Robots at War
P. W. Singer
The Wilson Quarterly, Q1 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
When U.S. forces went into Iraq in 2003, they had zero robotic units on the
ground. By the end of 2004, the number was up to 150. By the end of 2008, it
was projected to reach as high as 12,000. And these weapons are just the
The most apt historical parallel to the current
period in the development of robotics may be World War I. Back then,
strange, exciting new technologies that had been the stuff of science
fiction just years earlier were introduced and used in increasing numbers on
the battlefield. Even the earliest models quickly proved useful.
the same sort of recalibration is starting to happen today. Unmanned systems
are rapidly coming into use in almost every realm of war, moving more and
more soldiers out of danger, and allowing their enemies to be targeted with
The unmanned systems that have already been
deployed to Iraq come in many shapes and sizes. One is the TALON, also
remodeled into the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection
System, or SWORDS. Another robo-soldier is the MARCBOT (Multi-Function Agile
Remote-Controlled Robot). Costing only $5,000, this miniscule bot is used to
scout for enemies and to search under cars for hidden explosives.
of the most familiar unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is the Predator. It can
spend up to 24 hours in the air, at heights up to 26,000 feet. Predators are
flown by operator 7,500 miles away, flying the planes via satellite from
bases in Nevada. Each Predator costs just under $4.5 million. Predators were
designed for reconnaissance and surveillance, but now some are armed with
laser-guided Hellfire missiles. In addition to its deployments in Iraq and
Afghanistan, the Predator, along with the larger Reaper, has been used with
increasing frequency to attack suspected terrorists in Pakistan.
addition to the Predator and Reaper, a veritable menagerie of drones now
circle in the skies over war zones. Small UAVs such as the Raven or the Wasp
fly just above the rooftops, transmitting video images. Medium-sized drones
such as the Shadow circle at heights above 1,500 feet. Predators and Reapers
roam at 5,000 to 15,000 feet. Global Hawks fly at 60,000 feet, monitoring
electronic signals and capturing detailed imagery. Each Global Hawk can stay
in the air as long as 35 hours.
Between 2002 and 2008, the U.S.
defense budget rose by 74 percent to $515 billion, not including the several
hundred billions more spent on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Spending
on military robotics research and development and subsequent procurement has
boomed. The amount spent on ground robots has roughly doubled each year
Robots are particularly attractive for roles dealing with
tasks that are dull, dirty, or dangerous. Many military missions can be
incredibly boring as well as physically taxing. Humans doing work that
requires intense concentration need to take frequent breaks, but robots do
not. Using the same mine detection gear as a human, today's robots can do
the same task in about a fifth the time and with greater accuracy. Unmanned
systems can also operate in battle zones beset by bad weather or filled with
biological or chemical weapons. In the past, humans and machines often had
comparable limits. As a result of the new technologies, the human is
becoming the weakest link in defense systems.
The ability to compute
and then act at digital speed is another robotic advantage. The Counter
Rocket Artillery Mortar (CRAM) system uses radar to detect incoming rockets
and mortar rounds and automatically direct the rapid fire of its Phalanx 20
mm Gatling guns against them, achieving a 70 percent shoot-down capability.
More than 20 CRAMs are now in service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
branch of America's armed services has ambitious plans for robotic
technologies. On the ground, the $230 billion Future Combat Systems (FCS)
program involves replacing tens of thousands of armored vehicles with a new
generation of manned and unmanned vehicles, plus a computer network to link
them all together.
At sea, the Navy is introducing unmanned
underwater vehicles that search for mines or function as submarines to hunt
down an enemy. The Navy has tested robotic speedboats that can patrol
harbors or chase down pirates, as well as various robotic planes and
helicopters designed to take off from surface ships or launch underwater
In the air, unmanned combat aerial systems are the
centerpiece of U.S. military plans for drones. The unmanned fighter plane
prototypes have already launched precision guided missiles, been passed off
between different remote human operators 900 miles apart, and autonomously
detected threats. Some drone prototypes have 100-meter wingspans. Powered by
solar energy and hydrogen, they are designed to stay in the air for days or
weeks, acting as mobile spy satellites or aerial gas stations. At the other
size extreme are insect-sized drones.
There are myriad pressures to
give warbots greater and greater autonomy. To achieve any personnel savings
from using unmanned systems, one human operator has to be able to supervise
a larger number of robots. And there are combat situations in which there is
not enough time for the human operator to react. So autonomous armed robots
are coming to war.
In 2004, DARPA researchers surveyed a group of
U.S. military officers and robotics scientists about the roles they thought
robots would take over in the near future. The officers predicted that
countermine operations would go first, followed by reconnaissance, forward
observation, logistics, then infantry. Among the last roles they named were
air defense, driving or piloting vehicles, and food service, each of which
has already seen automation. The average year the soldiers predicted that
humanoid robots would start to be used in infantry combat roles was 2025.
Scientists gave 2020 as their prediction. But the full-scale replacement of
humans in battle is not likely to occur anytime soon. Instead, the human use
of robots in war will evolve to more of a team approach.
sees a process of integration into a force that will become largely robotic.
The individual robots will have some level of autonomy within mission
bounds, much as the autonomy of any human soldiers in these units is
circumscribed by their orders and rules. A future of robot squad mates and
robot wingmen puts a premium on good communication. Also, robots and human
soldiers will need to trust each other.
Lawrence J. Korb is one of
the deans of Washington's defense policy establishment. In 2007, I asked him
what he thought was the most important overlooked issue in Washington
defense circles. He answered, "Robotics and all this unmanned stuff."
Korb is a great supporter of unmanned systems because they save lives.
But he worries about their effect on the perceptions and psychologies of
war. As more and more unmanned systems are used, he sees two changes. People
are more likely to support the use of force as long as they view it as
costless, and the emerging technologies will make the public more
susceptible to attempts to sell the ease of a potential war.
believes that political Washington has been "chastened by Iraq." But he
worries about the next generation of policymakers. Technologies such as
unmanned systems can be seductive, feeding overconfidence that can lead
nations into wars for which they aren't ready. He predicts more punitive
interventions such as the Kosovo strikes of 1999, launched without ground
troops, and fewer operations like the invasion of Iraq. As unmanned systems
become more prevalent, we'll become more likely to use force, but also see
the bar raised on anything that exposes human troops to danger.
Immanuel Kant said that democracies are superior to all other forms of
government because they are inherently more peaceful and less aggressive.
Many worry that this democratic ideal is already under siege. The American
military has been at war for the past eight years in places such as
Afghanistan and Iraq, but the American nation has not.
trend already in place, some worry that robot technologies will snip the
last remaining threads of connection. Unmanned systems represent the
ultimate break between the public and its military. A leader won't need to
do the kind of consensus building that is normally required before a war,
and won't even need to unite the country behind the effort. In turn, the
public will become the equivalent of sports fans watching war.
trend toward video war could build connections between the war front and
home front, allowing the public to see what is happening in battle as never
before. But inevitably, the ability to download the latest snippets of
robotic combat footage turns war into a sort of entertainment. Soldiers call
these clips war porn. The video segments that civilians see don't show the
whole gamut of war. The context, the strategy, the training, and the tactics
all just become slam dunks and smart bombs.
Such changed connections
don't just make a public less likely to wield its veto power over its
elected leaders. As Lawrence Korb observed, they also alter the calculations
of the leaders themselves.
Today's new technologies are particularly
likely to feed overconfidence. The difference of just a few years of
research and development can create vast differences in weapons'
capabilities. Also, scientists and companies often overstate the value of
new technologies in order to get governments to buy them. The result is a
dangerous mixture: leaders unchecked by a public veto combined with
technologies that seem to offer spectacular results with few lives lost.
Robotics offers the public and its leaders the lure of riskless warfare.
All the potential gains of war would come without the costs. Pain-free war
would pervert the whole idea of the democratic process and citizenship as
they relate to war. With robots, wars become exercises in playing God from
afar, with unmanned weapons substituting for thunderbolts.
Q&A: Robot Wars
By Candace Lombardi
Cnet, March 12, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
Q: What's war going to look like once robot warriors become autonomous and
ubiquitous for both sides?
A: The future of war is more and more
machines, but it's still also insurgencies, terrorism, you name it. What
seems most likely is this continuation of teams of robots and humans working
together, each doing what they're good at.
Q: How will robot warfare
change our international laws of war?
A: I went around trying to get the
answer to this sort of question meeting with people not only in the military
but also in the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights
Watch. We're at a loss as to how to answer that question right now.
Q: You say in your book that most scientists are not subscribing to Isaac
Asimov's laws. What are the ethics of these roboticists?
A: The people
who are building these systems are excited by the possibilities of the
technology. But robotics is a very young field. It's not like medicine that
has an ethical code. It's not begun to wrestle with the ethics of what
they're working on and the ripple effects it has on the society.
What military robotic tech is likely to migrate over to local law
enforcement or the consumer world?
A: I'm coming out of the world of
political science. Take the question of ethics and robots. Is it my second
amendment right to have a gun-armed robot? Homeland Security is already
flying drones, and police departments are already purchasing them.
Explain how robotic warfare is "open source" warfare.
A: It's much like
what's happened in the software industry going open source. Much like open
source software, not only can almost anyone access it, but also anyone with
an entrepreneurial spirit can improve upon it. I think one of the darkest
quotes comes from the DARPA scientist who said, and I quote, "For $50,000 I
could shut down Manhattan."
Q: Is this going to lead to more of what
you call the cubicle warriors or the armchair warriors?
A: Oh, most
definitely. The Air Force this year is putting out more unmanned pilots that
Q: Explain how soldiers now come ready-trained because
of our video games.
A: The military is very smartly free-riding off of
the video game industry. Another aspect is the mentality people bring to
bear when using these systems. It really struck me when one of the people
involved in Predator operations described what it was like to take out an
enemy from afar, what it was like to kill. He said, "It's like a video
Q: It's making them more removed from the morality of it?
A: It's the fundamental difference between the bomber pilots of WWII.
Compare that to the drone pilot experience. Not only what it's like to kill,
but the whole experience of going to war is getting up, getting into their
Toyota Corolla, going in to work, killing enemy combatants from afar,
getting in their car, and driving home.
Q: What do you think is the
most dangerous military robot out there now?
A: The system that's been
most lethal so far if you ask military commanders is the Predator. They
describe it as the most useful system, manned or unmanned, in our operations
in Afghanistan and Iraq. Eleven out of the twenty al-Qaeda leaders we've
gotten, we've gotten via a drone strike.
Q: People look ahead to
2020, 2040, 2050 in terms of the environment and green technology. But
that's not happening with robotics issues. Why do you think that is?
When it comes to the issue of war, we're exceptionally uncomfortable looking
forward, mainly because so many people have gotten it so wrong. People in
policymaker positions are woefully ignorant in what's happening in
technology. You have people describing robotics as "mere science fiction."
when we already have 12,000 robots on the ground, 7,000 in the air.
Q: Warfare is inherently messy, unpredictable, and often worse than
expectations. How would a roboticized war be any different in that respect?
A: In no way. That's the fundamental argument of the book. While we may have
Moore's Law in place, we still haven't gotten rid of Murphy's Law.