The Defense Science Board (DSB) is urging the Department of Defense to develop and field autonomous systems more quickly to take full advantage of their “substantial operational value” and to stay ahead of potential adversaries, which increasingly have access to such technology.

“Autonomy delivers significant military value, including opportunities to reduce the number of warfighters in harm’s way, increase the quality and speed of decisions in time-critical operations, and enable new missions that would otherwise be impossible,” the board wrote in a new report.

A Navy autonomous swarm boat developed by the Office of Naval Research. Photo: U.S. Navy
A Navy autonomous swarm boat developed by the Office of Naval Research. Photo: U.S. Navy

The board recommends that DoD launch a set of relatively small projects to demonstrate the near-term value of autonomy and make warfighters more comfortable with such technology.

“Given the current budget environment, the study opted not to recommend major new programs,” the report says. “Instead, to strengthen the operational pull for autonomy, the study recommends a set of experiments/prototypes that would demonstrate clear operational value across these operational challenges.” 

The suggested projects include: using large unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) to deploy small ones, which could be armed with explosives to disable or disrupt an adversary’s surface ships; developing a swarm of 10 or more heterogeneous, autonomous unmanned aircraft to serve as a “support team” to ground troops; and expanding the use of UUVs to locate and neutralize mines.

Other project ideas include: making intelligence data fusion tools more autonomous; creating an annual “swarm games” challenge to encourage exploration of various concepts; and holding competitions to test autonomous military vehicles against cyber attacks.

The DSB wrote its 121-page report at the request of Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall.