“Wired for War” by P. W. Singer


Interesting overview of the developing use of unmanned systems in warfare.  The vast majority of the book focuses on the ethical, social, and legal implications; all fine and good but the engineer in me did wish it got more into the details of how some of these systems worked.  Some of the specific systems it did mention frequently are iRobot’s PackBot, Foster-Miller’s SWORDS, and Predator.  (Note that the book was published in 2009, so it is missing 6 years of unmanned system development … practically an eternity!)

I am hesitant to agree with calling all these systems “robots” though.  I suppose I fall more into the (Star Trek’s) Data or (Star Wars) C-3PO camp of what constitutes a “robot” – intelligent yes, but more importantly independent.  The unmanned systems used by the military do not think or act for themselves; they are all remotely controlled by a human.  There is quite a big step between that and creating Skynet-style robots.  And personally, I know just enough about software engineering to be very hesitant to subscribe to a “strong AI” future.  Computers are not smart; they are just fast.

Anyway.  Unmanned systems in war.  There’s some discussion in the book on military doctrine for using unmanned systems.  First is the “mothership” or control center idea – one where a single operator is able to control an entire robot army.  Kind of like someone playing Starcraft, but each unit on the screen is really an actual robot, ready for battle.  Second option discussed is the “swarm” doctrine.  There is no explicit control over each unit here; rather the robots as a group are given an objective and they work together to complete the mission.

One of the most impressive uses of remotely-piloted aircraft in a real war was by Israel during the opening of its 1982 war with Syria, Operation Mole Cricket 19.  The Syrians had the latest and greatest Soviet radars and SAM sites.  The Israelis first sent in a wave of drones.  This caused the Syrian SAM radars to track the drones and shoot them down.  Thus they were down a few rounds of ammo…but the real secret was that the drones relayed the radar frequencies being used by each individual radar site back to the main Israeli force.  Soon after, Israeli fighters went in with radar-homing missiles locked to the SAM frequencies.  The Syrian air defenses were demolished with few Israeli losses, and the war was pretty much decided since Israeli air superiority was assured.

Another interesting note on the pace of technological development, particularly in military tech.  Paradoxically, being the tech leader is a difficult position.  The leader shoulders virtually all the development cost, whereas others coming in later can easily copy their designs.  (Witness: about a bajillion types of Chinese UAVs on this Wikipedia page)  Also it is easy for the leader to pigeonhole themselves into non-optimal solutions – the newcomer can apply lessons learned and avoid problems, whereas the tech leader may be too invested to change.

Some things to think about for unmanned warfare policy managers (if such a beast exists):

  • Robot warfare is seen as cowardly by the enemy, plus it signals that we are very loss-averse – if they can kill enough soldiers with IEDs then we will give up (even though those IED strikes are usually tactically useless)
  • Robot warfare makes U.S. public more disconnected from war and also make leaders more likely to use force.  For military operators themselves, they are like a video game – too easy to forget that people are dying on the other end of the Predator missile strikes.
  • Ethics and legality of robot warfare: who is responsible for accidental targeting of civilians?  Military user?  The programmer who made a mistake in the code?  (I hope not!)

What do you think?

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