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« Weapons Bans and Autonomous Battlefield Robots | Main | Culture Change (In the Near Future)? »

Robots as Strategic Corporals

Peter W. Singer’s Wired for War is a great read on the evolution of the tools and tactics of warfare. Peter’s study was at the same time broad and deep and should be required for those interested in the future of conflict.

Thank you to Mike Innes and Matthew Barlow for setting up and managing this terrific symposium. The participants are superb and the high level of discourse is full of useful insights. The varied background and focus of the participants naturally results in posts that cover a broad area with little overlap.

My thoughts below on the subject of unmanned warfare focus primarily on the affects of robots that roam amongst the people. Whether acting as insurgent or counterinsurgent – and the impact of the two is very different – the role robots play in the psychological struggle locally and globally, as well as their effect on policy makers, must be more thoroughly discussed.

As I wrote last year, robots operating among and interacting with foreign populations will substantially affect perceptions of America’s mission, both at home and abroad, and the effectiveness  - to the point of possibly altering the real impact  - of an operation. These interactions include patrolling near or among the people, or they can be more advanced.

There are three areas I see robots influencing, and while I believe Peter addressed the first one well, I think the second and third did not get adequate treatment (correct me if I’m wrong or missed something). The first area is the impact on foreign policy from a reduced personal cost (to an individual or a nation). There are no flag-draped coffins for robots and losing a lot of robots will not break unit cohesion. If President Clinton could have lobbed some robots to Afghanistan and Sudan instead of “mere” cruise missiles, would he have been more likely to engage in a ground war in both locations? What if Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had platoons of lethal robots, would the necessary lessons of counterinsurgency have been learned?

The second area is deals with international norms, law, and accountability. I will write on that in another post.

The third area, the focus of this post, is frequently (and erroneously) called the battle for “hearts and minds”. Using proxies, machine or otherwise, creates distance between us and “them”, creating a space for our adversaries, who in environments like Iraq are numerous and diverse, to exploit perceptions in the real war, the psychological struggle for minds and wills.

The fear of machines Eliot Cohen envisioned is short-sighted and valid only for the first few contacts, as Peter ably points out in the book. Recall Guilio Douhet who, in studying English reactions to aerial bombardment in World War I, suggested after the war that strategic bombing alone could make people force their government to sue for peace. Of course, having been exposed to bombers once, the British were prepared the second time around. While Douhet neglected the ability to adapt to a threat, he understood the psychological effect of weapons. In 1921, he wrote “victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.”

Success in future conflict will be based not only on technological superiority, but also on sociological, cultural, and informational adaptability and agility in a dynamic global information environment. In Iraq in 2007, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno issued guidance emphasizing the importance of engaging the local population and building a “feel” for the street. This guidance instructed Coalition forces to “get out and walk” and noted that up-armored Humvees limit “situational awareness and insulates us from the Iraqi people we intend to secure.” A CSBA report on mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) noted they too prevented local engagement and is just as applicable to robots operating in the sea of the people.

As America learned counterinsurgency, we realized the importance of personal contact with local populations. This can take the form of humans “reading” and trusting each other’s real intentions. For example, in 2003, Lieutenant Colonel Hughes was confronted by a rapidly deteriorating situation in Najaf, Iraq. Choosing an option few would have thought of, let alone risk, he instructed his men to smile, point their weapons into the ground, and take a knee. This allowed his soldiers to back out of a developing Iraqi-on-Iraqi encounter that they were not prepared to deal with. The human-to-human interface was facilitated by cross-cultural non-verbal communication and prevented what could have been a major flash point.

Around the same time, an American captain entered a village for the first time and was offered the robes of a sheikh by an elder because the captain was viewed as the new chief. It is doubtful a robot would have received equal treatment. The depersonalization, or dehumanization, of contact, one of the chief advantages of robots, can also limit the potential for strategic corporals on site and in the moment. Will robots on patrol develop the same “feel for the street,” understanding and incorporation of the human terrain as a person?

The intoxicating allure of technology risks unintended consequences in the psychological struggle for minds and wills in modern conflict. In my many conversations on the “public diplomacy” of unmanned warfare, few consider the robots, autonomous or remote controlled, in a war fought among the people. How do we build relationships with the locals in the sterility of robot-human interfaces? Will improved human-robot interfaces really overcome the understandable perception that American lives are worth more than locals?

To date, reports on unmanned systems generally ignore the impact “warbots” will have on shaping perceptions of critical audiences. A decade ago, General Charles Krulak introduced the now widely accepted notion that every soldier, sailor, and Marine is a strategic corporal with the ability to radically influence larger operational and even strategic elements through local actions. It is essential that the United States military and civilian leadership discuss, anticipate, and plan for each robot to be a strategic corporal in the global information environment.

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