Best Defense

Robots causing a fading warrior spirit?

By Col. Shane Riza, USAF Best Defense guest columnist I’m a fighter pilot. I have 2,700 hours in the F-16. Here’s a shocker — I have misgivings about unmanned and robotic warfare. I recognize I am at a distinct disadvantage in this discussion based on the duty history stacked up over twenty-some years. I’m clearly ...


By Col. Shane Riza, USAF

Best Defense guest columnist

I’m a fighter pilot. I have 2,700 hours in the F-16. Here’s a shocker — I have misgivings about unmanned and robotic warfare. I recognize I am at a distinct disadvantage in this discussion based on the duty history stacked up over twenty-some years. I’m clearly living in an over-glorified past and fearing for the future of what Peter Singer describes as the Air Force’s leadership DNA. I routinely take spears from my joint brethren due to acquisition debacles like the next-generation tanker, incredibly long procurement cycles for projects such as the F-22, and growing dissent over the validity of the most expensive defense acquisition program in history, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. These issues give the casual observer cause to believe the Air Force somehow missed the memo on the future of war and still believes it is preparing to fight a long-dead enemy.

There is no denying such concerns play on the minds of current and future Air Force leaders. It makes for fertile ground for those who see the perceived reluctance of services to press forward with unmanned systems as simply a culture problem belonging to what the DOD’s Unmanned Systems Roadmap describes as those “pockets of resistance” that must be “eliminated.” Even defense policy analyst Andrew Krepinevich jokes that “no fighter pilot is ever going to pick up a girl at a bar by saying he flies a UAV…. Fighter pilots don’t want to be replaced.” In the end, these are too-easy retreats to simplistic arguments about matters that deserve all the intellectual capacity we can muster. Allow me to suggest there might just be something much deeper at play.

Unmanned systems capable of lethal action subvert what it means to engage in combat and confront our sense of what it means to be a warrior. This is a culture issue, for sure, but on a whole different plane than the “I’m a fighter pilot — how do you like me so far?” level. It is very important to understand that experiencing combat and being a warrior are two very different things, and our misunderstanding of their relationship causes friction in the ranks and in our own sense of who we are as war fighters. As Singer says, “this disconnection from the battlefield also leads to a demographic change in who does what in war and the issues it provokes about a soldier’s identity … or status … or the nature of combat stress and fatigue.”

Consider these two views. In recent discussions about targeted killings and our ability to strike from afar and with total impunity, a senior officer and former fighter wing commander remarked, “Where’s the chivalry in that?” Then there is a young officer just out the Air Force Academy who speaks with wonderment about how flying Predators is seen “as this geeky thing to do” despite the fact that its pilots have seen far more combat than fighter pilots in recent years. Misgivings about unmanned warfare are not about pickup lines or shiny stars lined up on epaulettes. They are about a nearly dormant and continually repressed sense of our warrior spirit.

What is “the warrior spirit?” Allow a perspective from one untrained in the social sciences, but one who has attempted to find such a spirit for over two decades in the midst of the technologies we discuss. The warrior spirit is a sense that what a warrior does in war and how he comes at it on a personal level transcends the cold rationality of performing a mission, completing an objective, taking a hill. It neither ignores nor celebrates the necessity of taking human life. It understands sacrifice only on a personal level and in relation to fellow warriors, and therefore does not expect or desire any recognition of status other than that of “warrior.” It sees combat as the ultimate and artistic expression of a life spent in its preparation. Combat for the warrior is an intricate dance, a test of personal will and technical skill, played for the highest of stakes, in which form and means is as important — perhaps more so — than the desired end. The end state must be achieved, to be sure; that is the reason for military action. But those who can perform it with more finesse and elegance are better respected for their mastery of the craft.

Author George Leonard, writing in the introduction of Richard Strozzi-Heckler’s In Search of the Warrior Spirit — an amazing book about this Aikido master’s experiment in training U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers in the ancient ways of the martial arts — describes this idea in the context of Strozzi-Heckler’s black-belt test: “It was like one of those sporting events that are later memorialized, perhaps a World Series game or a bullfight, during which every last spectator realizes at some level that what is happening out on the field is more than a game, but rather something achingly beautiful and inevitable, an enactment in space and time of how the universe works, how things are.” It is this personal and aesthetic quality of war we risk losing with unmanned or robotic warfare.

Would we recognize a no-hitter pitched by a pitching machine with the same awe as we do when we see the battle between the man on the mound and the men at the plate? Would we feel the same sense of loss when, in the ninth inning, the last at bat slings one into the upper deck in center field? Our sense of the warrior and his sense of his place in war are not trivial matters, for it is the aesthetic quality of war that helps ground it as a human activity. Unmanned and robotic warfare might accelerate the demise of the warrior spirit, or it might force a new understanding of this ancient concept. We would do well to heed our warrior philosophers’ calls for caution, meditative thinking, and deep discussions when it comes to what we should and should not do with unmanned weapons. These issues are not about mere pride or the perceived loss of some unfounded glory. They are, in fact, about the deep moral questions of our time.

M. Shane Riza is a U.S. Air Force colonel and author of Killing Without Heart: Limits on Robotic Warfare in an Age of Persistent Conflict, published by Potomac Books, Inc. He is a command pilot, a graduate and former instructor of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, and was a fighter squadron commander in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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