This essay is part of the #WarBots series, which asked a group of academics and national security professionals to provide their thoughts on the confluence of automation and unmanned technologies and their impact in the conduct of war. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.
Wars have been and are presently fought amongst and with robots. This is true today and will be unmistakable tomorrow. These computers are called many things—remotely piloted aircraft, unmanned systems, loitering munitions—but to the public, they are drones and robots. And they are only becoming more ubiquitous. Drones, and the computer technology on which they rely, are a confluence of possibilities found in information technology combined with military demands. But there’s more to the debates than commercial off-the-shelf quadcopters, Atlas’ box jumps, or the popular images in Hollywood films like Good Kill or Eye in the Sky.
Robots complicate land and sea battlespace, and drones congest air space and the electromagnetic spectrum. The assets of today, though, are only harbingers of future automated and artificially intelligent systems. Loitering munitions with artificial intelligence could be a new means for precision fire support or a mechanism of assassination. Moreover, these assets will continue to fuse cyberspace, the electromagnetic spectrum, artificial intelligence, and information theory with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, target acquisition, and fires, challenging command and control for the asset and the operation as a whole.
While it took centuries to move from Da Vinci’s vision to the Wright Brothers’ reality, the flash to bang on drones and beyond is rapidly shrinking. Whether we are still on the cusp or already tumbling down the rabbit hole, such technology will continue to combine in wonderful and terrible ways.
As we write about these things, though, we always keep in mind Aristotle's injunction that authors “should prefer a probable impossibility to an unconvincing possibility.” Over the next week, The Strategy Bridge will attempt to do just that; as Coleridge said, we will go about “procuring for these shadows of the imagination...willing suspension of disbelief.” All this in the service of strategy.
We hope you enjoy this series as much as we enjoyed putting it together. More importantly, we hope it forces us to think about the future of warfare in new and uncomfortable ways.