WASHINGTON -- News headlines these days are filled with stories about unmanned aerial vehicles and their role in America’s "war on terror." Yet drones are merely the most visible part of a much broader technological revolution that is changing the nature of war – and raising a host of profound ethical and political questions along the way.
Peter Singer is a leading defense expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington and the author of the 2009 book "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century."
He believes that advances in military robotics are bringing us to a watershed moment in the history of warfare. For the past 4,000 years, as Singer puts it, someone who went off to war “went to a place of danger from where you might never come home again.”
“That’s an enduring story of war… until today," he says.
"One of the people who appears in [my] book is a Predator pilot in Nevada, who describes what it’s like to go to war and not actually go to war -- in the old meaning of the term.
"They wake up in the morning, they drive in to work, they fly a plane remotely for 12 hours, they’re putting missiles on targets, they’re killing enemy combatants and then, as he put it, you get back in the car and you drive home.
"And twenty minutes after being at war, you’re talking to your kids about their homework at the dinner table. That’s a fundamental split in history, that’s something revolutionary.”
Point Of No Return
As is so often the case with technological advances on the battlefield, there is no going back.
Singer notes that the United States now has some 7,000 unmanned systems operating in the air, but he hastens to add that this number is actually dwarfed by those on land, where some 12,000 military robots help American forces dismantle bombs, scout out the battlefield, or shoot down incoming shells.
What’s more, says Singer, of all the research and development projects under way at U.S. aerospace companies, not one is for manned equipment.
Peter Singer, a defense expert from the Brookings Institution in Washington
Last year, the U.S. Air Force trained more operators to fly remote systems than it did pilots for fighter planes and bombers.
Nor is the technology restricted to the United States. By Singer’s count, 44 countries around the world are now actively experimenting with military robots of various kinds.
Unmanned U.S. aerial vehicles in deployment now range from the Global Hawk, a drone the size of an airliner which can fly thousands of kilometers, to smaller craft that trick viewers into mistaking them for hummingbirds or seagulls.
Some of the systems now in development will be able to spend weeks in the air at a time, giving them capabilities closer to satellites than planes.
On one of his recent visits to an Air Force laboratory, Singer says, he saw a prototype drone that would fit on the tip of a pencil. He claims this is an innovation that “takes the idea of spying to a whole different direction. It’s basically a bug with a bug.”
Yet not all of the most startling developments are going to come in the air.
The U.S. Navy is developing unmanned submarines that use fish-like tails as propulsion systems or draw their energy for long-term missions from organic matter on the ocean floor.
Singer suggests that these designs reflect a broader trend in the robotics field, which is increasingly looking to the biological world for inspiration.
“I remember meeting one professor who described that she was the world’s leading expert on rat whiskers," he says.
"Well, she’s working in a robotics lab and you go, ‘Why rat whiskers?’ Well, rats are really good at finding their way through dark places. You know, rats don’t have GPS, they can’t do it by vision all the time; they use their whiskers.
"Well, that’s what we need for robots to go…rescue miners that have been trapped in a coal mine crash or something like that.”
Complex Ethical Questions
The U.S. Army, meanwhile, is working on robots that can kill – including one with a heavy-caliber machine gun mounted on top.
According to Singer, this is a system that "can turn a 50-caliber machine gun into a sniper rifle," because of how quickly it can snap the trigger to fire a single bullet. Despite its speed, it can also hit a target accurately thanks to its mechanical stabilization.
However, Singer maintains that the advent of such brutally efficient equipment could also raise some complex moral issues.
"It can hit an apple, from over 800 meters away, but unlike a two-year old, it can’t tell the difference between an apple and a tomato, let alone some of the broader moral and ethical questions that come out of that," he says
"So it’s both an amazing system and also, to some people, a pretty disturbing development.”
As Singer points out, the technology isn’t just transforming the experience of the individual warrior. It also affects the ways that governments, and societies, view the act of prosecuting hostilities against an armed enemy.
A U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan
“Once, sending troops off to war, putting them on the ground at risk that they might be killed, was a big decision because the public might react to it," he says.
"Well, they don’t react when a Predator crashes. So what we’re seeing is an evolution in how we’re thinking about the kinetic side of counter-terrorism."
And this, in turn, poses a whole host of pressing legal and ethical questions that are only just beginning to be addressed.
One debate – on the legality of remote targeted killings far from the shores of the United States – is already well under way.
So far, U.S. domestic law has mostly ruled out of the use of drones in a law enforcement role inside the country – but that is set to change within the next few years, and the result is likely to be a wave of debate and legal action over the use of this powerful surveillance technology.
The U.S. strikes on terrorist targets in Pakistan have already roiled the political scene in that country, where the drone attacks have generated significant protest and stirred up anti-U.S. sentiment. Along the way they have also changed the very definition of warfare.
“We’ve carried out more than 200 air strikes into Pakistan using unmanned systems," says Singer.
He claims that this would constitute a war "under any old definition" of the word, adding that less firepower was used in the opening round of the Kosovo war and that it also exceeds the number of strikes that have been unleashed in NATO's current Libya operation.
"But because we are primarily using unmanned systems [in Pakistan], we don’t call it a war," he says. "Congress hasn’t had a vote on it, the media reports it differently, the public’s interface is different.”
As Singer points out, the ethical and political questions will only intensify as military robots become more advanced.
Thanks to ever more powerful sensor technologies, there is going to be a huge upsurge in the amounts of data processed by these machines.
This, in turn, will increase the pressure to give them greater leeway when it comes to making decisions.
In short, the challenge of the warrior robots is just beginning.