, with Proceedings Editor-in-Chief Bill Hamblet and Director of Outreach Ward Carroll. Set in the 2030s, the story follows British forces in an urban fight in Djibouti and asks fundamental questions about the essence of leadership in the era of artificial intelligence. The podcast also covered my motivations as a writer, how to establish a credible narrative in future worlds, my journalistic background, disruptive civilian and defense technologies, and more.

Listen to the US Naval Institute Proceedings podcast episode 35.

Automated Valor

“Move, move, move!” she shouted. The closer the threat, the more her harness tightened, shielding her behind the combat couch’s blast-resistant wings. It felt as if somebody were hammering her coffin lid down while she was paralyzed but still alive. This particular fear was a well-worn track for the 24-year-old private. To suppress the panic, she angrily gloved a salvo of 30 thumb-sized diverters skyward. She quickly followed them with a pair of four-inch pulse-mortar rounds. Those would float gently down on parachutes, shorting out anything electronic within a five-meter radius until they exhausted their batteries. Her haptic suit pinched her to let her know it was overkill for the incoming threat, but it still felt right. She could answer for it when she wasn’t as worried about dying—whenever that day might come.

 

Read the full story at the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Bots, AI: Break With Convention

Russia’s next generation of strategic weaponry may be a bit more distant and a bit less fearsome than Vladimir Putin recently claimed. But his March 1 speech about titanic ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones should spur American defense and technology communities to move faster — indeed, uncomfortably so — to embrace similarly disruptive ideas such as artificial intelligence and robotics.

Read more of my op-ed with Spark Cognition CEO Amir Husain at Defense One.

When The Blood Runs Cold

Strategy Strikes Back cover 2018

SIXTH PLANET, HOTH SYSTEM – The tauntaun ran screaming across the crevasses and zig-zag trenches dug into Nev Ice Flow, fur singed black and gold and slathered in crimson.

A tauntaun doesn’t bleed red though. Rebel infantry does.

So starts the short story “When the Blood Runs Cold,” my contribution to the upcoming anthology STRATEGY STRIKES BACK: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict,” due out in May from Potomac Books. It is an eye-witness news account of the Rebel retreat from Hoth that is modeled on Ernie Pyle’s dispatches during World War II.

While my approach to answering the question of what the Star Wars universe can teach us about contemporary and future conflict relies on fiction, the collection of more than two dozen essays includes analysis from the smartest writers on strategy and military affairs today.

Kudos to editors John Amble, Max Brooks, Matt Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates for producing such a valuable – and enjoyable – book. It can be read for entertainment as well as for professional development, which will give plenty of people a chance to talk at work about the Death Star’s acquisition travails or the ethics of Rebel tactics or morale within the Imperial cadre.

No writer should be shy about clamoring for pre-orders, and in that spirit here is a link: http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/potomac-books/9781640120334/

Sci-Fi And The Military Reader

The view that fiction belongs on modern military reading lists is becoming mainstream. One only need look at the titles on the reading lists put out by US Special Operations Command or the senior officers of the Navy and Marine Corps to see that it has a valued place in military professional development. And this is not limited to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Fiction, and specifically science fiction and future-war fiction, is going mainstream in Western militaries.

Read the full article at RUSI Journal.

Operation CANDLEMAKER

There are myriad ways to try to understand how robotics and autonomy will change warfare. The more creative, such as theater, the better. The short story remains one of my favorite ways to work through these kinds of questions, particularly with the idea that a carefully written narrative can help check our assumptions and biases about how we want things to unfold vs. how they might actually. My latest military future fiction short story is Operation CANDLEMAKER. It follows two frontline characters present when US forces employ autonomous weapons in combat for the first time. My favorite feedback about the story so far is that “the laws of physics and Murphy prevail.” High praise indeed.

After seventeen years in the US Navy, Commander Wayne McCabe got seasick for the first time when a robot had the helm.

Technically, there was no actual metal humanoid at the controls because the 130-foot Sea Hunter-class trimaran warship was driving itself, six miles south of Jazireh-ye Larak in the Strait of Hormuz. McCabe ground his teeth as he fought the urge to throw up yet again and wondered what he was really doing aboard the USS Nantucket. McCabe adjusted the five-point harness on the captain’s chair by feel and looked at the spot on the console in front of him where the ship’s chief engineer had duct taped a red “NO” plastic button from a party store. Just out of reach. Fitting.

If McCabe hadn’t been aboard, then it would have essentially been a ghost ship. The nine other Sea Hunter-class ships in his squadron were unmanned and were the only ships in the mine-laden waters, making him the sole American sailor in the entire strait. The ships ran as close to silent as possible, communicating just by laser burst. They kept watch using infrared search and tracking sensors that flew like parasails 1,000 feet above the ship. In the middle of this summer night, the Nantucket was all but invisible.

At least it was cool, if not cold, sitting in the “fridge,” as he had jokingly called the bridge because of the onboard air conditioning constantly battling to keep the floating computer within its optimum operating range. He wore a tan aviator’s flight suit and augmented-reality (AR) helmet, deepening his sense of irony over his lack of control. This deployment was going to be hard to explain to the kids; he was aboard the Nantucket, at the cutting edge of naval warfare, but he was no more than a passenger. He was technically in command of the entire squadron, yet practically, he was in charge of nothing. But you couldn’t court martial an algorithm, so the Navy brass had to keep a human “in the loop” in case things went awry with the onboard autonomous combat system.

Read the full story at the Art of the Future Project website.