Technology and Future Wars

On March 30, the Pentagon announced that they are examining how China and Russia have incorporated artificial intelligence and advanced robotics into their militaries.[1] The US military is concerned with the possibility of adversary nations fielding autonomous machines with the ability to make independent decisions on the battlefield. Such machines could include autonomous aerial drones, small submarine vessels, and even Terminator-style “killer robots.” The US Deputy Secretary of Defense has promised that the United States will not empower its own variants of these robots with the ability to take human life without a living operator to “pull the trigger.”[2] However, Chinese and Russian governments have made no such promises. [3] Advancements in military technology, from  to robotics to directed-energy, will change the future of war and have profound effects on the globe.

While killer-robot technology sits on the  , it remains years away from deployment, even in the United States. Terminator-level machines are fanciful dreams for almost every nation, and are distant projects at best for the United States. [4] But autonomous drones already exist, and artificial intelligence capabilities are constantly improving. Advanced autonomous weapons will not emerge overnight, but will develop slowly and incrementally. Their operations will begin small and grow larger, starting in the surveillance and cyberwar arenas. Robotics, at a more rudimentary level, are already integrated at many levels of technological sophistication. Directed-energy technology is just beginning to be deployed in the US military, but promises to add nonlethal options to the arsenal of military  .

Autonomous and semi-autonomous drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) already patrol the skies over combat zones in the Middle East. Artificial intelligence is currently employed on US Navy ships as part of a missile-defense system that can shoot down incoming anti-ship missiles faster than a human operator could react.[5] The Active Denial System, a directed-energy technology, can repel individuals by causing immense pain through millimeter-wave radiation; yet the pain stops as soon as the target vacates the radiation beam’s path, and the weapon leaves no physical damage.[6] Across the branches of the US military, these technological advances are reducing human shortcomings, allowing faster reaction times and augmenting our response options.

All three new technologies feature prominently in the Pentagon’s “Third Offset” strategy, which is designed to continue American military supremacy as the world moves into the new millennium. The First Offset consisted of the development of tactical nuclear weapons during the early Cold War. The Second Offset involved the development of global positioning systems (GPS) and the creation of a worldwide information network for military operations. The Third Offset, which has been in progress for years, means different things to different people, but most agree it involves the inclusion of machine learning and advanced technological capabilities into the American warfighting machine. [7] While they will not spring to the fore of the Army tomorrow, the Department of Defense is determined to use those technologies’ advantages for military purposes as soon as possible.

Since these weapons will play a role on tomorrow’s battlefields, we should contemplate how they will change the nature of war. Armies of killer robots are still science fiction, but so were the cell phone and email before they became reality. Failure to consider how technological innovations will affect the battlespace, and to adapt accordingly, could seriously disadvantage the United States if China and Russia continue their own development of these capabilities.

If the United States can field battalions of non-human soldiers, commanded from afar or perhaps completely autonomous, it will be perceived as a much more aggressive power. Regardless of how well-intentioned Washington’s use of these robotic soldiers is, other nations will view the United States’ newfound power to invade and conquer nations with practically no risk to its own citizens as a real threat to their own security. Resistance will grow towards America’s global leadership and to US presence across the world. Our track record, already strained in many parts of the globe, will erode dramatically if we use these advanced technologies against foreign peoples.

Directed-energy weapons also pose problems, not for the US military, but for global civil society. Some of these weapons cause intense pain, but leave no marks or permanent harm. Repressive governments could use these technologies to quell protests without firing a shot, short-circuiting democratic movements before they even begin. Regimes could even use the technology for torture, since it causes extreme pain but leaves no permanent marks for human rights monitors to observe.

The consequences of artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, and directed-energy weapons will be profound for the United States and the world. We must do more than simply plow ahead blindly with research and development. We must consider these technologies’ implications and ramifications for the globe. Failing to do so is begging the darker side of science fiction to come  .

 

[1] Dan Lamothe, “The Killer Robot Threat,” The Washington Post, March 30, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/03/30/the-killer-robot-threat-pentagon-examining-how-enemy-nations-could-empower-machines/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Keith Wagstaff, “Future Tech? Autonomous Killer Robots Are Already Here,” NBC News, May 15, 2014, http://www.nbcnews.com/tech/security/future-tech-autonomous-killer-robots-are-already-here-n105656.

[5] “Phalanx Close-In Weapons System,” Raytheon, accessed April 1, 2016, http://www.raytheon.com/capabilities/products/phalanx/.

[6] “Active Denial System FAQs,” Nonlethal Weapons Program, US Department of Defense, accessed April 1, 2016, http://jnlwp.defense.gov/About/FrequentlyAskedQuestions/ActiveDenialSystemFAQs.aspx.

[7] Lamothe, “The Killer Robot Threat,” Washington Post.

 

 

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