Robots on the battlefield

Wired for War:

The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century

Three days into the Obama presidency, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) fired barrages of missiles into buildings in two Pakistani villages. The January 23, 2009 attack killed a reported twenty-two people—between four and seven were described as “foreign fighters.” The pilot was likely a CIA agent, “flying” out of a trailer in Langley, Virginia—or maybe a part of a secret Air Force program located in the no-man’s-land of southern Nevada. But by this time, such strikes had become regular news, although officially denied.

Barack Obama has not only continued Bush’s covert, robotic war into Pakistan. He has escalated it. Has the tech-savvy new administration discovered a way to make war on the cheap? Not so fast, says P.W. Singer, let’s think this thing through.

Named a Brookings Institution senior fellow when he was only twenty-nine years old, the liberal P.W. Singer is already a big-time insider. He has consulted for the Pentagon, the CIA, and more recently the Obama campaign. Wired for War is an ambitious effort to document the “robotics revolution” that has mushroomed in the U.S. and other militaries, as well as to raise serious questions about the effect this will have on the nature of war, policy, morality, relations with the people whose villages are in the crosshairs, and also the military itself. All of this is done in an entertaining and accessible way.

Sometimes the horsing around can make a socialist activist a little bit queasy, especially when the author agrees with an interviewee that the latest death-bot is, after all, “frakin’ cool.” There are also some cumbersome paeans to the military. Despite this, it is an excellent, groundbreaking book that asks the right questions about the emerging reality of robotic warfare, a trend that is so far only going in one direction.

The U.S. military entered Iraq in 2003 with few to zero robots. Today, there are thousands of them—from the PackBot bomb diffuser now equipped for combat; the small TALON UAV, which is carried and operated by small units; up to the larger Predator and Global Hawk UAVs. SWORDS is particularly menacing. It’s a little tank, bristling with weapons, a high-power camera, and a steady “hand.”

Does this really constitute a revolution in warfare? Certainly the entire history of military technology is to make a longer spear, that is, to maximize one’s ability to kill with as little risk as possible to oneself. But certainly, there have been “revolutionary” leaps like gunpowder, aircraft or the nuclear bomb which transform the entire way strategists have to think about war.

Robotic systems have had very modest roles going back years or decades, but today’s systems have exploded onto the scene in two waves. The first was immediately after September 11, 2001, when bureaucratic obstacles were overcome and a number of Predator UAV’s (previously just a spy plane) were armed with Hellfire missiles and sent over Afghanistan. The second was a response to the insurgency in Iraq, when the order went out to “build ‘em as fast as you can make ‘em!”

To contain the political and economic costs of the Iraq War, the Bush administration changed course in 2006. The hallmark of the new policy has been to buy off former enemies and put them in charge of their localities. Pulled back from the villages and towns and onto their mega-bases, the U.S. military, under Bush and now under Obama, is constructing a model for the long-term occupation of Iraq. The “war from afar” and “fighting to our strengths” approach has thrust robots into the spotlight. That and success, apparently—one Predator unit claims to have killed 2,400 “insurgents” in 2006.

Many robotic systems are sped onto the battlefield by medium-sized companies occupying office or light industrial space. The maker of the PackBot is iRobot, whose flagship product is an automatic home vacuum cleaner. They don’t usually require the massive, capital intensive, industrial facilities required to build a bomber or a tank. A Predator costs about $4.5 million, eighty-five times less than an F-22. Operators can often be trained quickly and cheaply, since the designers model the controllers on PlayStation.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the military agency that initiates and funds science projects that might one day be militarily useful. The explosion of interest in robots has, evidently, shaken the cobwebs off of some crazy old ideas. There are the big—long-distance heavy bombers, navy vessels, huge blimps that never have to come down. And there are the small—insect-like spy robots. And there are the terrifying—swarms of networked ships or aircraft, autonomous of any pilot, driven by a supercomputer to annihilate anything in their paths.

Wired for War is careful to explain that we are not faced with the immediate prospect of a Terminator-type future where the robots keep coming at us as we frantically mash on the “stop” button. But it’s not for the lack of trying. DARPA and their network of private contractors just haven’t figured it all out yet. One thing that Singer finds irksome is when he is told by marketers that humans will never be taken all the way “out of the loop,” even as, with the next breath, they tell him about their plans for a new robot to detect and shoot enemy snipers in between the time when the enemy’s hammer is drawn back and when the bullet is fired—all on its own. In reality, U.S. Navy vessels have for years been protected by automatic batteries as a last line of defense against incoming missiles.

The ultra-lean business model, however, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. The military still requires big ships, transport vehicles, and bases, even if it’s just to deploy robots. It’s also true that many of these systems are highly prone to glitches and failures, due to their tremendous complexity and harsh operating conditions. Singer also addresses the fact that the U.S. and its allies (like Israel) do not have a monopoly on this technology, and have in fact had robotic systems used against them by “war on terror” adversaries. The people on the other side of these weapons are observing and adapting, too.

Robotic developments also damage the image of the states that use them. In 2007, Pakistanis registered their opinion by putting a song with the lyrics, “America’s heartless terrorism/Killing people like insects/But honor does not fear power,” near the top of the chart. Although Singer does address the imperial difficulties in winning “hearts and minds,” he could have gone further. The fact is that while robots may have played a role in the damage-control phase of the Iraq War, they haven’t been able to prevent Iraq from establishing close ties with Iran. They have only contributed to the destabilization of the U.S. ally Pakistan. Israel’s high-tech massacre of Gaza this winter also seems to have backfired in world opinion.

The “Robotics Revolution” needs to be taken seriously. Ruling classes are likely to continue pouring money into it, and they will be more willing to invade, attack and intervene if they believe the costs can be managed and protest at home kept to a minimum. Artificial intelligence, high-tech surveillance, and remote killing lends itself to what military planners see as the future—combat against irregular forces in densely populated, chaotic slums. As resistance forces need to adjust to the new faceless imperial enemy, antiwar forces in the West also need to redouble our efforts to expose what our governments do in our name overseas.

Issue #101

Summer 2016

Socialism in the Air

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