Robots at War

By 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 first generation.

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.

Much 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 increasing precision.

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.

One 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.

In 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 since 2001.

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.

Each 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 from submarines.

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.

The military 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.

Korb 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.

With this 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.

The 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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 manned pilots.

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 game."

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?
A: 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.