The logistics of autonomous systems – the consequence of transformed logistics

By David Beaumont.

‘Logistics and autonomous systems – the promise of transformed logistics’ concluded that the prospective use of autonomous systems for military logistics was a matter of the imagination. Western militaries, including the Australian Defence Force (ADF), have been exploiting semi-autonomous systems for years. It is only a matter of time before robotics and other associated technologies revolutionise warfare to the point the militaries must transform. The article, however, also concluded with the observation that the biggest problem to face militaries is not in the choice of the systems to employ, and where to use them, but from the increasing reliance militaries will have on their technology. This reliance will not only transpire into changes to the logistics needs of armies, navies and air forces, but could very well lead to substantive organisational change.

There has been very little conversation as to what the implications of this robotic revolution will be on the logistics of modern militaries – the ‘logistics of autonomy’. Many writers have effusively seen robotics as changing the characteristics of militaries and transforming in the way they go to war. There are ample discussions on the ethics in the use of autonomous weapons, and volumes of promising statements on how robotic weapons and equipment will create new opportunities and risks. Just as the invention of the internal combustion engine changed the logistics needs of armies, and the invention of power flight created an entirely new military domain of war, technological-induced transformation always comes with significant changes to way such military forces are sustained.

Motorisation, mechanisation, flight, rocketry and computing elevated the importance of mechanics, petroleum operations, munitions specialists and supply specialists to the wars of the last 120 years. Better materiel and training to the soldier, sailor and airman helped to ‘thin’ the battlefield; technology allowing each combatant able to bring more and more firepower to bear on the enemy than the previous military generation. However, this increase in the use of technology has created a commensurate increase in logistics support; creating an ‘interminable contest’ between the teeth and ‘tail’ that the ‘teeth’ is losing.[1] The centre of gravity for military forces is in the process of moving from the battlefield and to the supply depots, bases, ports and defence infrastructure in ‘rear echelons’ and what the Australian Defence Force calls the ‘national support base’.

The shift from the human to machine will only accelerate this transformation. Militaries using autonomous weapons will, if we are optimistic about the technology, look very different in twenty, thirty years in the future. But there’s a dark side to technology-centric transformation. It can create tremendous complexity for forces that rush to bring in service capabilities. If the goal is to remove