Reflecting on #WarBots

This essay is part of the #WarBots series, which asked a group of academics and national security professionals to provide their thoughts on the confluence of automation and unmanned technologies and their impact in the conduct of war. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.

The character of war is always in motion, and we're witnessing a particularly interesting change as #WarBots and their associated technologies—unmanned, remotely-piloted, autonomous, and semi-autonomous—democratize and proliferate. This complicates battlespaces in the air, on land, and at sea, and the technologies of today are only the harbingers of future automated and artificially intelligent systems.

Understanding these complications and shedding some light on the potential future of #WarBots has been our purpose in this series. We hope we've succeeded, and that you enjoyed this series as much as we enjoyed putting it together. More importantly, we hope it forced you to think about the future of warfare in new and uncomfortable ways.

In "Autonomous Weapons: Man's Best Friend," Matthew Hipple confronted our assumptions about the nature of autonomous weapons. If autonomy has been part of the landscape of war for millenia, what does this say about the future of those systems?

In "Looking Back to the Future: The Beginnings of Drones and Manned Aerial Warfare," Ulrike Franke looks back to a somewhat more recent past, the early days of the 20th century, and explores the future of #WarBots through another revolutionary change int he character of war. She offer up five parallels between then, now, and the future that can help us to understand.

In "Building a Future: Integrated Human-Machine Military Organization," Mick Ryan offers up seven propositions for the teaming of humans and machines on the battlefield. Perhaps future generations will look back at our time as a watershed moment in these technologies and doctrines, and perhaps this watershed can only be understood in hindsight. Or, if these propositions hold, perhaps we can anticipate the revolution.

In "Red Robots Rising: Behind the Rapid Development of Russian Unmanned Military Systems," Samuel Bendett took us on a journey into the ongoing revolution in Russian development of unmanned and autonomous systems. Sometime, understanding where we are, understanding the initial conditions that set the stage for the unseen future, can shed light on the possibilities for that future.

In "The Human Factor in the 'Unmanned' Systems of the People's Liberation Army," Elsa B. Kania reminded us of the reality that much of what we consider unmanned is, in fact, heavily dependent on human involvement. In the process, she followed a path not unlike the previous essay, illuminating the past and present (and thus the potential future) of WarBots in China and the world.

In "Drones in Counterterrorism: The Primacy of Politics Over Technology," Asfandyar Mir moves from the realm of state-on-state conflict to examine the impact of drones on the fight against non-state actors. He reminds us that though much might change, much remains the same.

As a complement to the last essay, in "The Strategic Implications of Non-State #Warbots," Mark Jacobsen examines the implications of this technology proliferating to (rather than used against) non-state groups. From this we learn that, though much remains the same, there are some crucial implications for the character of war in such an environment.

In the closing contribution to #WarBots, "Lombardi's War: Formation Play-Calling and the Intellectual Property Ecology," Dave Blair and Jason Hughes introduced some fiction that, over the coming months should illuminate some interesting aspects of the future on warfare in a world of unmanned and autonomous systems.

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Header Image: Three robotic fighters already in development (Popular Science)