When RoboCop Replaces Private Jackson

When RoboCop replaces Private Jackson: Brookings' Peter Singer on the impact of technology on war.
By: /
January 8, 2012

Are robots replacing soldiers?

Peter Singer: Humans have been waging war in various forms for 5,000 years, so I don’t see that changing. There are studies that show that maybe we are seeing lesser levels of conflict, or conflict moving from the inter-state to the domestic level, or however you want to put it. But war has been a reality of human existence from the very start, and I don’t see that fundamentally changing, whether it’s talking about war using sticks and stones or war using Predators and PackBots.

I don’t think the human role in war is disappearing, even with this new advanced technology. War is still caused by human failings, or human greed, or human anger, or human hubris … There’s always a human cause. How we decide to utilize these war systems are still decisions made by humans for human reasons. So yes, we’ve carried out more than 300 airstrikes in Pakistan using drones. But the drones didn’t decide on their own – people did.

Finally, even though we’re seeing more and more of this new technology used, it’s not an exact replacement of humans. There are certain things humans are good at and certain things that robots are turning out to be better at, but there’s not an exact overlap. For the most part, the plan moving forward seems to be teaming humans and robots together. When you look at the military development programs in robotics, you see that a lot of the ideas are parallel to the relationship of the policeman and the police dog: Each on its own is not as good as the team is together. That seems to be informing our plan to build new robotics systems. There will still be humans in the battle space instructing robots to do things, but the robots won’t just boringly follow – they will have the autonomy to react. That said, they won’t be completely autonomous – they won’t call their own plays.

How is this shift affecting the moral considerations that, throughout history, have limited the outbreak and potential devastation of warfare?

PS: Our technologies are evolving at a faster pace than our human institutions are reacting to them. And that’s actually nothing new. There have always been technologies that have come along that we haven’t had the law and ethics to figure out, that we haven’t known how best to regulate and/or use, and that we haven’t had the political institutions to help us understand in terms of the impact they were having on what we were deciding to do within our governments. There is a history to this: This has happened with technologies before.

Consider strategic bombing. The first vision we have of someone using a flying machine in war actually comes out of science-fiction. A.A. Milne was one of the first writers to talk about military airplanes. But then they became a reality. In the First World War, they were unarmed – they were just used for observation. Then people started to say, “Well, I can see the other side, and I want to do something about it.” So we ad-hoc armed them. After that, we started to specially design them to be armed – bomber planes, fighter planes, and the like. From that we got a whole host of new military doctrine questions – about how we could best use this new machine in war, but also about strategic, political, ethical, and legal issues that resonate beyond.

Everything changed. For instance, it used to be that the “home front” was the place behind the battle lines. The people there supported the war, but they weren’t involved in the war because they couldn’t be targeted. The development of military aircraft technology allowed people to target the home front – to take people in the home front and move them into the battle space. That raised ethical-legal questions about what you could target that no one had really explored before. It also raised strategic questions: Does having the option of strategic bombing make war more or less likely?

These debates were very intense in the 1920s and 1930s, and many of them are still not resolved. And, of course, the debates change not only because of what people decide is legal, but also depending on the capabilities of the technology. Our expectations of certain obligations in strategic bombing have changed greatly. During the Second World War, it took an average of 108 bomber missions to get one bomb to hit the intended target. As a result, we accepted a broader notion of collateral damage and civilian casualties than we would now. These days, one Predator can hit multiple targets with laser precision. Thus, when just a couple of people are killed accidentally, we consider it a tragedy. If the same number of casualties had been lost during the Second World War, we would have considered it an unimaginable success.

Expanding the battle space would mean that we could be at war when we are 7,000 miles away – we could fly a plane over Afghanistan but be sitting in Nevada. Right now, what the western nations are wrestling with is that we are not the only users of unmanned systems, so how we utilize them is creating precedence that we may or may not be happy with in the future.

And it’s not just an ethical question – it actually has strategic impact (not just in disputes between nations, but also in how our own institutions understand when and where we go to war). Thus, the debate over how to utilize drones is actually a debate that needs to be had not just in international law, but also within our governments. Our executive branches have started to argue that they don’t need congressional or parliamentary approval to use force as long as there are no humans going into harm’s way. That was, for example, how the Obama administration took its position this summer on the Libya operation. For the last part of it, we did not have human pilots going into harm’s way (we pulled out of that role after April 3), so we didn’t need congressional authorization. But even though we didn’t have human pilots going into harm’s way after April 3, we still worked doing the kinetic part of war. Our Predators actually struck 146 targets that summer.

So we have a new reality. For the last 5,000 years, the idea of engaging in combat and putting people at risk were one and the same. Now, we have a technology that disentangles the two. But our political system has not faced that reality.

Does this mean more or less civilian casualties?

PS: I don’t think we can really answer that at this stage. All you can really talk about are the pressures that this situation creates in two very different, almost conflicting, directions. At the pointy end of the spear, the technology allows you to lower the potential number of civilian casualties by increasing precision. However, at the same time, it changes the way that policymakers look at, or think about, when and where to use force. And it creates the almost erroneous impression that these operations are costless, which makes them easier to authorize, because politicians look at them differently.

A good example would be to compare discussions surrounding the bin Laden raid, which involved boots on the ground, with discussions of the drone strikes. President Obama’s top adviser described the decision to put boots on the ground in the bin Laden raid as “the ultimate gutsy call.” By contrast, we don’t even think about the more than 300 drone strikes we carried out in Pakistan.

One of the most difficult questions emerging from all this is the very notion of who is, and who isn’t, a civilian in the battle space. It’s not just the idea of insurgents and terrorists and warlords and child soldiers and contractors, who are all now members of the battle space, often in greater numbers than in regular armed forces. My first book, for example, Corporate Warriors, was about private contractors in the military industry. Look at operations in Iraq or Afghanistan: On one side, it is insurgents/terrorists who are fighting, and on the other side, it is our military forces, which are outnumbered by our contractors that we’ve brought with us. We have this notion that everyone is clearly a member of the military, but members of the military are actually a minority within that battle space. And that’s not even talking about the actual civilians – when you move into a counterterrorism mission in a state like Yemen, Somalia, or Pakistan, it gets even more complex.

Consider the strikes that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban. He was an admitted bad guy – he proudly took credit for the killing of Benazir Bhutto – and we carried out 14 drone strikes before we got him. That points to how tough it is to get a high-value target, but also how, when you’re not putting boots on the ground, you’re willing to just keep going at it until you hit your target. When we did get him, he was sitting on top of a house in Pakistan receiving medical treatment from his personal doctor, and his wife was also up there with him. So we killed him, an admitted bad guy, but we also got these two other people. Do we count them as civilian casualties or not? You and I, international lawyers, CIA officials, parliamentary officials, and so on, can argue days and days about it. On the one hand: a doctor. On the other hand: a doctor who was a member of a known terrorist group going around with that group’s leader. The same is true of the wife: on the one hand, a family member; on the other hand, a family member of a man leading a known terrorist group, who, rather than turning him in to authorities, was keeping him hidden and travelling around with him. So we can debate this back and forth. The point is that such things are not clear-cut in 21st-century war.

Will these technologies, then, create an even more profound asymmetry between powerful states and weak states?

PS: I would not describe it as a full asymmetry. I would describe it as a more complex environment. We have an assumption that there are certain capabilities and certain technologies that are limited to states, and yet, when you look at the realities in 21st-century conflicts, it’s not just states that are engaging in war – it’s states and non-state actors that range from guerilla groups to terrorist groups to insurgent groups to drug cartels to private military corporations to gangs … all of them in this battle space. But the key technologies that matter are also increasingly becoming open source. That is, they are more and more accessible by a variety of actors: What would have previously been described as high-end capabilities are now, potentially, in the hands of everyone. This means we can really no longer think about them as high-end capabilities.

The robotics example illustrates this: It wasn’t long ago that an unmanned aerial system that can do surveillance was considered science-fiction, and then it became something that only high-end militaries like the U.S. military could have. The Canadian forces have only recently moved into this area, and they’ve mostly done it through leasing – as in, they haven’t bought it themselves. However, terrorist groups like Hezbollah already have this system, a group of criminals in Taiwan used it in a jewelry heist a few months ago, and a Canadian organization deployed them to Libya a few months ago (it wasn’t actually the Canadian armed forces; it was a Canadian private military company that provided several unmanned aerial systems to the rebels). So this is our new reality. I don’t know if I would describe it as asymmetry – it’s just a mass proliferation, the flattening of the battle space.

What about an asymmetry between the U.S. and China?

PS: Chinese technologies are behind certain systems in the West (in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, etc.). However, there is no such thing as a permanent first-mover advantage, either in technology or in war. Companies like Commodore led the computer revolution; we no longer use Commodore computers. In war, the British were the first ones to utilize the tank; the Germans figured out how to use the tank better. So when it comes to making comparisons between the capabilities of NATO nations and the capabilities of nations like China, we should not be so arrogant as to say that just because we’re ahead now, we always will be. If we don’t plan, if we don’t resource, if we don’t research properly, then we will be like Commodore computers and fall behind.

Furthermore, when it comes to these new technologies, there’s an interesting cross between national security and intellectual-property rights. There has been a massive campaign of cyber-security operations whereby a lot of our advantage in terms of research and development is proving to be fleeting because the intellectual property is being taken from us. A couple of years ago, for instance, the F-35 had several terabytes’ worth of design data taken from it (terabytes is the size of the internet circa 1997). We’re also seeing this in other parts of the economy – everything from paint companies to furniture companies have seen their intellectual property, their designs, lifted and recreated in nations like China. That’s a deep concern, both from an economic standpoint and a national-security standpoint. We can lose the advantage because of our own mistakes and our failure to protect our own secrets – and those secrets are not just military secrets.

This essay is part of OpenCanada's How We Fight series.

Photo courtesy Reuters.