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Author P.W. Singer peers into the future of military technology.The increasingly common use of unmanned ground, air and naval systems has sparked a vigorous worldwide debate about both the military value of robotic systems and the effect they have on politics, ethics and the rules of warfare. In his recent book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, P.W. Singer—a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.–based Brookings Institution and former consultant to the Central Intelligence Agency, Congress and the departments of State and Defense—explored the history, development and current state of military robotics. Here, he discusses the ways in which evolving technologies have changed the nature and conduct of war.

Who was the father of military technology?
It was probably the first caveman—let’s call him Ogg—who picked up a rock. Ogg probably thought he’d achieved the ultimate dominance in war, until his enemy, Ugg, picked up a strip of leather and invented the sling, thinking that he’d achieved military dominance. And that’s really the story of technology in warfare; a constant back-and-forth process of breakthroughs made and then surpassed.

‘You spend 12 hours in front of a computer screen putting missiles on targets and killing enemy combatants, then 20 minutes after you leave work, you’re home talking to your kids about their homework around the dinner table. So the phrase “go to war” has a totally different meaning’

While there is this constant evolution in military technology, there are certain revolutions that occur every so often, something that completely changes the rules and forces us to ask new questions. And these questions are not only about what is possible, but also about what is proper—what is right and what is wrong.

What are some of these revolutionary advances?
The longbow, gunpowder, the atomic bomb and, today, robotics. And, of course, the computer. We’re not talking about its processing power, but about the “ripple effects” it has had on war and the world beyond. The computer not only fundamentally changed organization and communication in war (remember General Norman Schwarzkopf’s comment that it was the use of computers that allowed the United States to be so successful in the First Gulf War?), but the computer also created such entirely new domains of war as cyberwarfare. And it creates new relationships in war—for example, soldiers on different parts of the battlefield, or even in different parts of the world, work very closely together to conduct combat operations in real time, yet they never meet face to face and in some cases don’t even know each other’s names.

Which nation was the first to use unmanned military systems in combat?
Germany was an early user of the progenitors of unmanned systems, mainly because they were outnumbered in both world wars. They thus tended to be fairly innovative in the use of new technologies, though they usually didn’t actually invent those technologies. For example, they were the first to use radio-controlled weaponry, in the form of the FL electronically controlled motorboats with which they patrolled their coast in World War I. In World War II they used the Goliath, which a small, explosives-bearing tank that was remotely steered into enemy armored vehicles or structures and then detonated. And, of course, Germany’s V-1 was the first real cruise missile. They also used air-launched, wire-guided missiles to attack Allied ships.

In terms of the more modern systems, the Israelis used UAVs for reconnaissance and targeting in the early 1980s in Lebanon. They also used them to “spoof” the Syrian air defenses.

Tell us about Reginald Denny.
It’s a fascinating story. He was a British pilot in World War I who moved to Hollywood after the war to become an actor. He had dashing good looks and an aristocratic accent, and his career took off. Over the decades, he appeared in 172 films, everything from classics like Anna Karenina to the 1966 Batman movie. He became interested in model airplanes and opened a shop on Hollywood Boulevard. He ultimately developed a large radio-controlled aircraft that in 1940 he pitched to the Army for use as an aerial target, something anti-aircraft gunners in training could shoot at. The Army initially bought 53, but after the outbreak of World War II, the government bought another 15,000. It was the first mass-produced unmanned aircraft in history. After the war, Denny’s company was bought by Northrop.

What about Nikola Tesla?
He was also a fascinating guy, and one of the first of what came to be known as electrical engineers. He was a rival of Thomas Edison’s, and both men experimented with radio-controlled devices. While not as well known as Edison, Tesla did remarkable work. He first mastered wireless communication in 1893 and actually demonstrated a remotely controlled motorboat in 1898. He then tried to sell to the U.S. military what was, in essence, the world’s first remotely controlled vehicle. When Tesla explained his invention to a government representative, the man burst out laughing, underscoring the fact that in military technology what is technically possible usually matters less than what is bureaucratically imaginable. At around the same time, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, ran into the same reaction when they tried to sell a certain flying machine idea to the government.

Are there parallels between the invention of manned aircraft and the ongoing development of UAVs?
Absolutely. The airplane was, at first, a “science fiction” technology. Then it was invented in reality, and the technology was used in war, though initially only in an ad hoc way and only for observation. Then someone realized that if they could see the enemy, they could attack them, so they began arming aircraft. The aircraft ultimately developed into a range of types—scout, bomber and fighter, for example—and we now see exactly the same progression with unmanned aircraft.

Have armies always welcomed new technologies?
Not only have many advances not been welcomed, they’ve been actively opposed. Military organizations are conservative by their very nature, and for good reason—when you go into battle, you want to be armed with weapons you know are proven and dependable. New systems are thus often viewed with suspicion. Moreover, their introduction can be challenging to the military’s structure, institution, hierarchy and identity. As an example, when the world’s navies began transitioning from sail power to steam, it not only ended the need for sail makers, it also eliminated the need for an entire generation of naval officers who’d grown up with sail power and the tactics that derived from it. Many couldn’t make the transition to a newer way of naval warfare, and they also resented the rising status of the engineers who did understand the new systems. Senior leaders are often the last in a military organization to accept the fact that new systems have fundamentally changed the nature and conduct of war.

And we see that same thing today. When a 19-year-old enlisted Army drone pilot can kill more enemy combatants and save more American lives in one day than an Air Force F-15 pilot can, the pilots are going to look at that drone pilot in much the same way the armored knights must have looked at peasants with guns.

But are military technologies the key to victory?
Not at all. Look at Germany’s World War II use of the V-1 and V-2. They were advanced systems that were tremendously effective in visiting terror on civilian populations, yet they didn’t fundamentally alter the balance of forces. More important, they were at the mercy of Adolph Hitler’s flawed wartime strategy. This is a lesson we’ve had to relearn throughout history: Whatever the technology, it does not matter how good the system is or how many you have. What ultimately matters is your doctrine, your plan for how to organize and train your forces to best utilize the technology.

An excellent example is the tank. The Germans didn’t invent it, but by the time World War II broke out in 1939, they had developed the doctrine and trained the personnel necessary to make the best use of the system. The challenge is the same whether you’re talking about historic systems or today’s most advanced unmanned systems. An Air Force captain recently told me that the problem with introducing new technologies is that the reaction isn’t, “Let’s think this better,” it’s only, “Give me more.”

Hesitation, then, is understandable, isn’t it, given that many new technologies don’t fulfill their initial promise?
Yes, the first versions of all technologies are usually bulky, mechanically unreliable and aren’t all they may ultimately prove to be. Look at the V-1: As advanced as it was for its time, you obviously can’t compare it to a Tomahawk cruise missile. You can’t judge all cruise missiles by what the V-1 could or could not do.

Has mankind’s drive to develop more effective weapons benefited society at large?
No technology is “good” or “bad.” Is your toaster evil? Your computer? A Predator drone? They’re all technologies, and what we’ve seen throughout history is that war jump-starts technological growth. During wartime we see a massive investment in research and development, and a vast amount of human ingenuity applied to the creation of deadly devices. But the creation of these devices can have a ripple effect throughout society. For example, without the V-2s that devastated European cities we probably wouldn’t have the Saturn V rocket that helped put humans on the moon.

The bringing together of scientists and engineers as part of the Manhattan Project literally jump-started a whole new field of science. Certainly, they invented something that has incredible and terrible power, a power that can level entire cities, but which can also power cities. The development of atomic weapons also led to a new phenomenon in history, a cold war in which two superpowers don’t actually fight. But that doesn’t mean they don’t compete in other ways—in science and technology, and in proxy wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Is there any weapon that could be considered truly immoral?
War is a very strange place where killing fellow humans is allowed, yet the killing is highly regulated. It is these regulations, these laws of war, which distinguish war from murder. While the laws are often broken—armies routinely kill innocent civilians, for example—their existence and the way we apply them are what determine whether a particular weapon system is immoral.

There are certain military technologies that are more prone to abuse, and which we as a society have said should therefore not be used. These include things like chemical and biological weapons and, increasingly, antipersonnel landmines. The latter is a very effective military technology, yet its inability to distinguish between soldier and civilian and the fact that its deadly legacy can far outlast any conflict make its use increasingly unacceptable in the global community.

The real challenge is that technology moves at an exponential pace, while our understanding, our laws and our other human institutions tend to move at a linear pace. As a result, we’re finding it harder and harder to keep up with our technologies.

Then the concept of what is moral in war is something of a moving target?
Absolutely. The dispute over what is right or wrong in war, particularly when applied to a new technology, can have huge historic consequences. The submarine, for example, was once viewed as science fiction becomes real, but there are questions about its proper use. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, actually wrote a story just before the outbreak of World War I in which he talks about a submarine blockade of Great Britain. The leaders of the Royal Navy reacted to the article by publicly mocking Doyle, saying the idea of a blockade was absurd because no navy would ever use submarines to go after civilian ships. And, in fact, any captain who dared do so, they said, would be shot by his own navy. We know, of course, that the outbreak of World War I led to exactly such a blockade, and Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare.

Do advances in military technology ever change the fundamental nature of war?
No, because even while the actors or domains or technologies of war may change, warfare has certain truths that have remained the same for the last 5,000 years. Among those is the “fog of war”—the inability to discern what is going on across the battlefield, to absolutely determine friend from foe, to have absolute “situational awareness” at all times under all conditions. Despite cutting-edge technologies, mistakes still happen, confusion can still reign, and the enemy still has a vote.

As our capabilities have expanded, we’ve encountered new dilemmas, one of which arises out of the “unmanning” of military systems. Throughout history the phrase “to go to war” has meant that governments sending their military forces—their citizens—into harm’s way had to worry about both the political consequences of too many casualties and the very real danger to the nation itself. Yet if Predator drones, for example, are being used offensively without a public debate or a declaration of war, and without endangering the nation’s sons and daughters, will people hold their governments accountable in the same ways?

An even greater potential dilemma arises from the fact that for individuals, the phrase “go to war” no longer means going to a place of great personal danger or of running the risk of never seeing your family again. I spoke to a Predator drone pilot who described the problem: You get in the car, drive to work, spend 12 hours in front of a computer screen putting missiles on targets and killing enemy combatants, then 20 minutes after you leave work, you’re home talking to your kids about their homework around the dinner table. So the phrase “go to war” has a totally different meaning.

Are people suspicious of robotic military systems?
In the West, yes, because the historic view of robots in Western culture is of the mechanical servant who wises up, then rises up. We have an inherent suspicion of machines that are getting smarter and getting armed, whereas in Asia robots are far more widely accepted and are used for everything from farming to babysitting.

What do you see as the future of unmanned weapon systems?
I think we’ll see three changes:

First, the size, shape and form of these systems will continue evolve. I’ve seen everything from tiny robotic systems that could fit on the head of a pin to an Air Force plan for a robotic blimp the length of a football field that can stay aloft for a decade.

Second, the systems’ intelligence and autonomy will snowball. You couldn’t describe a World War II B-24 bomber as being “smarter” than a B-17, but because of the exponential advances in unmanned aircraft technology, a current Reaper is vastly smarter than the Predator that came before it.

And third, just as new uses were found for airplanes as their technology matured, we’ll find new functions for our unmanned air and ground systems. This is the key point: I don’t see us entering a world in which military machines will do everything; rather, it’s a question of determining which tasks are appropriate for machines and which aren’t. The decisions will surprise people, because some military roles that were once highly elite will be passed to machines—we’re already seeing artillery spotting and some pilot roles being handed over.

Other military roles may never be turned over to machines—tasks that require a high degree of such uniquely human elements as esthetics, communication and trust.