Robotics: The Future of War?


BISGAARD-CHURCH Testifying before Congress in March 2010 when the legality of drone attacks was in question, Peter W. Singer emphasized the rapid evolving use of robotics by the military and CIA, and the challenges these technologies may bring, despite their obvious benefits.  I caught up with Singer, an expert on 21st century defense issues who writes about robotics in war, to get the current story.

Thank you again for your time. So to begin — since you testified before Congress in 2010 when the question was how to justify drone attacks, how has the U.S. perception of drones changed — how does it justify strikes on 6 countries now?

SINGER We’re basically seeing a technology at a turning point. There are a number paralells for talking about unmanned systems today. The Air Force describes it as a turning point like 1918 with the airplane. We’re using these systems now more and more and just learning now using how to use them, where to use them, where they’re headed next. There are new legal and ethical concerns. So back in 1918, it was hold it — we can use these to bomb a city…what’s righteous, what’s legal…we’re seeing the same thing applied to unmanned systems today.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Could you speak more to the advantages/disadvantages of drones?

SINGER Robotics are particularly used for jobs that are ‘dull dirty or dangerous’. The real one that has political weight is ‘dangerous’. To send a system out and not worry about getting a pilot killed or taken prisoner, that is both positive — we’ve had thousands of soldiers lives saved as we’ve been able to find roadside bombs, carried out 2000 airstrikes in places like Pakistan and not have to worry about an American pilot being killed or captured — flip side of this advantage is if you don’t have to worry about some of these issues you might be changing the definition of war. We can see this in two recent examples. In Pakistan we’ve carried out more than 200 air strikes, by any past measure this is the equivalent of a war.  Take the current debate in Congress right now over Libya operations and one of the things the President said was this was not a war.  one of his reasons was because we’re not sending some pilots into harms way in the missions that are most dangerous, we’re just sending predator class systems. So it’s changing the context of war and maybe even the definition of war.

BISGAARD-CHURCH It’s confusing looking at the overt operations by the military like in Afghanistan and then the covert operations by the CIA —  how do those two different campaigns impact overall our use of drones but also how the public gets their information?

SINGER Exactly, we’re talking about the same technology, but a wide set of users of it. And some raise different and arguably more difficult questions than others. In my mind for example, the military’s uses of technology in Afghanistan is far less problematic than say the CIA’s use of it in places like Pakistan, or Yemen, or Somalia. And really it comes down to a question not so much of the technology itself but the people behind it, the rules and structures behind it. Military use means it falls behind an established hand of command; you have established legal codes. We can argue whether the rules are always followed, but the point is that there is transparency there.  By comparison when you’ve got civilian intelligence agencies that are supposed to be working covertly they’re responding to very different pressures. The people deciding the legality/ the rules of engagement questions are not military JAG officers who spent their lives training for this. They’re civilian general counsels at that agency; it means they have a very different training package. Unlike the overt military way of dealing it, when we’re talking about a covert operation we don’t even acknowledge the missions themselves have happened let alone if and when they go awry. So it’s far more problematic.

BISGAARD-CHURCH It’s all so confusing and raises many questions…

SINGER Haha, yeah, none of this is simple. People want to say it’s right or wrong, use them or don’t use them. It’s a lot like again the analogy to the computer in 1980. It’s like saying are computers good or bad? Haha that’s what we’re talking about here.

BISGAARD-CHURCH So obviously computers have become integral to society, so are drones here to stay? What is the future of war?

SINGER We’re just at the start of this.  In 2003, we were using a handful of them. Today we have over 7,000 of them in the U.S. military inventory alone. 44 other nations using them.

BISGAARD-CHURCH So do you think that will open up for more pseudo wars, less defined like Yemen and Somalia?

SINGER I think that’s clearly where we’re headed for counter-terrorism missions for the future. That’s both an aspect of the technology and also a reaction by the American body politic to the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq — we’re seeing a very different response to terrorism and failed states, we’re using proxies and using air strikes, particularly from unmanned systems.  That seems to be the new mode.

Well you’ve left us with much food for thought.  Thanks so much for your time.

For War News Radio, I’m Elliana Bisgaard-Church.