- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Major Daniel Sukman
Best Defense future of war entry
A lot has been written on the future of warfare and the inevitable rise of unmanned and autonomous robots and other systems on the battlefield. This will prove to be correct, as we have already witnessed the first wave with the advent of drone warfare over the last decade. What will be different in the future is the location of warfare, specifically for America. Taking in the second-, third-, and fourth-order effects of drones and other lethal autonomous systems, future warfare will increasingly occur in the homeland.
During the Vietnam War and the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s adversaries have learned that the most effective way of attacking the U.S. strategic center of gravity (the support of the American people), has been through attrition warfare. The more soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines that appear on television or come home in a body bag, the lower support for action overseas becomes. Drone warfare, and the introduction of unmanned autonomous systems on the battlefield, be they supply trucks or tanks, will remove the danger to American servicemembers on the battlefield. Adversaries will look for asymmetric ways to attack American servicemembers, and the most effective way to do it will be in the United States.
America’s adversaries, although they will continue to look for devastating terrorist-type attacks as we saw on 9/11 or even at the Boston Marathon, will look for "legitimate targets" outside air bases in Nevada from which drones are being operated. They will seek to target headquarters of contracting companies such as Booz Allen or Blackwater (or whatever they are called now). The attacks will not occur on the bases, but rather when targets of opportunity present themselves. A drone operator stopping at the local 7-11 after a shift is one example of many.
The targeting of individuals away from the battlefield is not new to warfare, in fact it has been demonstrated in the past few years with the assassination of nuclear scientists in Iran. There is no reason to think that our enemies won’t adopt these types of tactics to target individuals in the homeland. This will be different from what we have seen from al Qaeda, in that nations that the United States engages in hostilities with will look to conduct these asymmetric attacks. They will not be limited to non-state actors.
The U.S. military must prepare for the warfare of the future, and can do so in a number of ways. First is to ensure that soldiers overseas still are at risk on the battlefield. We must ensure that our warriors in uniform are viewed as warriors in the eyes of our enemy. Second, we should look at the force protection measures we offer those in uniform within the homeland. Historically a law enforcement-type mission, those that are conducting combat operations from within the continental United States need to have the situational awareness that in the future they may become legitimate targets, not only in the eyes of our enemies, but in the eyes of the broader international community. If today a member of the Taliban were to ambush a drone operator on a Nevada highway, could he make a case in court that he is a legitimate actor on the battlefield and should be considered a POW with all the rights and protections that come with that status?
The U.S. military must form partnerships and work with law enforcement agencies within the United States in the area of protection. This is not a future in which the United States abandons the principle of Posse Comitatus, rather it is a future where law enforcement has a larger and more proactive role in America’s conflicts.
War in the homeland is a scary thought. Outside of major terrorist attacks, for the most part the homeland has been secure since the War of 1812. Although we continue to fight the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on the Middle Class, and the War on Christmas in the homeland, the American Way of War is to play away games against other nations. If we are not careful in the way we pursue unmanned and autonomous systems, that piece of the American Way of War may change forever.
Major Daniel Sukman, U.S. Army, is a strategist at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He holds a B.A. from Norwich University and an M.A. from Webster University. During his career, MAJ Sukman served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and United States European Command. His combat experience includes three tours in Iraq. This article represents the author’s views and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense. And yes, this is his second entry in the contest.