Army Of One

Image: Steampowered.com

A single soldier arrives on a foreign field of battle, alone and without reinforcements. They quickly busy themselves for the battle to come. It won’t be long until the enemy hunts them down. But this one soldier isn’t there to fight.

They are there to build an army, and command it, all on their own.

This is the way of war envisioned by the 2007 video game Supreme Commander. A real-time strategy game taking place in the far future, the game is considered a classic of the RTS genre by many. It envisions the world just described, where battles are fought by one-weapons systems, the Armored Command Units or ACUs, and the titular Supreme Commanders. These take the form of immense armored suits which can construct buildings out of the matter around them, and then utilize those buildings to create a fleet of unmanned weapons platforms ranging from companies of tanks to squadrons of jet fighters, and even full-blown blue-water navies. This fantastical depiction of man-machine teaming offers useful lessons.

While we are a long way from compiling matter into tanks and aircraft on demand, additive manufacturing does hold promise to allow frontline production of materiel – and even weapons. Moreover, it tailor-made items built to the commanding officer’s specifications, not a joint requirements office half a world away and a decade in the past. If the officer feels the need to adapt to new and unforeseen circumstances, advanced 3-D printers operated by skilled technicians and generative design tools could construct entirely new equipment on the spot, such as components for vehicles or body armor. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s 2004 Iraq War quip to ill-equipped American forces in Kuwait —  “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time” —  underscores the operational, moral and political imperatives for this potential breakthrough.

Even away from the frontlines, additive manufacturing shows promise in creating high quality products with less intensive human labor. For example, in 2013 BAE Systems flew a Panavia Tornado fighter jet with 3-D printed parts, claiming savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars. A version of the venerable M1911 pistol was entirely printed by Solid Concepts Inc. that same year. While it’s cost was exorbitant (at least $5,000,000) it’s not impossible to imagine that with technology improvements, weapon systems could be printed for a fraction of the cost while also allowing for tweaks and prototyping with less risk. BAE even stated a desire to grow fleets of autonomous drones in a process not entirely dissimilar to Supreme Commander, allowing small forces to be created on the fly.

However, Supreme Commander also offers a reason for caution amid these advances. In Supreme Commander’s fictional universe, a single, humanity-spanning conflict has continued for roughly 1,000 years, and the game even makes clear that the ACU’s were developed to help offset the immense toll of centuries of warfare. However, in making war less bloody and costly for the combatants, perhaps such advances are the reason such a war could continue for such millennial timescales. After all, in each battle, there are generally only two or three human combatants facing off, with all other vital forces being generated onsite. This mirrors some concerns in the real world that such low-cost approaches to conflict could affect the judgement of politicians and make fighting wars a more palatable political option. In the real world, this may become especially problematic when there’s a power disparity between nations. When one nation in a conflict cannot reliably strike the homeland of another, and combat forces of the more powerful nation are heavily automated, then the costs of war, both in the eyes of civilians and policymakers, will likely go down dramatically from historical norms.

There is a final issue raised by the game: what happens when contact is lost with autonomous units? In Supreme Commander, this occurs when an enemy ACU and its pilot is destroyed. In our time, it is becoming increasingly clear that cyber-intrusion could put autonomous systems at risk. When autonomous systems are cut off from their controllers, how should they be programmed to react, and how can one be prevented from being reprogrammed in a hostile way. With relatively short-lived aerial drones and unmanned ground vehicles in use today this may not be too worrying; but what happens when contact is lost with an autonomous tank capable of wreaking destruction? Should there be a fail-safe such as a self-destruct, even if it means the sacrifice of valuable weaponry? Moreover, it may be that these weapons, when abandoned, could become something akin to landmines, their outdated rules of engagement programming putting both civilians and military forces at risk long after a war has been resolved, as “Pure Risk” by Jason Hansa, an Art of the Future Project contest-winning story, proposed.

Despite it’s strange lore and far future setting, Supreme Commander is an excellent thought experiment that stimulates thinking on how technologies in development today may shape the world when taken to their logical conclusion. It gives us a glimpse into a future that’s equal parts tantalizing and horrifying, where technology, and more importantly the humans behind it, both save and destroy lives continuously. Perhaps that’s why it rings so true, even though it has populated by skyscraper-sized mecha robots.