Greetings KOW readers from sunny Aberdeen–the ‘Granite City’–where while killing time before examining an about to be born PhD I turn to a little light blogging. A few articles caught my eye this morning which I think are noteworthy and between which there is a thread of connecting logic (maybe, or perhaps a too early rise has scrambled my brain).
The first is by the Strategic Studies Insititute’s Antulio Echevarria II, a guy with whom I think most readers of this blog will be familiar, who has a short piece in the latest issue of Prism asking the simple question ‘What is Wrong With the American Way of War?‘ The consensus view, he notes, is that there is something wrong with it–whatever that may be. His answer is contrarian and, to me, rather persuasive: actually from a systemic point of view there’s nothing wrong with it that is also not more or less wrong with other national ‘ways of war’–British, French, German, etc. In a nutshell, the problem is policy. Here’s what I think is the key snippet:
A review of the literature regarding the key political decisions concerning the war in Iraq shows that it was largely because of politics that American policy initially tried too hard to keep the war it wanted rather than winning the war it had. History, in fact, suggests that the American way of war has never been apolitical. One may disagree with what American policy has been over the years, or what it was at the beginning of the millennium, but it clearly influenced the conduct of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout every stage. What American policy wanted to achieve initially in Iraq and Afghanistan was simply too much to expect solely from any way of war, particularly one that was in many respects still evolving from a way of battle.
Further on in the last line he writes, ‘By the next conflict there will be a newer American way of war, but the need to align, and realign, policy aims and real capabilities is the one continuity that will require constant attention.’ You should read the whole thing but once you’re done that have a look at this even shorter paper by Steve Metz also of the Strategic Studies Institute who puts a finger on a likely candidate for the ‘newer American way of war’ in The Future of Roboticized Warfare. Metz strikes a number of similar conclusions, in particular the idea that we really ought to be rather more cautious about how we use the word ‘revolutionary’. Says he:
The new weapons that sprouted on the battlefields of World War I ultimately revolutionized warfare. At the time of their appearance, however, most of them were used in a very traditional way, making old-fashioned infantry and artillery more effective rather than ushering in new ways of fighting. Airplanes spotted targets for artillery batteries, scouted for the infantry and provided close air support. There were some attempts at strategic bombing, but due to the limited payload and range of the aircraft of the time, it had little effect. Tanks, which first appeared in 1917, operated with infantry units as moveable machine gun nests or bunkers. In other words, the appearance of these new weapons initially represented innovation but not revolution. It wasn’t until after the war that military theorists recognized the revolutionary potential of tanks and planes if they were used properly.
Robotics has the potential to do to warfare in the 21st century what these other weapons did to it in the 20th. I like, however, that again he doesn’t get all breathless about the new technology and how ‘it’s going to change everything!’ as too often is the case. On the contrary, says Metz:
It is easy to become enraptured by new technology and lose sight of reality. In 1921, for instance, Italian Gen. Giulio Douhet predicted that airplanes would make other forms of military power obsolete. Those who today make similar predictions about robots fully replacing humans in armed conflict are likely to be proven wrong as well, at least for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, we are now at a point where a revolution in military robotics is technologically feasible.
War changes all the time. It’s a ‘true chameleon’, said Clausewitz. And yet also, he says, it really doesn’t change in its essence as an act of force aimed at the realisation of this or that desire of policy. It seems to me that in different ways both Metz and Echevarria are reinforcing this point. Metz also points out that though the United States leads the field at the moment it’s not necessarily the case that the ‘new way of war’ need be a ‘new American way of war’. It might be someone else’s. Metz asks some good questions:
Would a U.S. military heavily based on robots be politically easier for a future president to deploy? And if so, would that be a good thing? Do Americans truly want a military that is easier to use? Do they want to delegate life-and-death decisions to machines? In the broadest sense, can the robot revolution even be stopped, or is it inevitable?
One thing which occurs to me about the current debate is that we have the luxury of debating these things now because currently we are using this technology in an ‘asymmetric’ way against opponents who have no (or very markedly fewer) means of responding in kind. But the question ‘do we want to delegate…’ is not likely to be one we will dwell long on if we were envisaging conflict against an equally well-equipped and capable enemy. In that case, there would be no debate–I should imagine–because the stakes would be effectively delegate or lose. Look at the automation of naval detection, targeting and firing systems for an example.
That said, much of the debate at present is about the current use of drone technology (I know not exactly robotics but part, I think, of the same package of developments) for targeted killing in an ‘asymmetric’ context. On this issue I thought this piece by Joshua Foust ‘Targeted Killing, Pro and Con: What to Make of US Drone Strikes in Pakistan‘ makes a good contribution. The essay is a reaction to a report ‘Living Under Drones‘ which is also worth reading–it provides the ‘con’ in this pro et contra. Foust offers the ‘pro’ which, tepid as it may be, seems to me unassailably logical when you get down to it: what’s the alternative?
Which brings me to the last of Metz’s question of whether the robot revolution be stopped? To which the answer is no. Technology points that way. Practice points that way. And policy does too.
UPDATE: Ooops. Forgot to put the link in to Foust’s article. Fixed now.