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Robot Armies: The Future of Modern Warfare?

Conventional US war strategies have failed in the fight against stateless, terrorist enemies. Military mechanization may be the answer.

| Mon Jul. 11, 2011 2:54 PM EDT

How the Warfare State Became the Welfare State

If military spending is still for the most part sacrosanct, ever more spending cuts are required to shrink "big government." Then what remains is the cutting of domestic spending, especially social programs for the poor, who lack the means to finance politicians, and all too often the incentive to vote as well. From the Reagan years on, the US government has chipped away at dozens of programs that had helped sustain people who are underpaid or unemployed, including housing subsidies, state-supplied health insurance, public transportation, welfare for single parents, college tuition aid, and inner-city economic development projects.

Even the physical infrastructure—bridges, airports, roads, and tunnels—used by people of all classes has been left at dangerous levels of disrepair. Antiwar protesters wistfully point out, year after year, what the cost of our high-tech weapon systems, our global network of more than 1,000 military bases, and our various "interventions" could buy if applied to meeting domestic human needs. But to no effect.

This ongoing sacrifice of domestic welfare for military "readiness" represents the reversal of a historic trend. Ever since the introduction of mass armies in Europe in the seventeenth century, governments have generally understood that to underpay and underfeed one's troops—and the class of people that supplies them—is to risk having the guns pointed in the opposite direction from that which the officers recommend.

In fact, modern welfare states, inadequate as they may be, are in no small part the product of war—that is, of governments' attempts to appease soldiers and their families. In the US, for example, the Civil War led to the institution of widows' benefits, which were the predecessor of welfare in its Aid to Families with Dependent Children form. It was the bellicose German leader Otto von Bismarck who first instituted national health insurance.

World War II spawned educational benefits and income support for American veterans and led, in the United Kingdom, to a comparatively generous welfare state, including free health care for all. Notions of social justice and fairness, or at least the fear of working class insurrections, certainly played a part in the development of twentieth century welfare states, but there was a pragmatic military motivation as well: if young people are to grow up to be effective troops, they need to be healthy, well-nourished, and reasonably well-educated.

In the US, the steady withering of social programs that might nurture future troops even serves, ironically, to justify increased military spending. In the absence of a federal jobs program, Congressional representatives become fierce advocates for weapons systems that the Pentagon itself has no use for, as long as the manufacture of those weapons can provide employment for some of their constituents.

With diminishing funds for higher education, military service becomes a less dismal alternative for young working-class people than the low-paid jobs that otherwise await them. The US still has a civilian welfare state consisting largely of programs for the elderly (Medicare and Social Security). For many younger Americans, however, as well as for older combat veterans, the US military is the welfare state—and a source, however temporarily, of jobs, housing, health care and education.

Eventually, however, the failure to invest in America's human resources—through spending on health, education, and so forth—undercuts the military itself. In World War I, public health experts were shocked to find that one-third of conscripts were rejected as physically unfit for service; they were too weak and flabby or too damaged by work-related accidents.

Several generations later, in 2010, the US Secretary of Education reported that "75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit." When a nation can no longer generate enough young people who are fit for military service, that nation has two choices: it can, as a number of prominent retired generals are currently advocating, reinvest in its "human capital," especially the health and education of the poor, or it can seriously reevaluate its approach to war.

 

The Fog of (Robot) War

Since the rightward, anti-"big government" tilt of American politics more or less precludes the former, the US has been scrambling to develop less labor-intensive forms of waging war. In fact, this may prove to be the ultimate military utility of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: if they have gained the US no geopolitical advantage, they have certainly served as laboratories and testing grounds for forms of future warfare that involve less human, or at least less governmental, commitment.

One step in that direction has been the large-scale use of military contract workers supplied by private companies, which can be seen as a revival of the age-old use of mercenaries. Although most of the functions that have been outsourced to private companies—including food services, laundry, truck driving, and construction—do not involve combat, they are dangerous, and some contract workers have even been assigned to the guarding of convoys and military bases.

Contractors are still men and women, capable of bleeding and dying—and surprising numbers of them have indeed died. In the initial six months of 2010, corporate deaths exceeded military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan for the first time. But the Pentagon has little or no responsibility for the training, feeding, or care of private contractors. If wounded or psychologically damaged, American contract workers must turn, like any other injured civilian employees, to the Workers' Compensation system, hence their sense of themselves as a "disposable army." By 2009, the trend toward privatization had gone so far that the number of private contractors in Afghanistan exceeded the number of American troops there.

An alternative approach is to eliminate or drastically reduce the military's dependence on human beings of any kind. This would have been an almost unthinkable proposition a few decades ago, but technologies employed in Iraq and Afghanistan have steadily stripped away the human role in war. Drones, directed from sites up to 7,500 miles away in the western United States, are replacing manned aircraft.

Video cameras, borne by drones, substitute for human scouts or information gathered by pilots. Robots disarm roadside bombs. When American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, no robots accompanied them; by 2008, there were 12,000 participating in the war. Only a handful of drones were used in the initial invasion; today, the US military has an inventory of more than 7,000, ranging from the familiar Predator to tiny Ravens and Wasps used to transmit video images of events on the ground. Far stranger fighting machines are in the works, like swarms of lethal "cyborg insects" that could potentially replace human infantry.

These developments are by no means limited to the US The global market for military robotics and unmanned military vehicles is growing fast, and includes Israel, a major pioneer in the field, Russia, the United Kingdom, Iran, South Korea, and China. Turkey is reportedly readying a robot force for strikes against Kurdish insurgents; Israel hopes to eventually patrol the Gaza border with "see-shoot" robots that will destroy people perceived as transgressors as soon as they are detected.

It is hard to predict how far the automation of war and the substitution of autonomous robots for human fighters will go. On the one hand, humans still have the advantage of superior visual discrimination. Despite decades of research in artificial intelligence, computers cannot make the kind of simple distinctions—as in determining whether a cow standing in front of a barn is a separate entity or a part of the barn—that humans can make in a fraction of a second.

Thus, as long as there is any premium on avoiding civilian deaths, humans have to be involved in processing the visual information that leads, for example, to the selection of targets for drone attacks. If only as the equivalent of seeing-eye dogs, humans will continue to have a role in war, at least until computer vision improves.

On the other hand, the human brain lacks the bandwidth to process all the data flowing into it, especially as new technologies multiply that data. In the clash of traditional mass armies, under a hail of arrows or artillery shells, human warriors often found themselves confused and overwhelmed, a condition attributed to "the fog of war." Well, that fog is growing a lot thicker. US military officials, for instance, put the blame on "information overload" for the killing of 23 Afghan civilians in February 2010, and the New York Times reported that:

"Across the military, the data flow has surged; since the attacks of 9/11, the amount of intelligence gathered by remotely piloted drones and other surveillance technologies has risen 1,600 percent. On the ground, troops increasingly use hand-held devices to communicate, get directions and set bombing coordinates. And the screens in jets can be so packed with data that some pilots call them "drool buckets" because, they say, they can get lost staring into them."

When the sensory data coming at a soldier is augmented by a flood of instantaneously transmitted data from distant cameras and computer search engines, there may be no choice but to replace the sloppy "wet-ware" of the human brain with a robotic system for instant response.

 

War Without Humans

Once set in place, the cyber-automation of war is hard to stop. Humans will cling to their place "in the loop" as long as they can, no doubt insisting that the highest level of decision-making—whether to go to war and with whom—be reserved for human leaders. But it is precisely at the highest levels that decision-making may most need automating. A head of state faces a blizzard of factors to consider, everything from historical analogies and satellite-derived intelligence to assessments of the readiness of potential allies. Furthermore, as the enemy automates its military, or in the case of a non-state actor, simply adapts to our level of automation, the window of time for effective responses will grow steadily narrower. Why not turn to a high-speed computer? It is certainly hard to imagine a piece of intelligent hardware deciding to respond to the 9/11 attacks by invading Iraq.

So, after at least 10,000 years of intra-species fighting—of scorched earth, burned villages, razed cities, and piled up corpses, as well, of course, as all the great epics of human literature—we have to face the possibility that the institution of war might no longer need us for its perpetuation. Human desires, especially for the Earth's diminishing supply of resources, will still instigate wars for some time to come, but neither human courage nor human bloodlust will carry the day on the battlefield.

Computers will assess threats and calibrate responses; drones will pinpoint enemies; robots might roll into the streets of hostile cities. Beyond the individual battle or smaller-scale encounter, decisions as to whether to match attack with counterattack, or one lethal technological innovation with another, may also be eventually ceded to alien minds.

This should not come as a complete surprise. Just as war has shaped human social institutions for millennia, so has it discarded them as the evolving technology of war rendered them useless. When war was fought with blades by men on horseback, it favored the rule of aristocratic warrior elites. When the mode of fighting shifted to action-at-a-distance weapons like bows and guns, the old elites had to bow to the central authority of kings, who, in turn, were undone by the democratizing forces unleashed by new mass armies.

Even patriarchy cannot depend on war for its long-term survival, since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have, at least within US forces, established women's worth as warriors. Over the centuries, human qualities once deemed indispensable to war fighting—muscular power, manliness, intelligence, judgment—have one by one become obsolete or been ceded to machines.

What will happen then to the "passions of war"? Except for individual acts of martyrdom, war is likely to lose its glory and luster. Military analyst P.W. Singer quotes an Air Force captain musing about whether the new technologies will "mean that brave men and women will no longer face death in combat," only to reassure himself that "there will always be a need for intrepid souls to fling their bodies across the sky."

Perhaps, but in a 2010 address to Air Force Academy cadets, an under secretary of defense delivered the "bad news" that most of them would not be flying airplanes, which are increasingly unmanned. War will continue to be used against insurgencies as well as to "take out" the weapons facilities, command centers, and cities of designated rogue states. It may even continue to fascinate its aficionados, in the manner of computer games. But there will be no triumphal parades for killer nano-bugs, no epics about unmanned fighter planes, no monuments to fallen bots.

And in that may lie our last hope. With the decline of mass militaries and their possible replacement by machines, we may finally see that war is not just an extension of our needs and passions, however base or noble. Nor is it likely to be even a useful test of our courage, fitness, or national unity. War has its own dynamic or—in case that sounds too anthropomorphic—its own grim algorithms to work out. As it comes to need us less, maybe we will finally see that we don't need it either. We can leave it to the ants.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of a number of books including Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. This essay is a revised and updated version of the afterword to the British edition of Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (Granta, 2011). To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Ehrenreich discusses the nature of war and how to fight against it, click here, or download it to your iPod here. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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