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New Zealand Chief of Army Writing Competition Winner for the Officer Category June 2020.

What is the next evolution? This article doesn’t have an answer, but the next adaptation could be developing Human-Machine-Manoeuvre.

By Mr S. McCulloch

Introduction. Thinking about adaption a light combat force

1985s’ ‘Back to the Future’ predicted life in 2015 to involve videophones, robot parcel delivery, and hover-boards. Very unfortunately, hover-boards are yet to arrive, but videophones, robots, and the future itself is here now. The call to adapt to this type of future echoes throughout the Future Land Operating Concept 2035 (FLOC35) and in our new Army 2025 plan (ARMY25). As part of Army’s thinking, FLOC35 asks the question; “Warfare has moved from Melee to Mass, to Manoeuvre. What is the next evolution?”. This essay does not have an answer to that question but does seek to add to the conversation on the small adaptions we can make to best prepare for potential evolutionary changes in joint land combat.

This article will focus on an almost ‘sub-tactical’ level, as a means enabling the next generation of light combat commanders to ‘grow up’ in an environment that prepares them for the future fight, be through wholesale evolutions or adaptation in Joint Land Combat. Many suggestions boil down to ‘do more of what we are currently doing’, or what our adversaries are already doing. But most importantly, it seeks to contribute to definitions and concepts on Joint Land Combat in a manner that may focus priorities and opportunities relating to manoeuvre enabled by current and near-future technologies.

Definitions. Adaptation vice Evolution, Machine-Teaming vice Machine-Manoeuvre.

There are two definitions to clarify to allow later examination of potential courses of action; adaption vice evolution and manoeuvre vice teaming.

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine defines adaption as “the adjustment in behaviour to a new environment or stimulus”, it is reactionary but also precautionary. Evolution is broad, wholesale, changes in biology – manifest over longer periods. For this essay, the adjustment required to the emerging environment (adaption) is driven by the proliferation of cheap, ubiquitous, intuitive and replicable technology. Mastering the application to manoeuvre of such current technology should be seen as a step towards a more substantial evolutionary change triggered by future technological advances (artificial intelligence and quantum computing).

When considering machine-teaming, there is already a significant amount of writing across professional forums and NZ Army publications. In keeping with the New Zealand Defence Forces’ philosophical approach to warfighting (manoeuvrist approach), machine-manoeuvre a more appropriate term, and goal, than teaming. Machine-Teaming is the point to point use of technology by individuals. Human-Machine-Manoeuvre is the orchestration of teams people and technologies, leveraging the reach, survivability or sacrificial nature of machines[1] to speed movement and vector fires. Teaming doesn’t have such a rigorous and purposeful place within our lexicon as manoeuvre. Using the existing understanding of manoeuvre allows us to consider the potential to adapt the way our small teams and sub-units fire and move “with single purpose and cohesion to create an overmatch against an adversary” (NZDDP-D, ‘Manoeuvre’).

Fig 1. 2035 Joint Amphibious Task Force. How do we build a tactical warfighting culture that naturally leverages multiple information streams, sensors, nodes and assets – before the arrival of the JATF?

ARMY25 and the future fight. Tactical context.

The Army is positively engaged in thinking about the impacts of machines. The FLOC asks us “How do we keep up with, and exploit the technology wave?”, ARMY25 tells us that “innovation is not only about step change”  but also involves “adaptation [through] novel approaches and technologies”. Finally, the Army’s ‘Our Future Force’ supplement asks “What sensible things can we explore now to prepare for the future?”. The sensible answer maybe expansive access to commercial off the shelf systems (COTS). COTS systems are being used in current low-intensity environments (within select weather conditions) and can also simulate future machines that will be survivable in high-intensity environments. Thus, this is about not just access to more machines now, but also creating a culture prepared for future human-machine-manoeuvre.

Much of the current ability to access funding for tactical experimentation comes from the robust and progressive Networked Enabled Army (NEA) program. NEA is rightly focused on ’command’ and ‘sense’ functions and includes limited numbers of machines to support manoeuvre outside of HQ battle labs. NEA is appropriately driven by command support professionals and organisations, and will greatly enable our ‘command’ function. But our ‘sense’ and ‘act’ functions are the intellectual obligations of those who make up our Army benchmarks of the Battalion Group and Task Group[2]. So the urgent consideration may not only be command posts but complimentary thinking to adapt tactical concepts to ‘seek, close, seize and hold and destroy’ enabled by increased access to machines. For this, Northern Syria, not the sprawling, connected, coalition bases could be the benchmark for thinking about the future of ‘light combat’.

The environment. “and we had to leave the 4G on….”.

The expansion of COTs technology, combined within a global market place, means that adversaries can access and resupply equipment with greater ease. Weapons, body armour, night fighting devices and communications system are available from online retailers, quickly shipped from theatre to theatre and procured, 3D printed or recreated via secure online communication. An outgrowth of this saw the initial Daesh counter-attack of 2015 being fought by well-funded and well equipped, local and foreign fighters, with similar soldier systems to those fielded by professional armies, including ours. In effect, near-peer light combat forces.

The concerns about such near-peer competitors have cooled somewhat over time. After targeting these high-payoff individuals, the later stages of the war against ISIS was marked by deliberate, somewhat static offensive operations against threats relying on homemade technology. However, in the initial stages of ground combat for the Army of 2025 may be called to fight a force more like the 2015 ISIS ‘first tranche’ foreign fighters and Baathists, rather than the leftovers who survived to fight in the last gasp of the caliphate in Mosul and Raqqa.

Potential adversaries would, therefore, be fighting as a networked enabled force, even though they are in a contested cyber-electromagnetic environment. They will likely use COTS technology and systems, while also knowing that there are periods where our counter cyber-electromagnetic measures maybe deny such capability for short periods. They will have adapted their manoeuvre to better use of drones for reconnaissance and attack weaponisation, and use encrypted chat to drop pins, communicate orders and share screenshots and videos. Currently, much of our focus is on concerns for adversaries achieving ‘overmatch’ in their use of the internet for propaganda purposes. However, importantly for battalion groups and tasks groups, their usage of commercial, web-based, tools in human-machine-teams poses an immediate challenge.

Figure 2. Future adversaries may move beyond single systems per team, to multiple systems per person. Source:

Fortunately, much of our talent has spent a fair proportion of their youth simulating their own human-machine-teaming. If you have ever watched teenagers play Fortnite (combat engineering?), Ghost Recon (drones enabled reconnaissance?) or Call of Duty (live blue/red force tracking), you know our future soldiers understand machine-teaming basics. But it takes practice to apply the information, reach and connectivity of multiple machines to enhance your manoeuvre in the real world.

The real-world problem, (and opportunity), is exemplified by recent NZ Army experiences. In Afghanistan between 2009 and 2012, NZ Army units conducting Advise, Assist and Accompany missions regularly had assets with real-time full-motion-video capabilities linked directly to ground force commanders. In Papua New Guinea in 2017-2018 NZ Army units conducting Advise and Assist missions provided the partner force with COTS drones, throwable cameras and COTS battlefield communications. Having organic ‘ISR’ then, and now, makes a large difference to the speed of movement and possible engagements.  During both campaigns, it took time to adjust TTP’s and train junior commanders, delaying the adaptation of machine-manoeuvre. As subordinate teams have more sensors, they move faster and further, possibly ‘outrunning’ sub-unit Headquarters who do not have the TTP’s or culture to leverage machine-manoeuvre. This challenge was compounded by a lack of practice systems (not enough phones and drones), and restrictions on their use in their use (air and simmunition rules).

We deployed successfully as a Multi-Role Battalion Group and Special Operations Task Group to Timor Leste in 1999, after years of focuses TTP development that created a successful light combat (jungle) culture. So this appears to be a similar opportunity for our light combat force to double down on tactical level thinking about near-future environments. The ability to think beyond the machine-teaming will be difficult for junior leaders without increased access. A comparative example is the, initially, intermittent access to Military Working Dogs. It took time, experimentation, and repetition to ‘break the habit’ and use ‘dog first’ room clearance tactics. The problem wasn’t in the ability to individually team with the dog, it was having ‘enough dogs, and enough times’ to conceptualise manoeuvre adaption, from patrol to sub-unit.

For current examples, we may not need to look further than civilian Airsoft teams conducting their own machine-teaming. It is striking how their machine-teaming, could become our machine-manoeuvre. They were experimenting with drones, using simmunition against/amongst them, geotagging through individual phones to vector each other, using an ‘all informed nets’ mapping and photos to build situational awareness and using personal devices for the equivalent of post-operational exploitation. Airsoft is a game, but if professional soldiers were given increased access to such machines, the result would be going from the machine supported movement (a single airborne asset in ‘overwatch’), to modern manoeuvre with multiple organic assets that allow greater confidence and speed in future operations.

Field Service Marching Order for ARMY25. Bring on the machines.

Figure 3. ARMY25 A3I Sensor operator. Machine-Manoeuvre would require removing preemptive designations (of ‘A3I operators’) as every patrol member has the ability and access to the systems.

The Army’s soldier systems project is delivering [mechanical] lethality. Continuous improvement at TRADOC, the Brigade and Special Operations in the way we train individuals and generate teams is providing smarter, agile and professional small teams. Additional future advantage can be gained in speed and precision by equipping our light combat patrols and sections similarly to actors in Syria, Ukraine and Airsoft ranges. The goal, therefore, should be to allow professional soldiers to experiment with, modify and even wreck or lose these machines to understand their potential and pitfalls, to help define what Light Combat means to the NZ Army.

It may be helpful to consider an example of the use of phones, drones, bots, cameras, sensors and  ‘hunting and fishing’ expense accounts:

An 8 person fighting patrol heads out on a training exercise from their forward operating base. A mutually supporting patrol is in the sector east, and the remainder of the platoon is rear with the platoon headquarters. Each patrol member has multiple small throwable quadcopters, throwable camera balls and throwable ground bots, and phone each. For defensive routines they have trail cameras, sensors and remote cameras that are used around the night harbour (inside or outside) as a non-lethal, sometimes silent early warning system,  to complement their claymores and trip flares. They are also using commercial end-to-end encryption software and several google applications to immediately transcribe verbal reports, share images and to live stream feeds from any of their devices. All the machines are employable within one of the Army’s dedicated Experimentation ‘Field Firing’ Templates (modelled on the template for 81mm Mortars to allow un-impinged drone flights), that exempts restrictions on using COTS technologies, drones and, simmunition to attack adversary drones.

The patrol doesn’t use all of these at once, the patrol commander, much like current sub-unit commanders do, has their own surveillance and target acquisition plan. They have experimented and learnt to add into their manoeuvre the requirement to leapfrog drone operators. The lead scout and the patrol marksmen often alternate overwatch between drones and their own optics. The patrols marksman has fined tuned standoff distances for drone detection, painted the drone and rotors, and removed the flashing light. She is confident in the ability to remain undetected, is tasked to collect a short ‘360’ video of the patrol objective, (an abandoned police headquarters). The marksman leaves the drone forward by landing it on a roof nearby the objective. It will remain there in case on the approach they need to quickly get ‘eyes on’ or even if they want to crash it into the building as a distraction. The Patrol Commander uses the ‘360’ to brief each group once they are in the FUP. Lastly, the 2IC sets up rear (much like the JTACs did in the early to late 2000’s using ROVER terminals) to provide running commentary and drone overwatch on the building entry point. If shots are fired the drone will be discarded (left flying uncontrolled) and only sought out if practical as the 2ICs’ priority will be to move to, and coordinate, the fire support group.

Our Infantry Battalions, Light Armoured Regiment and Special Operations Regiment already have access to some of this commercial off the shelf technology. The adaption of Field Service Marching Order may just involve merely (vastly) increasing this. At the same time the network to support such machines is at the moment provided off local cell phone towers. There are issues here of creating a false sense of security, or reliance on these systems. But just as it is irrational to say that GPS should never be used to avoid it become a crutch for poor navigation, so to would be denying experimentation due to current technological limitations. In that sense, the use of drones and sensors should be merely an addition to the fundamentals of dismounted patrolling and room combat, not a replacement.

Precision fires is a critical gap in the New Zealand Battalion Group and Task Group. Artillery, particularly portable light guns, and light mortars, have great value to our Battalion Group and Task Group. In a close fight, very low yield precision fires could be the difference between not just life and death, but mission success, through minimised collateral damage. The constant use of drones  help to generate a culture of tactical ‘airspace awareness’. The additional benefit of this awareness would be a preparation of future leaders for an era impacted by the addition of small, precise, hand-launched munitions to a light combat force.


Figure 4: Thinking about machine-manoeuvre in the context of ARMY25.

Conclusion. Prepare for tomorrows fight.

 “Don’t stop the preparations [for] tomorrows fight, don’t stop the relentless pursuit of excellence [in how you are all] approaching our profession”. Chief of Army (Army News April 2019)

The promise of effective armed autonomous drones or functional AI robots appears distant. Even then it may be a dubious replacement for the agility and adaptability of well trained, well equipped and well lead soldiers using machines to enable their manoeuvre – not as a replacement for it. The Army is well on its way to being a modern, network-enabled and protected mobility capable light combat force. We have a robust plan, enabled by government investment and informed by a defence strategy that gives unifying purpose to our development. It is a good time to be a soldier of Ngāti Tūmatauenga. All these developments focus on the Army’s primary function and declared benchmark, of delivering the light combat force that is the Multi-Role Battalion Group and Special Operations Task Group. To increase the capability we currently have and to encourage the agility and adaptability we seek, a comparatively small increase in access to machines and changes to unsound restrictions may allow our next warfighting adaption. Such increases may then assist Army definition and conceptualisation of the potential of human-machine-manoeuvre.



Recommended reading: Major General Mick Ryan, Commandant Australian Defence College, Human-Machine-Teaming, 2018. Pages 37 – 42 cover challenges for ground forces.

Author: Mr Sean McCulloch is an Infantryman by trade, with coursing and experience in Light Armour and Special Operations.




[1] For the purposes of this article ‘machines’ include drones (that fly, drive, roll), sensors (that stick, roll, are held or extened) and devices (the listen, talk, record, communicate, amplify, distract). Later – ‘drones’ represent the common lexicon of remotely piloted air, ground and sea-surface machines.

[2] “The Multi-Role Battalion Group, in concert with the Special Operations Task Group, are Army’s benchmark for generating operational forces. Together they provide government with light combat forces that can effectively respond to required demands”. Source: ARMY25