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When RoboCop Replaces Private Jackson

| January 8, 2012
Shadow-drone

Are robots replacing soldiers?

Peter Singer: Humans have been waging war in various forms for 5,000 years, so I don’t see that changing. There are studies that show that maybe we are seeing lesser levels of conflict, or conflict moving from the inter-state to the domestic level, or however you want to put it. But war has been a reality of human existence from the very start, and I don’t see that fundamentally changing, whether it’s talking about war using sticks and stones or war using Predators and PackBots.

I don’t think the human role in war is disappearing, even with this new advanced technology. War is still caused by human failings, or human greed, or human anger, or human hubris … There’s always a human cause. How we decide to utilize these war systems are still decisions made by humans for human reasons. So yes, we’ve carried out more than 300 airstrikes in Pakistan using drones. But the drones didn’t decide on their own – people did.

Finally, even though we’re seeing more and more of this new technology used, it’s not an exact replacement of humans. There are certain things humans are good at and certain things that robots are turning out to be better at, but there’s not an exact overlap. For the most part, the plan moving forward seems to be teaming humans and robots together. When you look at the military development programs in robotics, you see that a lot of the ideas are parallel to the relationship of the policeman and the police dog: Each on its own is not as good as the team is together. That seems to be informing our plan to build new robotics systems. There will still be humans in the battle space instructing robots to do things, but the robots won’t just boringly follow – they will have the autonomy to react. That said, they won’t be completely autonomous – they won’t call their own plays.

How is this shift affecting the moral considerations that, throughout history, have limited the outbreak and potential devastation of warfare?

PS: Our technologies are evolving at a faster pace than our human institutions are reacting to them. And that’s actually nothing new. There have always been technologies that have come along that we haven’t had the law and ethics to figure out, that we haven’t known how best to regulate and/or use, and that we haven’t had the political institutions to help us understand in terms of the impact they were having on what we were deciding to do within our governments. There is a history to this: This has happened with technologies before.


Stephanie Carvin gives 3 reasons why drone killing is unethical and ineffective.

Consider strategic bombing. The first vision we have of someone using a flying machine in war actually comes out of science-fiction. A.A. Milne was one of the first writers to talk about military airplanes. But then they became a reality. In the First World War, they were unarmed – they were just used for observation. Then people started to say, “Well, I can see the other side, and I want to do something about it.” So we ad-hoc armed them. After that, we started to specially design them to be armed – bomber planes, fighter planes, and the like. From that we got a whole host of new military doctrine questions – about how we could best use this new machine in war, but also about strategic, political, ethical, and legal issues that resonate beyond.

Everything changed. For instance, it used to be that the “home front” was the place behind the battle lines. The people there supported the war, but they weren’t involved in the war because they couldn’t be targeted. The development of military aircraft technology allowed people to target the home front – to take people in the home front and move them into the battle space. That raised ethical-legal questions about what you could target that no one had really explored before. It also raised strategic questions: Does having the option of strategic bombing make war more or less likely?

These debates were very intense in the 1920s and 1930s, and many of them are still not resolved. And, of course, the debates change not only because of what people decide is legal, but also depending on the capabilities of the technology. Our expectations of certain obligations in strategic bombing have changed greatly. During the Second World War, it took an average of 108 bomber missions to get one bomb to hit the intended target. As a result, we accepted a broader notion of collateral damage and civilian casualties than we would now. These days, one Predator can hit multiple targets with laser precision. Thus, when just a couple of people are killed accidentally, we consider it a tragedy. If the same number of casualties had been lost during the Second World War, we would have considered it an unimaginable success.

Expanding the battle space would mean that we could be at war when we are 7,000 miles away – we could fly a plane over Afghanistan but be sitting in Nevada. Right now, what the western nations are wrestling with is that we are not the only users of unmanned systems, so how we utilize them is creating precedence that we may or may not be happy with in the future.

And it’s not just an ethical question – it actually has strategic impact (not just in disputes between nations, but also in how our own institutions understand when and where we go to war). Thus, the debate over how to utilize drones is actually a debate that needs to be had not just in international law, but also within our governments. Our executive branches have started to argue that they don’t need congressional or parliamentary approval to use force as long as there are no humans going into harm’s way. That was, for example, how the Obama administration took its position this summer on the Libya operation. For the last part of it, we did not have human pilots going into harm’s way (we pulled out of that role after April 3), so we didn’t need congressional authorization. But even though we didn’t have human pilots going into harm’s way after April 3, we still worked doing the kinetic part of war. Our Predators actually struck 146 targets that summer.

So we have a new reality. For the last 5,000 years, the idea of engaging in combat and putting people at risk were one and the same. Now, we have a technology that disentangles the two. But our political system has not faced that reality.

Does this mean more or less civilian casualties?

PS: I don’t think we can really answer that at this stage. All you can really talk about are the pressures that this situation creates in two very different, almost conflicting, directions. At the pointy end of the spear, the technology allows you to lower the potential number of civilian casualties by increasing precision. However, at the same time, it changes the way that policymakers look at, or think about, when and where to use force. And it creates the almost erroneous impression that these operations are costless, which makes them easier to authorize, because politicians look at them differently.

A good example would be to compare discussions surrounding the bin Laden raid, which involved boots on the ground, with discussions of the drone strikes. President Obama’s top adviser described the decision to put boots on the ground in the bin Laden raid as “the ultimate gutsy call.” By contrast, we don’t even think about the more than 300 drone strikes we carried out in Pakistan.

One of the most difficult questions emerging from all this is the very notion of who is, and who isn’t, a civilian in the battle space. It’s not just the idea of insurgents and terrorists and warlords and child soldiers and contractors, who are all now members of the battle space, often in greater numbers than in regular armed forces. My first book, for example, Corporate Warriors, was about private contractors in the military industry. Look at operations in Iraq or Afghanistan: On one side, it is insurgents/terrorists who are fighting, and on the other side, it is our military forces, which are outnumbered by our contractors that we’ve brought with us. We have this notion that everyone is clearly a member of the military, but members of the military are actually a minority within that battle space. And that’s not even talking about the actual civilians – when you move into a counterterrorism mission in a state like Yemen, Somalia, or Pakistan, it gets even more complex.

Consider the strikes that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban. He was an admitted bad guy – he proudly took credit for the killing of Benazir Bhutto – and we carried out 14 drone strikes before we got him. That points to how tough it is to get a high-value target, but also how, when you’re not putting boots on the ground, you’re willing to just keep going at it until you hit your target. When we did get him, he was sitting on top of a house in Pakistan receiving medical treatment from his personal doctor, and his wife was also up there with him. So we killed him, an admitted bad guy, but we also got these two other people. Do we count them as civilian casualties or not? You and I, international lawyers, CIA officials, parliamentary officials, and so on, can argue days and days about it. On the one hand: a doctor. On the other hand: a doctor who was a member of a known terrorist group going around with that group’s leader. The same is true of the wife: on the one hand, a family member; on the other hand, a family member of a man leading a known terrorist group, who, rather than turning him in to authorities, was keeping him hidden and travelling around with him. So we can debate this back and forth. The point is that such things are not clear-cut in 21st-century war.

Will these technologies, then, create an even more profound asymmetry between powerful states and weak states?

PS: I would not describe it as a full asymmetry. I would describe it as a more complex environment. We have an assumption that there are certain capabilities and certain technologies that are limited to states, and yet, when you look at the realities in 21st-century conflicts, it’s not just states that are engaging in war – it’s states and non-state actors that range from guerilla groups to terrorist groups to insurgent groups to drug cartels to private military corporations to gangs … all of them in this battle space. But the key technologies that matter are also increasingly becoming open source. That is, they are more and more accessible by a variety of actors: What would have previously been described as high-end capabilities are now, potentially, in the hands of everyone. This means we can really no longer think about them as high-end capabilities.

The robotics example illustrates this: It wasn’t long ago that an unmanned aerial system that can do surveillance was considered science-fiction, and then it became something that only high-end militaries like the U.S. military could have. The Canadian forces have only recently moved into this area, and they’ve mostly done it through leasing – as in, they haven’t bought it themselves. However, terrorist groups like Hezbollah already have this system, a group of criminals in Taiwan used it in a jewelry heist a few months ago, and a Canadian organization deployed them to Libya a few months ago (it wasn’t actually the Canadian armed forces; it was a Canadian private military company that provided several unmanned aerial systems to the rebels). So this is our new reality. I don’t know if I would describe it as asymmetry – it’s just a mass proliferation, the flattening of the battle space.

What about an asymmetry between the U.S. and China?

PS: Chinese technologies are behind certain systems in the West (in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, etc.). However, there is no such thing as a permanent first-mover advantage, either in technology or in war. Companies like Commodore led the computer revolution; we no longer use Commodore computers. In war, the British were the first ones to utilize the tank; the Germans figured out how to use the tank better. So when it comes to making comparisons between the capabilities of NATO nations and the capabilities of nations like China, we should not be so arrogant as to say that just because we’re ahead now, we always will be. If we don’t plan, if we don’t resource, if we don’t research properly, then we will be like Commodore computers and fall behind.

Furthermore, when it comes to these new technologies, there’s an interesting cross between national security and intellectual-property rights. There has been a massive campaign of cyber-security operations whereby a lot of our advantage in terms of research and development is proving to be fleeting because the intellectual property is being taken from us. A couple of years ago, for instance, the F-35 had several terabytes’ worth of design data taken from it (terabytes is the size of the internet circa 1997). We’re also seeing this in other parts of the economy – everything from paint companies to furniture companies have seen their intellectual property, their designs, lifted and recreated in nations like China. That’s a deep concern, both from an economic standpoint and a national-security standpoint. We can lose the advantage because of our own mistakes and our failure to protect our own secrets – and those secrets are not just military secrets.

This essay is part of OpenCanada’s How We Fight series.

Photo courtesy Reuters.

  • P.W.

    Fundamentally I very much agree with much of what has been said by Peter Singer in his interview on the subject of humans and drones. Drones and robots are certainly a new element in the military mix and will most likely become an increasing portion of that mix, but a mix, as Dr. Singer rightly points out, it will most assuredly remain. His comments on technological proliferation and intellectual security are extremely timely and perspicacious. He is also correct in suggesting that this is another occasion where warfighting technology has outstripped legal frameworks, and that this tends to be the natural state of things. In short, legal frameworks have a tendency to be reactive rather than proactive, and unless or until legal minds become better at forecasting future developments and uses of military technology that those that create them and use them, this is always likely to remain the case.
    War is, as Dr. Singer observes, and will remain a fundamentally human activity. The use of force is not and never has been an end in and of itself but, as von Clausewitz so famously noted, an alternative means of affecting the behaviour of others. It is to this end therefore, that drones and/or robots are a new tool in the box for use by humans and, quintessentially, on humans (not least because, as Dr. Singer points out, robots do not “call their own plays”). This innate humanity in the subject of war is a fundamental philosophical point that perhaps sometimes needs emphasising in the face of what might be described as a technological blindness from some quarters. A blindness that tends to be characterised by a cry that goes up in the aftermath of significant technological developments: a cry that declares history to be dead and stating boldly that nothing will ever be the same again.
    However, while technology can fundamentally change the means of making war, it seldom, if ever truly alters its essentials. Dr. Singer rightly raises the comparison of strategic bombing in the 1920s and 1930s which sparked moral and strategic debates that in many cases have yet to be fully resolved. The principal reason for this, I believe, is due to the fact that they are moral and strategic debates that have been around for millennia and have never been resolved throughout mankind’s history of making war.
    To be brutal, any premise that there was ever a time when there was a clear-cut delineation between the civilian and military spheres unfortunately lack a historical basis. Siege warfare, punitive attacks against civilian centres supporting both state and non-state enemies (taking, for example, a lot of 19th/20th Century anti-piracy operations), naval bombardments, blockades and commerce raiding, have all either intentionally targeted or incidentally damaged targets that might otherwise be perceived to be outside a strict definition of “military”.
    The idea of contractors and non-state military actors (if you will) on the battlefield is also nothing new. To take one example, this is easily evidenced by the makeup of Wellington’s forces on the Peninsula, which included the likes of the effectively uniformed civilians of the Commissariat, and irregular Portuguese and Spanish forces. The latter forces – naturally – existed within, were supported by and blended into their locale. Such people and organisations were armed and paid for by the British Treasury and others, and vigorously fought by the French. The difference between such fighters and modern equivalents such as Blackwater in key aspects would therefore seem to be little more than shareholders, a stock exchange listing and annual accounts. From the 19th Century French perspective the difference between such irregulars and a modern terrorist organisation would surely be minimal indeed.
    Returning to the more modern example of strategic bombing the ability of air power to reach deep into the heart of enemy territory (at least, non-coastal enemy territory) and bring forth the perils of war to the populace there, without the need for full-scale invasion was of course new. The speed and destructive force aerial operations brought with them was also arguably a new factor. However, its moral and indeed strategic aspects with regard to the targeting of civilians, and what is and what is not a militarily legitimate target, remain arguably little different from those raised as far back as the Old Testament
    To move onto another side of the subject that exercised Dr. Singer: that of new technology defining quite when we are at war, Dr. Singer raises the recent operations in Libya, noting that the Obama Administration attempted to avoid Congressional oversight by declaring that because no humans were being sent into harm’s way such things were unnecessary. Certainly drones and the consequent absence of human beings from the combat zone are new. Yet executive branches of governments have long been putting their creative powers into attempting to avoid legislative oversight in military operations since Charles I found himself in a little local trouble over such matters in the 1640s. To take a more modern example, in responding to the placement of Soviet I.R.B.M.s in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy declared that island to be under naval “quarantine”. On the ground this differed not a jot from the traditional naval “blockade”, but the Kennedy Administration declined to use the latter word as it was specifically defined as an act of war, whereas “quarantine” was not. Given America’s concurrent financial difficulties and the tone of comment on Libya then emanating from Congress it is difficult to escape the conclusion that by raising the subject of drones the Obama Administration was in many respects doing little more than adding a new facet to an old issue. Equally, it is worth noting that the world has seen many examples of what might fit the dictionary definition of “war” since 1945, but war has very seldom been legally declared.
    Naturally, one cannot ignore the impact that technological change has had. Physical distance from the action and the moral separation that that may cause is far from a function of current drone and robotic technology, but has been an issue created by technological change as weapon ranges have increased. The ability to deal death and destruction without “looking the enemy in the eye” and the consequent potential to psychologically detach from the consequences of one’s actions has long troubled many both within militaries and without, be it via artillery that can effectively fire many miles, or indeed the ability to fly and drop bombs from thousands of feet.
    In many respects it is entirely possible to draw parallels between the fundamental concepts contained in much of the current use of drones and the old R.A.F. model of imperial policing by air in the 1920s and 1930s. The issues raised can be seen to be strikingly similar. In both cases ordnance is dropped from the air in the aim of pacifying a sub-national actor at minimal-to-no-risk to the attacking force. The fact that the attacking force is airborne and can thus cover significant geographical areas, strike at speed and requires minimal manpower (expensive, vulnerable, politically costly where there are casualties), can be seen to be further adding to the appeal of this type of action as a solution. The development of drones and robotic technology has, of course, hugely expanded this dimension by entirely eliminating the human risk to the attacking force – given that the human element can, in many cases, be several thousand miles away. This in turn can be perceived as perhaps further increasing the temptation for policymakers to resort to forces sooner than they might otherwise.
    However the evidence of both the past, and indeed the present would suggest that that is not, nor is it likely to become the case. The primacy of human factors will always reassert themselves at this point. In short, punitive uses of lethal force against lower level opponents, both state and non-state have long been a staple of policymakers, but only when the human factors are right. These factors can largely be described under the umbrella term politics, and if the politics are not right, force will not be used. Indeed we are in the process of witnessing a classical example of this now. The West applied military force in Libya last year in which drones were extensively used and – as previously mentioned – used as an excuse by the Obama Administration to avoid questions from the legislature. The technology remains available and ready for use in Syria, to take an example, but this is not happening. The reason for this is quite simply that whatever the technology, the human factors – the politics – are not right, and this, far, far more than any current or conceivable technological advance will continue to dictate where and when military force will continue to be used.

  • 1waytimemachine

    When military companies like the Canadian military company that supplied unmanned drones to the Libyan rebels, it presents an intersection of business and geopolitics. This exchange is similar to US supplying weapons to rebel groups of national interest like the mujahideen in the 1980s. Those weapons or tools can eventually be aimed towards the provider. Are there international laws or national laws in Canada and US that regulate private contractors sale of weapons?