From Networks to Swarms

CTOs , CIOs, and technology reporters are very familiar with the idea of the network. Think of networks and tech and the terms network-centric warfare, netwar, social networks, the wealth of networks, and a host of other terms and ideas immediately roll off the tongue. The network is the defining metaphor of the information age. But while the network is important, so is the swarm. Swarming in warfare has been fairly well analyzed by David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla. However, the kind of swarming I’m going to talk about is a different sort, not performed by human agents but by automated and autonomous agents.

In the context of automated and autonomous weapons, swarming is an emerging operational pattern. Dispersed large and small unmanned aerial vehicles of the future, networked together, may swarm together–each node playing a small role in a larger reconaissance and attack pattern. Other potential swarms include clouds of autonomous small munitions, shortening the sensor/shooter gap by eliminating the difference between the two. Botnets and worms also swarm too. Botnets provide sheer mass for brute force attacks, whereas worms autonomously propagate themselves and evolve in response to security measures.  While swarming by munitions and drones is still in the concept stage, botnets and worms are already doing so.

Perhaps the primary difference between the kind of swarms described by Ronfeldt and Arquilla and non-human agents is that human swarming has always been a metaphor rather than a direct replication of swarming in nature. Swarming on the battlefield is a nonlinear attack dynamic, which while reminiscent of a insect swarm is not identical to it. Animal swarms are built on spontaneous collaboration and distributed intelligence of a kind that is simply difficult to replicate in a human setting. Until now. While Mongol battleswarms and the tactical dynamics of WTO protestors have come close to the pattern, viruses and collaborative sensors and weapons are going to produce activity that is actually replicative of animal patterns.

We’re already well familiar with the dynamics of swarming in cybersecurity–both the human variety (self-governing networks like Anonymous) and the autonomous weapon (viruses) . In the decades ahead, we may see swarms very much like the worms we combat take the field in the world’s conflict zones.

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About AdamElkus

Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University. He writes on national security, technology, and strategy at CTOvision.com and the new analysis focused Analyst One, War on the Rocks, and his own blog Rethinking Security. His work has been published in The Atlantic, Journal of Military Operations Foreign Policy, West Point Counterterrorism Center Sentinel, and other publications.