Defense Science Board Counter Autonomy Report Executive Summary

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Source: Sgt. Brigitte Brantley,
Source: Sgt. Brigitte Brantley,

POSTED:  October 27, 2020

By:  Scott E. Armistead

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force on Counter Autonomy (CA) recently published their “Counter Autonomy Executive Summary” for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OUSD[R&E]) [1].  Dr. Eric Evans, chairman of the DSB, in his memorandum for the OUSD(R&E), which introduces the Executive Summary, states the following:

As rapid technological advances in autonomy and artificial intelligence continue, countering adversary autonomous physical and information systems will be a critical line of effort in future military operations. The threat of adversary autonomous systems will be present in all phases of conflict and across all domains – land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. Existing capabilities may be adequate for countering some autonomous threats, but the emerging nature of the threat will necessitate some novel tactics, techniques, and procedures as well.

With autonomy as an emerging capability for the Department, counter autonomy is even more nascent. The establishment of an organizational focal point within the Department is critical to fully realizing the nature of this threat and implementing policies and strategies to mitigate it. There are few counter autonomy and counter artificial intelligence programs throughout the Department or the U.S. government as a whole. A senior-level advocate for counter autonomy and counter artificial intelligence should advise the Department when and if new initiatives are needed and when counter autonomy and counter artificial intelligence considerations should be integrated into existing initiatives [1].

Dr. Mark Maybury and Mr. James Carlini, cochairs of the DSB Task Force on CA, in their memorandum for the OUSD(R&E), which is also included in the Executive Summary, stated the following:

The Task Force found a heavy focus across the whole-of-government on fielding U.S. autonomous systems, with very little attention given to countering autonomous systems deployed by adversaries. One major exception is the U.S. government’s many programs focused on the counter-unmanned aerial system (c-UAS) mission. Although c-UAS is critical to ensuring the safety and security of U.S. forces, allies, and the homeland, the DoD must adopt a broader view of counter autonomy or it will not be prepared to effectively defeat future adversary systems.

Like the introduction of cyberspace, the growth of autonomy and AI will bring new capability to the public and private sector, but it will also introduce vulnerabilities to current and future capabilities. Therefore, the Task Force felt it necessary to not only develop recommendations aimed at counter autonomy but also counter-counter autonomy. The integrity of each component used to develop a physical or digital autonomous capability must be considered across the entire life cycle of a system to maintain confidence in its efficacy and reliability [1].

The report provides discussion of areas pertinent to a strategic assessment of U.S. CA capabilities today and 30 years from now across our air, cyberspace, land, sea, undersea, and space domains, along with a series of recommendations developed by the Task Force.  The Task Force believes that if these recommendations are adopted, the DoD will be in a position to successfully counter autonomous systems in future operations.  A synopsis of the recommendations is as follows [1]:

  1. Leadership.  Creation of a single senior focal point for CA and championing a DoD-wide autonomy/counter-autonomy community.
  2. Capability and Operational Development.  Development of a charter by military departments (Secretaries) to develop robust, fielded CA capabilities, including modification of existing capabilities; creation of a robust opposing force to mimic adversary autonomy; establishment of multidomain CA Red Teams; and development of CA requirements, concepts, and tactics, techniques, and procedures/concepts of operation.
  3. Intelligence.  Sensitive content that is available within the report.
  4. Assurance.  Establishment and enforcement by the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment of artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled autonomous system resilience gridlines to mitigate AI-specific vulnerabilities, along with establishment of testing and evaluation guidance by Developmental Test and Evaluation/Operational Test and Evaluation for development, fielding, and sustainment to ensure resilience of AI-enabled autonomous systems against CA over their life cycle.
  5. Policy.  Development of policy by the OUSD to provide defense of U.S. autonomous weapon systems, support autonomy exports, and ensure safety and security of imports.
  6. Talent.  Significant expansion of autonomy/AI talent by the OUSD and military departments through aggressive recruiting, hiring, career path, and retention actions.

About the DSB

The U.S. DSB is composed of nearly 50 retired senior military, government, and industry leaders and serves as an advisory body to the U.S. Secretary of Defense and other senior DoD officials.  For over 60 years, the DSB has performed research and provided innovative solutions to technological, operational, and managerial problems and challenges faced by our nation’s armed forces related to acquisition, cyberwarfare, communications, conventional weapons, force modernization, multidomain operations, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and other areas critical to maintaining our technological edge and force overmatch as the world order changes [2].

Much of the focus for DSB research is guided through national defense and security policy.  Although the United States has the most powerful, precise, and professional armed forces in the world, our military forces are increasingly challenged by near-peer and other state and nonstate actors such as China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, Russia, and terrorist groups operating by global franchise.  Counterterrorism, defense against asymmetric strategies of “gray zone” conflicts, and nuclear deterrence, along with partner-nation building and peacekeeping, continue to be priorities.  Emerging technologies related to cybersecurity and cyberwarfare, machine-learning-based AI, and space-based sensing and intelligence gathering will be critical to our national defense and security strategy and in maintaining technological superiority.  The DSB plays a key advisory role in addressing such challenges, including the most irksome problems and potent opportunities, unstructured and consequential, that involve science and technology, and almost always touch on policy, strategy, acquisition, manufacturing, operational concepts, and rules of engagement [2, 3].

The DSB’s focus areas to aid the current administration in addressing pressing national security issues and opportunities span a wide range of themes, including the following [3]:

  1. Protecting the homeland against nonstate actors, against enemy states in time of war, and against weapons of mass destruction and cyber.
  2. Deterring the use of nuclear weapons to prevent nuclear war.
  3. Preparing for gray-zone conflicts as war short of all-out war becomes the norm.
  4. Maintaining information superiority and what the information infrastructure enables for adversaries and the United States.
  5. Anticipating intelligent systems and autonomy, including numbers and disaggregation, range, and danger, on and above the sea surface that drive warfare undersea.
  6. Supporting stabilization, reconstruction, peacekeeping, and nation-building to win the peace.
  7. Preparing for a surprise to the United States and by the United States.

DSB reports and report summaries dating back to the 1950s can be found at and can also be accessed through the Defense Technical Information Center repository at


  1. Defense Science Board, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense. “Counter Autonomy Executive Summary.”, accessed 26 October 2020.
  2. Defense Science Board, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense. “Innovative Solutions for National Security.”, accessed 26 October 2020.
  3. Defense Science Board, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense. “Seven Defense Priorities for the New Administration.”, accessed 26 October 2020.

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