Fifty years ago, Vermont Royster wrote that “it may seem cruel, this tradition of asking good and well-intentioned men to account for their deeds.” This accounting should not stop with the commanders at sea, but should also go to actions ashore, including how incidents like this are handled, and learned from.
Navy culture builds on traditions of the sea and seafaring in a nearly unbroken line from the sailing fleets of the British Empire through today’s modern nuclear-powered ships of steel. One common saying is that the United States Navy is “over 240 years of tradition, unhampered by progress,” a simultaneous indictment of conservatism and a celebration of history and tradition. While the statement is not fully true, however, tradition is a such a cornerstone of naval life that tradition is an unofficial fourth core value and the single most common rationale for any action. Sailors cite tradition in many ways and forms, often interchangeably with custom and routine.
While the rapid advance of artificial intelligence and warbots has the potential to disrupt U.S. military force structures and employment methods, they offer great promise and are worth the risk. This is especially true as the conceptual mechanisms for providing variable autonomy and direct accountability are already in place. Commanders will retain their central role in determining the level of variable autonomy given to subordinates, whether human or warbot, and will continue to be held accountable when things inevitably go wrong for either.