Droning On

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhood’s cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispen’s day.

The preceding text is taken from William Shakespeare’s play, Henry V.  It is the ending of Henry’s Saint Crispen’s day speech.  This is probably the most famous speech in the play.  With this speech Henry rallies the spirits of his beleaguered English soldiers and then leads them on to victory against overwhelming odds in the battle of Agincourt.  Henry speaks of honor in battle and evokes themes of heroism and patriotism that echo to this day.

Shakespeare wrote Henry V over four-hundred years ago.  He was writing about a war that was another two-hundred distant from now.  In the intervening six-hundred years war has become first mechanized.  This has led to economies of scale in modern war’s production of death and destruction.  Now we are in the twenty-first century and warfare is becoming automated.

Consider this hypothetical situation.  The US discovers where Osama Bin Laden is hiding.  He is in an isolated hut in the tribal territories of northwestern Pakistan.  Two options are presented to President Obama:

  1. A joint US-Pakistan Special Forces team surrounds Bin Laden’s location, launches a ground assault and kills Bin Laden. 
  2. With Pakistan’s concurrence, a circling US Predator drone locks-on to Bin Laden’s location, fires a missile and kills Bin Laden.

Both options result in the same outcome, Bin Laden is dead, but the ramifications from these two options couldn’t be more different.  If Obama selected the ground assault option, we would accept any US deaths as the price of victory.  However, our enemy, the Islamic extremist that Bin Laden represents, would rejoice with news of each US casualty, while ignoring their own loss.  If a Predator is employed, our enemy will hold up Bin Laden’s assassination as an act of cowardice.  While, we in the US would view the employment of remotely piloted drones as a justifiable way to spare American lives.

This dichotomy of thought should be attributed to the medieval notions of our foe.  I cannot however, ascribe any of the romanticism that Shakespeare captured, to an enemy that is willing to strap a bomb to themselves.  An implacable foe requires an even more unrelenting enemy to fight it.  To that end I give you the robot as a warrior.

The United States is fighting two wars, one in Iraq that seems to be winding down and one in Afghanistan that has usurped center stage.  Adjutant to Afghanistan is the robot war that the US is prosecuting in northern Pakistan.  News reports speak of regular Predator missile strikes that have stuck fear in Al Qaida’s militants.  

According to these reports, out of Nevada’s Nellis AFB pilots are regularly flying missions over Afghanistan and Pakistan, half a world away.  Imagine a pilot, a father, seeing his kids off to school.  He drives to work.  Fights in Afghanistan and is able to get time off to watch his kid’s soccer game that afternoon.

Some call this the video game warfare.  The pilot’s user interfaces can’t be much different from what passes for reality in today’s gaming culture.  The recent WikiLeaks release of an airstrike video in Iraq confirms this opinion.  This is not to say that the US pilots that fight our country’s real wars, through a virtual interface, fight it in the same cavalier manner that a teenager with a Nintendo would.  I am sure that they work conscientiously.  One telling report is of a pilot that lost control of his Predator and with moments to impact reached under his seat for the ejection seat release.  At seven figures these birds are not cheap.

The numbers of robots that fly, crawl or swim are increasing exponentially in our armed services.  The rest of the world is quickly following our lead.  At current trajectories the number of robots in the US military will soon exceed the number of people.

Years ago, while I was still in college, I read a science fiction short story that has stuck in my mind to today.  This story started with a manned combat aircraft launching off of a carrier’s deck.  A dogfight quickly ensued.  The pilot deployed his drones, but was soon outflanked by the opposing pilot.  Hit and wounded, his aircraft’s computer took control, applied first aid, stabilized him and then dove for the deck.  Afterburners flaming, skimming the waves and boiling fish in its wake, the plane’s computer formulated a counterattack and executed it.  The adversary was destroyed.  The computer computed a return to base course and safely returned the damaged aircraft and pilot to the ship.

This story is still science fiction, but it won’t be forever.  Today’s robots at war are still directly controlled by humans.  Tomorrow when robots are fighting robots, humans in the loop will be too slow.  Stories and movies like The Terminator, predict the rise of a machine culture.  Frankly, I am more afraid of the programmer that goes out to lunch on a Friday and comes back thinking that he remembers what he was doing.

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