- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Erick Waage
Best Defense guest columnist
As our Army looks to participate in conflicts on the edge of war, it can leverage remote cyber and robotic solutions to execute tactical actions that have a broad range of strategic effects. The strategic value of remote applications is comprehensive, but it is mainly derived from reductions to the human risks associated with having boots on the ground.
Strategic Options and the Preservation of Political Will
By reducing the risk to human force, the cost-benefit threshold for conducting operations is altered such that it may provide more options for the use of hard power to strategic decision-makers. When a military task that once risked the lives of 250 soldiers now risks the lives of zero soldiers, the “Men-to-Mission” scale is more easily tipped towards mission. Moreover, when a strategic decision-maker can announce that a high profile operation was a debacle, but that no human life was lost, he or she politically is less likely to have to fully account for a failure. In contrast, when a high profile operation is a sweeping success with no loss of human life, the political dividends can be extremely high. At the national level, a society may be more willing to stay entangled in a conflict longer when robots and computer networks are the casualties versus their human loved ones. remote solutions, therefore, can increase strategic-leaders’ and societies’ internal soft power and enable them to more easily employ hard power.
Preservation of Human Life, Fiscal Savings, and Force Supplement
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have undoubtedly been emotionally and fiscally pricey in terms human lives lost and catastrophic injuries, and they will remain costly through the next generation as veterans and their families continue to require care to heal and manage the lingering physical and emotional wounds generated from these two wars. We will always have an ethical responsibility to pursue the preservation of life for our military personnel in conflict, but it must be noted that there are immense budgetary benefits to preserving their safety also. While the emotional and fiscal costs to losing an individual human or rehabilitating a broken one can last a decades, the destruction or damaging of an individual robot, router, or switch in conflict will likely lead to little or no emotional loss and only short-term fiscal costs.
As we consider the immense spending on programs focused on protecting our human Soldiers in combat, such as the MRAP, we need to explore what savings might be gained from taking humans out of the “fatal funnel” of conflict and replacing them, when and where applicable, with cyber and robotic capabilities that can achieve the same martial effect. What are the initial and enduring costs in hardware and armor to protect a robot’s motherboard? What are the initial and enduring costs in software for protecting a computer network used to conduct offensive cyber? How do those costs compare to the costs associated with protecting humans in conflict? I don’t know, but I’m definitely interested.
As future commanders assess their troops-to-tasks when planning operations, remote solutions can be used to supplement their human forces and expand their operational bandwidth. Using remote solutions to prepare an operating environment not only takes human soldiers out of the “fatal funnel” of conflict, but also reduces the human forces required to achieve a task and thus increases a unit’s operational capacity or expands the geographic area it can cover. Commanders can tailor their robot/cyber-to-human force mix to meet their military objectives.
Wrapping it Up
Luddites might not like handing off some military tasks that were once done by humans to cyber and robotic agents, but they’ll probably like seeing their young people shattered in future conflicts and their military budgets hampered by ballooning personnel and protective equipment costs even less. Though not a silver bullet to winning and enduring future wars, remote solutions can offer new strategic avenues for our people and leaders when dealing with conflict.
Erick Waage is a Special Operations JO who wonders if weaponized roombas will one day clean up future battlefields. This article reflects his own opinions, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the U.S. government, nor even those of the bartender at the Doghouse Bar.