- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Christopher Davis
Best Defense future of war entry
At the start of the War on Terrorism, senior officials in the Bush administration argued that America was entering an era of persistent conflict. This perpetual war would span generations due to the difficulty and expense of driving out virulent ideologies, particularly violent Islamism, throughout the world. Although the United States has entered an era of persistent conflict, it is not because of radical ideologies rebelling against America’s global presence. It is because of the emergence of autonomous fighting machines (AFMs) at the disposal of narrow executive bureaucracies. There will not be a “next” war because America has already entered its last war — a war unending.
The Unending War has several causes. First, the War on Terrorism has spurred the wide use of semi-autonomous fighting machines. The first generation of these machines was restricted mostly to surveillance. The GWoT witnessed the introduction of armed aerial drones and counter-IED robots. Now, the military openly discusses fielding large numbers of machines to serve nearly every war-fighting function, including killing the enemy face to face. AFMs are a political godsend to executive branch officials because they do not put soldiers’ lives at risk (thereby eliminating the political dilemma of domestic backlash caused by casualties in foreign expeditions) and they offer plausible deniability abroad and at home alike. Machines do not complain about the lack of available armor or defect to Canada over the moral justification of war. They fight and die as ordered.
Second, machines radically alter the sustainment chain. They do not need food or water, nor need specialized equipment to operate in dangerous environments. An army of technicians, engineers, and operators maintain and control their every move (or, perhaps in the near future, monitor their autonomous actions within a defined boundary of orders) from a safe distance. They can be replaced or modified as necessary without opposition from veterans’ organizations or Congress. And their control by specialized technicians in well-developed bureaucracies insulates their use from external oversight or intervention. Theoretically, an entire war could be waged without a single risk to an American life and, more frighteningly, without any knowledge at home about it.
Already, the United States has exploited these advantages to wage a war without apparent end from the sky against Islamic militants around the globe. No clear end-state can be discerned from the campaign, nor is there any official measurement of the war’s progress except abstract statements about successful strikes. International borders are freely ignored and secret agreements are made with “host” governments to minimize their obstruction. These seismic changes were felt with the first generation of drones and robots. What will future generations bring?
The introduction of these weapons on a wider scale is forthcoming. Air Force enthusiasts speaking about the sixth generation of fighter aircraft speculate that it will be pilotless. Special Operations Command is pushing aggressively for new technologies to radically improve the capabilities of its operators. Combined with the insulation of the military from the general public, the relatively free hand of the president in directing foreign policy, the increasing costs of maintaining an all-volunteer military in an age of austerity, and the proliferation of threats in a globalizing multipolar world, AFMs offer the only way forward to answer the national security problems of the future.
Instead of thinking about strategy, we should be thinking about the continuation of the American way of war. This can be addressed through examining the legal and ethical implications of armies constituted in large part by autonomous fighting machines. Does shooting down a drone constitute an act of war? What about crashing it into the ground through a cyberattack? If a semi- or fully autonomous war machine commits a war crime, who is at fault? If the defined operating parameters of an AFM could lead to a war crime, is it a lawful order to program the AFM with those parameters? These questions and more touch the fundamental human component of warfare — a feature that is increasingly distant from the battlefield.
America has already entered its last war. This war, the war unending, will be fought with ever advancing machines of all kinds. These machines will be increasingly autonomous and they will take commands from insulated bureaucracies with limited public oversight. Policymakers will be less timid about their employment. The foundations for this war have already been set in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. As the last Islamist terrorist draws his final breath, against whom will these machines be pointed next?
Christopher Davis is an Army civilian and Army Reserve officer, having previously served on active duty for several years, including a year in RC-East, Afghanistan. He also is a full-time doctoral student at Nova Southeastern University, studying international peace and conflict. This article represents his personal opinion and is not necessarily that of anyone for whom he works.