Mantis1 and Global Hawk,2 IMI Mastiff;3
Reapers4 that shoot Hellfires5 up Afghan asses;
Ghods6 using lasers and GNATs reconning,7
These are a few of life’s scarier things.8
Ordinarily, in this space, I try to give some answers. I’m going to try again, in an area in which I am, at least at a technological level, admittedly inexpert. Feel free to argue.
Question 1: Are unmanned aerial drones going to take over from manned combat aircraft?
I am assuming here that at some point in time the total situational awareness package of the drone operator will be sufficient for him to compete or even prevail against a manned aircraft in aerial combat. In other words, the drone operator is going to climb into a cockpit far below ground and the only way he’ll be able to tell he’s not in an aircraft is that he’ll feel no inertia beyond the bare minimum for a touch of realism, to improve his situational awareness, but with no chance of blacking out due to high G maneuvers..
Still, I think the answer to the question is “no,” at least as long as the drones remain under the control of an operator, usually far, far to the rear. Why not? Because to the extent the things are effective they will invite a proportional, or even more than proportional, response to defeat or at least mitigate their effectiveness. That’s just in the nature of war. This is exacerbated by there being at least three or four routes to attack the remote controlled drone. One is by attacking the operator or the base; if the drone is effective enough, it will justify the effort of making those attacks. Yes, he may be bunkered or hidden or both, but he has a signal and a signature, which can probably be found. To the extent the drone is similar in size and support needs to a manned aircraft, that runway and base will be obvious.
The second target of attack is the drone itself. Both of these targets, base/operator and aircraft, are replicated in the vulnerabilities of the manned aircraft, itself and its base. However, the remote controlled drone has an additional vulnerability: the linkage between itself and its operator. Yes, signals can be encrypted. But almost any signal, to include the encryption, can be captured, stored, delayed, amplified, and repeated, while there are practical limits on how frequently the codes can be changed. Almost anything can be jammed. To the extent the drone is dependent on one or another, or all, of the global positioning systems around the world, that signal, too, can be jammed or captured, stored, delayed, amplified and repeated. Moreover, EMP, electro-magnetic pulse, can be generated with devices well short of the nuclear.9 EMP may not bother people directly, but a purely electronic, remote controlled device will tend to be at least somewhat vulnerable, even if it’s been hardened,
Question 2: Will unmanned aircraft, flown by Artificial Intelligences, take over from manned combat aircraft?
The advantages of the unmanned combat aircraft, however, ranging from immunity to high G forces, to less airframe being required without the need for life support, or, alternatively, for a greater fuel or ordnance load, to expendability, because Unit 278-B356 is no one’s precious little darling, back home, to the same Unit’s invulnerability, so far as I can conceive, to torture-induced propaganda confessions,10 still argue for the eventual, at least partial, triumph of the self-directing, unmanned, aerial combat aircraft.
Even, so, I’m going to go out on a limb and go with my instincts and one reason. The reason is that I have never yet met an AI for a wargame I couldn’t beat the digital snot out of, while even fairly dumb human opponents can present problems. Coupled with that, my instincts tell me that that the better arrangement is going to be a mix of manned and unmanned, possibly with the manned retaining control of the unmanned until the last second before action.
This presupposes, of course, that we don’t come up with something – quite powerful lasers and/or renunciation of the ban on blinding lasers11 – to sweep all aircraft from the sky.12
Question 3: Will AI-controlled combat systems be restricted to the air or the sea?
Not just the air, no; there are some nautical drones in existence.13 For that matter, I think there’s a very good case to be made that certain torpedoes and some of the more sophisticated mines are already AI-controlled drones and have been for decades.
However, there are two truths about technology in war that are not often understood. One is that much technology is intended to be and serves as a substitute for training. It may be more effective than what it replaces, as with the heavy Anti-Tank Guided Missile taking over from towed anti-tank guns and recoilless rifles, but that’s not necessarily why the replacement took place. Rather, despite the cost of an individual round, to say nothing of the launch and guidance systems, it’s a lot quicker, easier, and cheaper to train a TOW14 crew – especially one just off the street – to get a hit at X meters than it is with a recoilless rifle crew, because you don’t have to program a human brain to do anything an unusually clever monkey couldn’t.15
The second truth is that high technology seems to be most required and work best – I suspect those two feed each other – in comparatively simple environments, space, air, and sea.16 Consider, for example, that we can already have drones that can do quite a bit of maneuver, but DARPA’s only been able to get vehicles through fairly simple courses in fairly simple deserts, no anti-vehicular mines, no city blocks, no other traffic, no trees, no rivers, no bridges. I mentioned in footnote 15 that the human brain is a fantastic fire control computer. Well, it doesn’t even need to be programed much to make life tough for enemy autonomous vehicles; the malice and cleverness are already there.
It’s interesting, too, I think, that when science fiction writes autonomous AI-driven ground combatants, they tend to be huge. Why? One reason is that to a 40000 ton combat vehicle, the Potomac and White House aren’t really complex obstacles….if it noticed them at all.
Short version: maybe someday we’ll have effective, independent ground combat drones, but that day is much further off than it is for air and sea, largely because the problem is much less tractable.
Question 4: Is it moral to use machines for war?
We’ve always used machines for war; a bow is a machine. A sling is a machine. Arguably, maybe so is the rock. But what the question is really getting as is the lack of restraint or conscience on the part of an AI-driven war machine. Couple of thoughts on that.
One is that, as our civilization weakens, as the ruthlessness necessary for it to survive dissipates, we may have no choice – if those trends continue – but to turn our defense over to machines. No, that day’s not that close yet. Even so, people – ICOTESCAS, say – sucking away and spitting out onto the dirt our civilizational spinal fluid might want to think about whether they’d a) like that any better or b) really think they can control it.
Another is that we tend to delude ourselves to the extent we think that having “a man in the loop” will really bring human conscience into play to limit the damage the machines will do.17 It won’t, or not much.
Consider this instance cited in GQ, a couple of years ago, from an enlisted Air Force Predator pilot, on his first shot and kill:
“The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg … It took him a long time to die. I just watched him.”
~ Airman First Class Brandon Bryant18
GQ in that article is, unsurprisingly, missing the point. Focused on the poor, ultimately upset airman, they neglect to note sufficiently that, whatever psychic price he ultimately paid, he did his job pretty much without any excess restraint or remorse for years. “I just watched him [die].”
Distance does that. Mass murderers in Einsatzgruppen – murderers of the innocent at close range – went insane in large numbers. A fair number shot or otherwise disposed of themselves.19 There’s at least one instance of a German committing suicide beforehand, to spare himself from becoming a murderer.20
That’s not to say that the men dropping bombs on Hamburg or Tokyo were in the same moral class as the Einsatzgruppen, but to the women and children turned to crispy critters, below, the distinction probably wouldn’t mean much. And those firebombers continued to function well enough, long enough, just as did Airman Bryant. Why? Distance; they were removed from and didn’t have to see the details of what they’d done in real life.
Oh, and Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, if one seeks solace in those?
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.21
Utter nonsense. Now who can tell us why?
8 With apologies to the shades of Rodgers and Hammerstein, as well as the entire cast of The Sound of Music
10 Though Ralph Peters, I think it was, did suggest in one of his novels that AIs could possibly be tortured.
12 I consider this not entirely likely. There are almost always technical solutions to technical problems, and tactical solutions to technical problems. What those will be for aircraft I can’t say. I can say, however, that Man is a clever beast. Consider how every new anti-tank weapon has been heralded as the end of the tank. Note that tanks are still going strong.
13 http://makezine.com/magazine/transatlantic-drone-takes-to-the-sea/ and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2326138/The-stealth-drone-boat-set-hunt-pirates-undercover-world.html
15 Personal opinion: the finest fire control computer in the world is the human brain, but it is bitching hard to program.
16 Hat tip, Martin van Creveld’s Technology and War
21 I, Robot, Isaac Asimov.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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