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.

Staging The Future

It was a packed house, just not the usual crowd for a think tank event.

But last week in London, an unusual evening of theater and discussion about artificial intelligence and the future of conflict brought together more than 200 people, including actors and art students, military and civilian government officials, tech and defense industry, among others.

The event, “Staging the Future: Artificial Intelligence and Conflict,” was put on by the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute, in partnership with Central St. Martins and the Platform Theatre. There are myriad efforts underway currently to better understand, and prepare for, a future in which computers and other machines can operate with human-like reasoned judgments and individual initiative but many of these reports or conferences overlook the crucial questions of the human element. As theater is inherently an analog – and live — activity, it focuses the audience’s attention on the actors on stage.

Read more at The Art of the Future Project website.

Between Fact And Fiction

Peruse the shelves at any bookstore and one section sure to be well stocked is for books on writing. There are notable titles, from rule books such as Elements of Style to the inspirational and craft-oriented Naming the World, that are well suited to equipping writers with the tools to put their words on a page as effectively as possible.

There are other types of writing books, though, that pull back the curtain of what it is like to write professionally. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one that stands out, and so is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing endure as being entertaining and useful.

Add to the list two more worthy reads. These recent autobiographical books hew to the “show, don’t tell” adage and reveal the stories behind their authors’ lives: Steven Pressfield’s The Knowledge and John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. While these books are rooted in the past, their value to future-minded writers is in understanding the importance of personal stories in creating inspiring characters and credible settings perched on the knife edge between fact and fiction. This is perhaps even more important in tales that can be easily overrun with technology and fantasy.

Read more at the Art of the Future Project website.

After The War

The Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project has so far used short stories to explore how wars start, how they might be fought in space and what a conflict among the great powers could look like. But what comes next when the fighting ceases? For combatants and warzone civilians alike, conflict during the next decades will have elements that would be familiar to Greek hoplites, like the essence of tactical deception or being proficient in close-quarters combat. Yet there will be elements that from today’s perspective will stretch the boundaries of official imagination in preparing for how closer man-machine interface, latent cyber weapons and bio-enhancement to soldiers and weaponry alike will change war.

In partnership with veterans writing group Words After War, the Art of Future Warfare project seeks unpublished short stories exploring post-conflict issues from a future war in the 2040s for its latest creative challenge. The winner will receive a $500 honorarium.

Enter at ArtofFutureWarfare.org.

The Art Of Future Warfare: Megacities

Comic books. Think tanks. A match made in …

Check out the latest contest from the Art of Future Warfare project at the Atlantic Council that will explore the future of urban combat.

The Atlantic Council Art of Future Warfare project’s latest crowd-sourced contest seeks original graphic novel scenes and panels, illustrations and images depicting urban conflict and combat in one of the world’s growing number of megacities during the 2040s and 2050s.

Max Brooks, the best-selling author of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War and the Harlem Hellfighters graphic novel, will help select the contest winner.

Current Challenge | The Art of Future Warfare.

Breaking Through The Fog

Nobody else is awake in the house. Why would they be?

I’d say this is my time, but it’s really not. The hours between five and seven in the morning belong to others: The fictional Marines, soldiers, sailors and security contractors of the future whom I struggle to give the lives they deserve; the people counting on my professional writing in the “real world” of defense and security analysis; my co-writer on the biggest professional gambit I’ve ever undertaken: a novel about the next world war.

Before I am fully awake, the keyboard keys rattle and shake in their metal bed beneath my cold fingertips. Whether those sentences that come out in three-to-four-second bursts are any good or not is less important. The most important part of this moment is the act of sitting down in the dark to get to work. Each character, word and paragraph is an incremental victory in a larger set-piece struggle that occurs every time I open my laptop before dawn.

If it’s a good day, there are creative breakthroughs. Big ones. It’s predictable, because for me the earliest hours of the day are almost always the most creative. Those breakthroughs come from the routine and practiced approach that respects an artistic tradition of early-morning productivity.

Read more at War On The Rocks.

Creative calls of duty

At least we all wore ties.

For writers and entertainment producers, such formality is a rare thing. But at a recent Atlantic Council event on art and the future of warfare, the seriousness of the subject warranted it. Joining award-winning science fiction author David Brin and Dave Anthony, producer of the blockbuster video game Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, our intent was to share how we viewed the future of warfare and what the creative cadre could do to help sharpen the thinking of creating alternative futures. One of the best steps is to take a closely held assumption and turn it on its head. Doing so should be both uncomfortable and exciting, and made easier by envisioning a world 30 years out, rather than 10 years.

As the 21st Century so far proved again and again, surprise is no longer a surprise. Moreover, how many times has somebody said out loud while reading a news headline, “You can’t make this up!” That is our future, and it is one that will require greater discipline, creativity and agility from the national security community. It is a concept the Atlantic Council takes seriously through its Strategic Foresight initiative, and it is worth paying close attention to.

Watch the Webcast of the Atlantic Council event.

Atlantic Council: Man, machines and the bottom line

One of the abiding questions faced by the Defense Department and US defense industry is how to keep its edge in a fast-paced world where cutting edge consumer-oriented technology, much of it applicable in conflict contexts, gets steadily cheaper and more accessible. Meanwhile, the premier military platforms American armed forces are counting on in the 21st Century are becoming unaffordable and scarcer. Even attempts at buying relatively inexpensive ships such as the Littoral Combat Ship, or adopting unprecedented economies of scale as in the Joint Strike Fighter program, are not showing signs those bets will pay off as originally hoped.

There is another way to approach the problem than a singular focus on productivity, according to retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright. The industrial solution to cost-cutting is already at diminishing returns, said Cartwright, and the major savings required will not come from mere tweaks to business-as-usual weapons buying. Something bolder is needed.

“The platform is too slow to respond to a changing world,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out not how to compete with computers, but how man-machine [interface] and computational power start to come together in a way that gives you huge leverage,” said Cartwright.

Read more at the Atlantic Council’s Defense Industrialist blog.