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« Rewired For War: Militant Operating Environments | Main | The ethical dilemmas of the robotic revolution »

Sci-Fi and the EMA: Evolution in Military Affairs

Robert Goldich’s review of Wired for War, published in the Small Wars Journal a few days ago, makes the point that if the revolution in warfare that Singer sees actually takes place, it will take much longer to come to fruition that envisioned in the book. To which, I would add that the revolution will probably not look at all like anything Singer projects as on the horizon. William F. Owen, writing on the discussion board of the SWJ this morning notes that the armed force that makes the most use of robots, the IDF – with which he is intimately familiar – has no intention to make use of autonomous robots in the foreseeable future.

My comments here begin from a point of deep skepticism about technological revolutions in general and the robotics “revolution’ in particular. As Singer points out, the future is often seen in works of science fiction. And, as a science fiction fan of long standing, I have enjoyed, been amazed, and enthralled by the possible worlds of Asimov, Heinlein, and more recent writers like John Ringo, David Sherman and Dan Cragg, and Ian Douglas. The latter three have focused intently on military sci fi with some really neat technological stuff for their soldiers and Marines. That technological stuff is, of course, much advanced over the technologies Singer discusses – yes, Virginia, sci fi has again surpassed reality. Douglas, in particular, makes great use of artificial intelligences (AI) as both critical to the success of his Marines and, in nightmarish form, as the entire focus of his non-human, unalive (?), “robotic” enemy. But Douglas deals with the good robotics and AI by means of addressing the man/machine interface based on the implantation of electronic receptors in the brains of the human characters. Thus, while his AI have personalities – one of the more memorable is Chesty, named for General Lewis “Chesty” Puller – they remain at the service of the human commanders. The reasons for this are inherent in the quote that Goldich uses in his review from Poul Anderson about how humans are the product of evolution, instinct, and reason. This is also why Douglas’ Marines will defeat the robotic Xul at the end of the Inheritance Trilogy (third book still to come).

Most science fiction, however, is not revolutionary. At its best, it extrapolates already visible trends and poses human problems in dealing with new technologies and non-human cultures. The technology is clearly evolutionary. Let us take, for example, faster than light (FTL) travel. Much sci fi simply assumes away the absolute speed limit imposed by Einstein in his theories of Relativity. When it is assumed away, so too is the problem of time lags in communication. Some of the more scientifically accurate sci fi, however, takes the Einstein universe and posits a way of achieving FTL travel by warping the very fabric of the universe – perhaps, the only way that FTL could be achieved if Einstein was correct. In that case, we are left with the notion that the fastest means of communication is a messenger ship that can travel FTL by warping space.

My point is that technological change is, itself, rarely revolutionary; it is most often evolutionary. The revolution in military affairs (RMA) tends to be seen after it has happened as a result of the accumulation of many small changes over time. And many of these so-called RMA are not revolutions at all, but are profound nevertheless. Let me cite an example from the relatively recent past that I was associated with:

In 1986, during the El Salvador insurgency, the major sources of Salvadoran army (ESAF) casualties were small anti-personnel mines scattered by the FMLN insurgents. SOUTHCOM’s Small Wars Operations Research Directorate (SWORD) was tasked to find a solution to the problem. Our approach was 3-pronged. First, we bought the ESAF commercial metal detectors and trained their soldiers to use them. Second, we provided the ESAF with blast chaps and blast booties developed by the US Army’s Natick Lab. Third, we introduced a mine awareness, detection, and avoidance training program. As a result, ESAF casualties due to land mines fell off dramatically – for about three months. In 1987 they began to rise again. In a subsequent assessment of the ESAF (late 1987–88) we discovered the reasons. First, the ESAF rotated all its officers on 1 January. With new people who were not aware of the program, the equipment went on the shelf and the countermine training ceased. Second, the ESAF had no personnel program at the national level, other than a draft for that impressed peasant conscripts as soldiers. Third, the ESAF had no centralized personnel records system. Together, these failings meant that a promising anti-counter-mine program failed to survive. In the larger picture, the ESAF had to train an entirely new army every two years. One of the successes of US military assistance to the ESAF was the institution of a computerized central personnel system in the next year or two. That system bore fruit in 1995 when, during Hurricane Mitch, the ESAF was able to activate the military reserve that the system had made possible for disaster relief efforts. This, I submit, was the real “RMA” for the ESAF. To return to the original point, it both took longer and came about in a way that was totally unanticipated.

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