Coming to the Battlefield: Stone-Cold Robot Killers

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By John Pike
Sunday, January 4, 2009

Armed robotic aircraft soar in the skies above Pakistan, hurling death down on America's enemies in the war on terrorism. Soon -- years, not decades, from now -- American armed robots will patrol on the ground as well, fundamentally transforming the face of battle. Conventional war, even genocide, may be abolished by a robotic American Peace.

The detachment with which the United States can inflict death upon our enemies is surely one reason why U.S. military involvement around the world has expanded over the past two decades. The excellence of American military technology makes it possible for U.S. forces to inflict vast damage upon the enemy while suffering comparatively modest harm in return.

War is about the sacrifice of blood and treasure, and the American style of war is to substitute treasure for blood. From the early days of the republic, when Eli Whitney is said to have used interchangeable parts to manufacture superior muskets, to the invention of Gatling guns and Kevlar armor, American ingenuity has been devoted to devising ever more efficient ways of killing the enemy and preventing the enemy from killing us.

One common factor in much of American military prowess is the surprisingly obscure fact of modern life known as Moore's Law. Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, noticed nearly half a century ago that computing power seemed to be doubling about every two years. Laptops, cellphones, the Internet -- they're simply commentaries on Moore's Law.

The rapid emergence of the armed unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) that roam over Pakistan is a sequel to Moore's Law. Onboard computers became far more powerful, so automatic pilots became far more competent. Signal processors became more sophisticated, facilitating collection and processing of more interesting intelligence. Global Positioning System receivers shrank and could be economically employed on small robotic aircraft. Precision-guided munitions could deliver lethal firepower. And so forth.

The U.S. Navy has arguably moved farthest toward substituting treasure for blood. A generation ago the Reagan administration brought World War II-era battleships out of mothballs to provide gunfire support to onshore operations. With a crew of more than 1,500, these ships were designed to be manned by the low-paid draftees of the 1940s, not the more amply rewarded volunteers of the 1980s. The Navy couldn't afford them, and the ships were soon returned to mothballs. In their place, the Navy came up with the new DDG-1000 Zumwalt destroyer, an automated warship with a crew of only 150.

The Air Force is also moving down this path. Long skeptical of UAVs, it has begun to embrace them as the future of air power. Piloted aircraft face fundamental limits of crew fatigue. Heavy bombers flying from the island base of Diego Garcia to Afghanistan would spend more than a dozen hours flying to and from the target area, leaving little time for loitering over it. In contrast, large bomber-size UAVs can spend days over the target. At some point in the next decade, the Air Force will begin replacing cockpits with robotic pilots.

The Army has benefited far less than the Navy and the Air Force from the substitution of treasure for blood. In World War II, the Sherman tank had a crew of five. Sixty years later, the Abrams tank has a crew of four. In World War II, the M1 Garand rifle required one infantryman to pull the trigger, and today's M16 requires the same -- not exactly a testament to improved labor productivity.

But now the Army stands on the threshold of one of the greatest transformations in war-fighting history, on the short list with steel and gunpowder. The Future Combat Systems program is aimed at developing an array of new vehicles and systems -- including armed robots. The robots of past science fiction were governed by Isaac Asimov's Three Laws, which precluded bringing harm to humans. But the real robots of the future will be different. Within a decade, the Army will field armed robots with intellects that possess, as H.G. Wells put it, "minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic."

Let us dwell on "unsympathetic." These killers will be utterly without remorse or pity when confronting the enemy. That's something new. In 1947, military historian S.L.A. Marshall published "Men Against Fire," which documented the fundamental difference between real soldiers and movie soldiers: Most real soldiers will not shoot at the enemy. Most won't even discharge their weapons, and most of the rest do no more than spray bullets in the enemy's general direction. These findings remain controversial, but the hundreds of thousands of bullets expended in Iraq for every enemy combatant killed suggests that it's not too far off the mark.

Only a few troops, perhaps 1 percent, will actually direct aimed fire at the enemy with the intent to kill. These troops are treasured, and set apart, and called snipers.

Armed robots will all be snipers. Stone-cold killers, every one of them. They will aim with inhuman precision and fire without human hesitation. They will not need bonuses to enlist or housing for their families or expensive training ranges or retirement payments. Commanders will order them onto battlefields that would mean certain death for humans, knowing that the worst to come is a trip to the shop for repairs. The writing of condolence letters would become a lost art.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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