In the aftermath of the German U-boat campaign in the First World War, many in Europe and the United States argued that submarines were immoral and should be outlawed. The British Admiralty supported this view, and as Blair has described, even offered to abolish their submarine force if other nations followed suit. While British proposals to ban submarines in 1922 and 1930 were defeated, restrictions on their use where imposed that mandated that submarines could not attack a ship until such ships crews and passengers were placed in safety. This reaction to the development of a new means of war is illustrative of the type of ethical and legal challenges that must be addressed as military organizations adopt greater human-machine integration.
The military holds an enduring an interest in robotic capability, and teaming these early robots with humans. From the use of remote controlled boats by the Germans in the First World War, unmanned, tracked Goliath robots filled with explosives used in World War Two, through to contemporary EOD robots and unmanned aerial and ground vehicles, military organizations have long sought to leverage robotic capability. At the highpoint of the Iraq War in 2006, the U.S. military fielded over 8000 robots in theater.
This article is the second of three that examines three aspects of human-machine teaming. In the first, I examined the rationale for human-machine teaming through ‘seven propositions’. This article examines key elements military organizations might adopt in a closer integration of humans and machines. It is proposed there are three areas upon which might be constructed a competitive strategy for future operations. The three areas provide background information, analysis and the possible applications of human-machine teams.
It is clear Russian development of military unmanned systems, in conjunction with ongoing modernization of its armed forces, will result in a qualitatively different and capable force. Should Russia’s ongoing successes in Syria embolden it to act elsewhere in a similar fashion, then U.S. and Western planners may not be the only ones flying a constellation of unmanned systems or directing swarms of ground vehicles and high-tech weapons. This calls for a re-evaluation of the current defense posture and review of technology development and acquisition cycles, a process that has been ongoing in the United States for some time.
At some point in the future, historians may look back on the current era as the dawn of a human-machine revolution or perhaps even the beginnings of the sixth revolution in military affairs. Williamson Murray notes in The Dynamics of Military Revolution that such things are rarely apparent in advance, and only obvious in retrospect and in the wake of remarkable battlefield success. While certainly the societal, technological, political, and military ingredients of such a revolution are present, whether this consists of a revolution in military affairs will be left to future historical debate.
While it took centuries to move from Da Vinci’s vision to the Wright Brothers’ reality, the flash to bang on drones and beyond is rapidly shrinking. Whether we are still on the cusp or already tumbling down the rabbit hole, such technology will continue to combine in wonderful and terrible ways. We hope you enjoy this series as much as we enjoyed putting it together. More importantly, we hope it forces us to think about the future of warfare in new and uncomfortable ways.
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.
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.