The use of unmanned systems in warfare has exploded over the last decade. An interesting novelty just a few years ago, today the battlefield is swarming with unmanned vehicles that fly, hover, sit, roll, crawl, and swim. Unmanned aerial vehicles keep an eye on the terrain for NATO soldiers in Afghanistan and take out high-value targets in America’s war on terror just across the border in Pakistan, much to the ire of Pakistani public opinion. According to some estimates more than 10,000 unmanned air and ground vehicles have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan alone.
But what does all this mean for the future of warfare? And what can it tell us about America’s propensity to “go it alone” in the future?
P.W. Singer of Brookings has written a marvelous book on just this. Titled Wired for War, the book has something for everyone: the military historian, the strategist, the techno geek, the foreign policy expert, and the philosopher. It is also written in livelier style than usually seen in scholarly tomes, filled with pop culture references and more influence by the magazine “Wired” than “Foreign Affairs”. In the introduction Singer promises a signed copy of the book, along with a piece of popular memorabilia from the robot happy 1980s, to the first reader who can submit a complete list of all the pop culture references throughout the book.
Singer covers the waterfront in his book, from the development of unmanned vehicles during the last century (and how they are deeply influenced by science fiction writing and movies) to how they are used today and could be used tomorrow. He also spends quite a few pages on the ethics and laws of robotic warfare. Is the person controlling the vehicle from 5,000 miles away a combatant? What about when he or she lets go of the joystick and goes home for the day? As robots come ever closer to looking and acting like humans, should they have some rights as well?
Singer’s core thesis is that the rise of unmanned vehicles intended for warfare is a true Revolution in Military Affairs, while the much touted RMA of “network centric warfare” (connecting units and platforms through information technology for ever faster sharing of information) has been proven false by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Warfare and the military as an organization, argues Singer, will be fundamentally changed by the wholesale introduction of unmanned vehicles in the air, on land, and at sea in warfighting. Human combatants will no longer be in harm’s way, the hierarchy of the military could be upturned, and the concept of military service will be changed forever. Goodbye high and tight hair cuts, early morning runs, and hours spent on the rifle range; hello spending days playing Xbox.
Singer’s argument is quite provocative and his predictions certainly could come true. Many have already argued that the concept of military service has begun to change because of the transition to a professional military and the proliferation of technology and there are plenty of anecdotes floating around the defense community about what a “weird” feeling it is for military personnel to kill bad guys from a cubicle somewhere in America, and then go home to watch sit-coms in suburbia when the duty day is over.
Singer only spends a few pages contemplating what it all means for America’s willingness to go to war in the future. He argues, correctly, that unmanned systems will decrease the cost of going to war and will therefore make it easier for America to seek out “kinetic solutions” to its foreign policy problems. This should concern those who thought that America’s attitude of unilateralism has been buried in Iraq and Afghanistan. It just may be that the U.S. will be less reliant on allies in the future, contrary to the current rhetoric and hopes in Washington. Not only would the increased use of unmanned systems lower the cost of going to war but there would be less need for basing of U.S. troops in foreign countries.
Perhaps U.S. reliance on unmanned systems will contribute to another crisis in its relations with allies in Europe and elsewhere. After all, several European governments expressed their dislike about the Predator strike against Al Qaeda targets in Yemen in 2002, arguing that it was a strike against non-combatants that should have been arrested instead. Furthermore, America is the unrivalled leader in developing and deploying unmanned systems. The Europeans do not even come close to what America fields and plans to field in the near future. This is especially true in the realm of unmanned combat vehicles that actually go out and “put warheads to foreheads” rather than just gather intelligence. What happens to an alliance when most of the allies cannot “plug and play” in the future? How do the allies react when they deploy forces on the ground (and take casualties), while America does the fighting from home and in relative comfort? The issue of a military capabilities gap between the U.S. and its European allies is an old problem, but unmanned vehicles could widen the gap even further between what the U.S. can do militarily, and what the allies have to offer.
Technology shapes the policy options available to a decision maker just as much as the global security environment, domestic politics, and grand strategy. After all, before the coming of the Predator UAV, it wouldn’t even be a policy option for the U.S. to rapidly strike at a group of Al Qaeda operatives riding in a truck on a dirt track in Yemen (a special forces team would never make it there in time, fighter bombers cannot loiter for that long, and cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk cannot track a small moving target in real time). It is also clear that the perception of a fast, relatively bloodless, and cheap victory in Iraq was heavily influenced by the belief that technology had finally lifted the Clausewitzian fog of war for the U.S. military.
Singer convincingly shows that unmanned systems in war are here to stay and will rapidly expand their reach, capabilities, and potential in the coming decades. Policy makers and shapers in both Washington and in Europe should seriously consider the implications of the coming of the age of robotic warfare.
Magnus Nordenman is associate director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.