Commentary

Book Review: Wired for War

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Asia Times on June 12, 2009.

Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century
by P W Singer
The Penguin Press, 2009, ISBN-10: 1594201986, 512 pages

If you want to understand why Peter Singer’s latest book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, is a tour de force, just consider some headlines from the past month.

“Study Urges Using Neuroscience to Improve Soldiers’ Performance”

“Pentagon Joins CIA’s [United States Central Intelligence Agency] Drone War on Pakistan”

“Mullen: Drones Future Stalwart of US Force”

“America’s New Air Force”

“Engineers at the Mojave Desert base are developing a miniature missile that can be launched from a robotic plane against terrorist targets.”

“In future, machines could decide when to fire weapons”

The most fascinating thing about them is not that they are appearing only months after the book’s release, though that will undoubtedly help boost sales. It is that every one of those headlines reflects an aspect of the issue, each of which has its own chapter in the book. They serve as testimonials to the prodigious amount of research and serious reflection on the issue that Singer has done.

It bears mentioning that Singer, a senior fellow at the Washington, DC Brookings Institute must be making many other scholars gnash their teeth in envy. He is either the luckiest academic on the face of the planet or has an unparalleled sense of coming military trends. If he could discern economic futures as well as he does with military ones he would be giving advice to Warren Buffett and George Soros.

His 2003 book, Corporate Warriors, examining the realm of private military and security contractors, came out less than six months after the US invasion of Iraq. That book became the gold standard for academic writing and media reporting on the issue. It was also the work which inspired the writing of countless other dissertations and theses on the subject. Although the subject had been covered by others, including myself, before then, his book made firms like Blackwater and Halliburton household words. To this day one can’t read a paper on the subject without seeing a discussion of Singer’s “typology” of the different types of private military contractors.

That book’s popularity was all the more impressive, considering it was his former PhD dissertation. A type of writing normally known for giving one bleary eyes and splitting headaches.

After that he wrote a well received book on child soldiers.

Fortunately, Singer has improved even more as a writer. Stylistically he has lightened up. His copious research is lightened by numerous pop culture references, much of it understandably drawn from science fiction, which is quite understandable, considering his subject is robots. That means references to the like of H G Wells and Jules Verne to Star Trek, Terminator movies, and, of course, Isaac Asimov. And almost all of them are highly informative and amusing. How many people knew that Wells predicted the advent of the atomic bomb?

Despite the effort to appeal to a broader audience this is not a casual book. It is a very serious book about the future of one of humanities oldest activities, war. And while war and conflict has long been a staple of science fiction the problem, as Singer notes, is that science fiction is turning into science reality. He notes the famous quote by the late English physicist and science fiction author Arthur C Clarke, who wrote the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, and gave us HAL, the malevolent supercomputer (think the artificial intelligence SkyNet from the Terminator movies) that: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

While robots are not magic, the technologies that are on the battlefields today, not to mention those on the drawing boards, are at the limits of human imagination. And perhaps beyond the limits of contemporary ethical and moral limits on the use of force and rules of war.

Singer has very methodically and dispassionately looked at the past and present and has peered, on the basis of future weapons contracts, peered into the future. What has he seen? The answer is, though he does not put it this way himself is, to quote the tag line from one sci-fi movie classic (The Fly, 1986) is that we should “Be afraid … Be very afraid.”

Right at the outset, in his author’s note, Singer makes some critical points as to why this subject is important. Given that many people might think this is just another book about “gee whiz” technologies on the battlefield they are worth noting.

First, “We embrace war but don’t like to look to its future, including now one of the most fundamental changes ever in war.”

Second, “While we accept change in other realms, we resist trying to research and understand change in the study of war. For example, the very real fear about what the environment will look like as far away as 2050 has driven individuals, governments and companies alike to begin (belatedly) changing their practices. Yet we seem willing to stay oblivious to the changes that will come well before then for war, even though, just like the changes in global climate, we can already see the outlines of the transformation under way.”

Some of what Singer writes about has been known for years, at least for those who follow military technology issues. These include PackBots, used for explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), made by iRobot, the same firm that produced Roombas, the robotic vacuum cleaner. PackBots can also be equipped with a shotgun. So much for Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the first of which says robots shall do no harm.

Another firm, Foster-Miller, produced the Talon, a ground robot which comes in EOD, reconnaissance, and hazardous material versions. Its true lethal weapon claim to fame, however, is its SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System) version. This is the military version of a Transformer toy; able to carry almost any weapon less than 300 pounds, from automatic rifles and machine guns to grenade launchers and anti-tank rocket launchers.

But is not just quantitative firepower that is remarkable; it is the accuracy and immunity to battlefield chaos. Not being affected by emotional stresses, every weapon it carries is capable of pinpoint precision, turning it into the equivalent of a sniper’s rifle.

The arming of a system likes SWORDS vastly increases the range of combat military duties it can do, from street patrols and sniping to urban warfare. Considering it can drive through snow or even underwater to a depth of 100 meters feet that means it could show up in the most unexpected places.

But lethal weapons are not the only kind that robots are being equipped with. There is also ongoing work to equip robots with incapacitating chemical, acoustic, and directed energy weapons (think Star Trek phasers), and lasers.

Ground robots can come in all shapes and sizes. The MARCBOT (Multi-Function Agile Remote Controlled Robot) is essentially a toy car with a video camera. But it has been used to carry anti-personnel mines to kill insurgents in Iraq.

As of last year there were 22 different ground robot systems, over 12,000 in all, operating in Iraq. But robots aren’t just for the army. They operate on the air and sea also.

Most people today are familiar with the Predator, a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or drone, which can fly for a day and reach an attitude of 26,000 feet. Their cost of US$4.5 million each is miniscule compared to average cost of today’s fighter or bomber aircraft. More importantly, they can stand stresses that human pilots cannot. Thus, the trend is that pilots will be used less and less.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks Predators were armed, both by the CIA and the US military with Hellfire missiles, and have carried out thousands of missions, and at least hundreds of armed attacks.

Aside from the predator there is its bigger brother, Global Hawk, which can stay in the hour for up to 35 hours and reach an altitude of 65,000 feet.

Systems like these are actually piloted by human controllers working back in the United States. One hour they might be at work firing a missile from a Predator and the next back home eating dinner with the family. That has interesting, to say the least, implications for military professionalism and the warrior ethic.

There are many other smaller aerial systems, used for reconnaissance, such as the Raven, Shadow and Wasp. Last year, according to Singer, there 5,331 drones in the US military inventory, almost double the number of manned planes.

Drones are also being used domestically for homeland security and for policing the border with Mexico.

At sea there is REMUS (Remote Environmental Monitoring Unit) used for clearing mines from waterways.

In short, increasingly the US military will rely on robots. Even former president George W Bush acknowledged that. “Now it is clear the military does not have enough unmanned vehicles. We’re entering an era in which unmanned vehicles of all kinds will take on greater importance - in space, on land, in the air, and at sea.” To borrow from the world of fashion, military robots are the new black.

All that just comes from the introductory overview. That is followed by chapters on the history of robots from ancient times to the end of the 20th century, fundamentals of robotics, and exponential change in technological trends.

In chapter five, things become even more intriguing, and ominous, as Singer looks at the robots of the future, now on the drawing board. SWORDS is scheduled to be replaced by MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System). Aside from more powerful weapons, a green laser “dazzler” and tear gas it will have a loudspeaker to warn insurgents that “resistance is futile”.

And, straight out of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, is the REV (Robotic Extraction Vehicle) which will be able to perform complex surgeries on wounded soldiers. Ironically, many of these systems are supposed to come together in the US Army’s Future Combat Systems program, parts of which were recently cancelled after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggested cutting the program’s ground vehicle and giant cannon components. He argued that they would not be as useful in the military’s fights against insurgencies in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan.

At sea there are both unmanned surface and underwater vehicles. Already there is the Spartan Scout, a 30 foot robotic speedboat, packing a .50-caliber machine gun. Some of the underwater vehicles mimic marine life, like the Robo-lobster, which detects and destroys mines close to shore.

But it is in the air that the military robot future is advancing the quickest. Already, the Reaper, a successor to the Predator, that is four times bigger and nine times more powerful, is deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Other drones are being developed for electronic warfare, submarine hunting, and even air-to-air combat.

DARPA (Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency) plans to field a VULTURE (Very-high-altitude, Ultra-endurance, Loitering Theater Unmanned Reconnaissance Element) drone, which it hopes will be able to stay aloft for five years at a time. People may recall that when the original Star Trek series aired back in the 1960s the USS Enterprise was on a five-year mission.

Lockheed Martin is pitching a robotic High Altitude Airship 25 times larger than the Goodyear blimp. Such an airship could be parked in the air for years and serve as spy satellite or even airstrip for other planes and drones (like the carrier in Sky Captain And The World of Tomorrow).

There are also miniature drones that can eavesdrop into windows or climb up walls and pipes. Someday such systems may reach the nano scale, working at the molecular level, resulting in tiny missiles or nanobots destroying a target from the inside out.

Singer writes that the air force sees at least 45% of its future large bomber fleet being able to operate without humans abroad.

And for fighter jocks, like the ones Tom Cruise played in Top Gun, the news is grim. Already there UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles), such as Boeing’s X-45 or Northrup Grumman’s X-47, which can land on an aircraft carrier. The X-45 was, in fact, so threatening to the US Air Force’s newest manned fighter planes, F-222 and F-35, that the X-45 was canceled, although some believe it still lives on in the classified “black” budget.

Robot systems are also being envisioned for use in space. The X-41 Common Aero Vehicle is a cross between an intercontinental ballistic missile and the space shuttle. It would give the United States the ability to crush someone anywhere in the world on 30 minutes notice.

And, as Singer points out, given the increasing number of private companies who are developing space travel capabilities the day may come when they have the ability to conduct military operations on their own. At that point the current private security contractors will have to change their acronym to private space contractors.

All of this is fascinating, as Spock would say, but it poses profound implications for human control over war. Policymakers always like to toss off sound bites about humans being “in the loop” but there is no reason to think that is always true at present and far more reason to think it will be far less so in the future. In fact we started removing men from the loop in World War 2 with the Norden bombsight and the gap has been growing steadily since. As Singer notes, it is lip service, not reality.

Already we have systems like the Aegis Defense system aboard US Navy warships which can operate in an autonomous mode, not needing human authorization to fire. And the sheer amount of sensor data that robotic systems generate will certainly be beyond the ability of human operators to assimilate, no matter how enhanced they are with neural implants or other technology.

Not to mention that the imperatives of warfare are going to make robot autonomy inevitable, if only because once a robot is fired at it is going to need to be able to fire back, without waiting for human approval.

By the way, that Terminator-like humanoid robot on the battlefield future is not far off. Scientists predict 2020 while soldiers predict 2025.

All of this raises interesting questions. Will robots be vulnerable in the future? Can their communications links and operating systems be hacked? And, if so, what then?

Or looking at Iraq and Afghanistan are robot systems really going to be effective in fighting insurgencies, where cultural awareness is as important as destructive power.

And, as the United States increasingly relies on robots what happens when other states and non-state actors acquire their own? Already UAVs are widely traded around the world. And, in Iraq, insurgents have captured US robots and used them back against US soldiers.

In an e-mail Singer wrote this is:

Very much a growing field. The Predator and new Reaper variant for instance is being bought by pretty much half of North Atlantic Treaty Organization [nations]. Turkey just put in to buy to use against Kurds for instance.

So what happens when other countries which are even more advanced in electronics and robotics, like Japan, start investing in military robotics?

As Singer notes the US is not the only player in this. And, as an early adopter, the US may well be surpassed by other countries which piggyback off US developments.

Because so much of robotic development is based on open source information their increased use may well hasten the global redistribution of power; not exactly the result that those hoping the use of military robots will allow continued US military hegemony.

And how does the US military field enough scientifically and technologically adept personnel, when it has trouble attracting sufficient high school graduates, which was the case until the recent recession eased its recruiting problems.

These are just a few of the questions Singer explores and it takes you barely past the halfway point.

It is worth remembering that in the history of military technologies those who have wanted to develop something simply because they can have always won over those who questioned whether it should be developed.

Singer makes it quite clear that the same is occurring with military robotics. If one walks into a lab where such systems are being developed one is going to be greeted with a shrug or a yawn. Right now, such systems are being developed in large part because doing so is “freaking cool”.

Currently there is already a dangerous divide between the American public and its military. What happens when the fighting is increasingly done by robots operated by “cubicle warriors”? Will policymakers find it even easier to go to war?

Putting all other questions aside, Singer believes that Murphy’s Law “Anything that can go wrong, will - at the worst possible moment” also applies to robots.

Given the stakes, that alone is sufficient reason to be having a global debate about the subject. The fact that we are not is itself frightening.

But for anyone interesting in having the debate Singer’s book is a must-read.

David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs and a US Navy veteran. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.