Civilian and military leaders have sought the ability to anticipate the nature of future conflicts and prepare for them for millennia. Robert H. Latiff gives us his vision of future war in his recent book Future War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield. In a concise volume, he presents his assessment of where the U.S. military is now, the challenges ahead, and the way forward.
Absent a clear understanding of which military problems emergent technologies are required to solve, there is, perhaps, too much confidence in their ability to reshape the character of the next war by enabling decisive battlefield advantage. More troublingly, predictions about machine-dominated warfare risk obscuring the human cost implicit in the use of violence to achieve a political objective. This article examines the integration challenge that continues to limit the military potential of available technology. It will then look specifically at why militaries should be cautious about the role artificial intelligence and autonomous systems are expected to play in future warfare.
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.
On 15 October 2036, the USS ZUMWALT (DDG-1000) glides through the Philippines Sea on the twentieth anniversary of its commissioning. Nearby, the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-80) launches both the F-35C and the unmanned F-47C to jointly conduct bombing raids on the Navy’s Western Pacific bombing range. Both ships, along with the entire ENTERPRISE Carrier Strike Group, are headed toward the South China Sea to participate in the annual US-India-Singapore naval exercise called DRAGON FURY. Below the surface, the USS MONTANA (SSN-794) deploys the unmanned underwater vehicle called SEA-EYE to assist in trailing a Russian Dolgorukiy class SSBN as it leaves port headed to its strategic patrol areas.
German doctrine successfully integrated current technologies in aircraft, radios, and tanks into a coherent and integrated way of fighting and then applied it to great effect. The result was amplified because the Germans fought an enemy that in many cases failed to account for the possibilities enabled by the new combination of these technologies. We are now on the cusp of a similar revolution in warfare.
Let it be said, I am a fan of Singer’s work in general. Rather than spending your time in the narrative nightmare that is the Ghost Fleet, however, I recommend reading his other work (Corporate Warriors, Wired for War, and Cybersecurity and Cyberwar are excellent) and foregoing this foray into fiction. You’ll trade the human power of narrative — even poor narrative has power — for the difficulties of nonfiction, but you’ll also see nearly every idea Singer and Cole offer in this disastrous novel … and I promise you’ll be better for having spent your time more wisely than I did.
Ghost Fleet is an enjoyable book. It is a fun book. What’s more, it is an insightful and prescient book, without forcing the reader to ever acknowledge that fact. Sure, it suffers, as many popular works do, with things that literary critics will nitpick over. But if there’s one thing that’s been made abundantly clear to me over the course of reading the work and discussing it with colleagues, it’s that Cole and Singer have accomplished the difficult feat of merging knowledge with storytelling, insight with invention.