The characters 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.
The information age, a phrase famously coined by Berkeley Professor Manuel Castells in the 1990s, described a tectonic shift in our culture and economy which we generally take for granted at present. From our current vantage point, replete with ubiquitous pocket-sized personal computing and communications devices, it is hard to imagine a world we cannot convert our data or social networks into physical resources and access. We keep our data in the cloud and call upon it when we need it, regardless of where we are. We log into AirBnB, and somehow money we have never seen transfers to someone else who will never see the money, and that becomes a room for an evening. The idea of a brick-and-mortar video store, such as the 1990s-staple Blockbuster Video, is hopelessly anachronistic in the era of Netflix.
Over the past year, a primitive type of WarBot has become a formidable battlefield weapon: the small unmanned aerial system. The threat materialized in October 2016 when a drone booby-trapped by the Islamic State killed two Kurdish soldiers. Within a few months, the Islamic State was flying tens of aerial bombardment missions each day, displayed the capability to drop grenades down the hatches of tanks, and reportedly flew up to a dozen aircraft at a time. The threat was so severe that the Mosul offensive nearly stalled.
Waging counterterrorism operations is not just about having the right inventory of weaponry and the latest technical tools. Neither is simply marshaling the political will of the American population sufficient for undertaking counterterrorism. Wherever the US government wants to wage sustained campaigns with drones, it needs the buy-in of local actors but the interests of many of the actors fundamentally do not align with those of the US. This inevitably boils down to constant bargaining and deal-making with local actors. Politics, thus, retains the final say on how counterterrorism campaigns unfold.
What does the PLA’s approach so far to the humans behind their unmanned systems reveal about its potential engagement with the challenges associated with the highly automated and autonomous systems it is currently developing? Despite the myth that such systems tend to replace humans, requiring smaller numbers of combatants with lower levels of expertise, there is clear evidence to date that the human challenges of such systems are considerable, often requiring higher levels of specialized training. In this regard, PLA’s active focus on the development of personnel to operate UAVs could constitute an early case that demonstrates that the PLA will likely confront considerable challenges in the process of learning to use such high-tech systems more effectively.
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.
Making predictions about the future is an impossible task, in particular when the focus is on technologies at their beginning. History is riddled with false prophecies, be they either exaggerations or understatements: from predictions that a technology will end war once and for all—like the telegraph or nuclear weapons—to such understatements as Watson’s famous prediction that there was a global market for only five computers. It is tough to judge whether changes are ground-breaking, or only appear so from the close proximity of a contemporary. At the same time, people throughout history have ignored fundamental changes happening before their eyes, as changes took time to unfold or initially only concerned a limited area.
As early as 1599, Shakespeare’s turn of phrase for Anthony in his play Julius Caesar tacitly acknowledged a 200-year-old human acceptance of autonomous war machines. As modern-day ethicists agonize over the autonomy’s ascendance, they ignore 2,600 years of wartime employment of autonomous, self-replicating killing machines that are by popular opinion still our best friend.
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.