The Ignored Dangers of Autonomous Weapon Systems

The Center for a New American Security just published a report called 20YY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age. The report discusses the dawn of a new era, one in which “unmanned and autonomous systems will play central war-fighting roles for the United States, its allies and partners, and its adversaries.”

Meanwhile, the head of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command has stated that the U.S. Army is planning to reduce their human troop numbers and in essence make up the difference by relying more on robotic technology.

Common critiques of that shift tend to make two key points. One focuses on the idea of them becoming artificially intelligent and/or uncontrollable, and beginning to operate beyond their intended arenas. Since I am not an expert on how this autonomous technology or artificial intelligence works, I can’t really say how likely that is or what kind of time frame we would be looking at if it were correct.

The other is that flaws in targeting (for example, when drone strikes hit wedding parties instead of militant gatherings,) might be more likely with unmanned, and eventually, autonomous weapon systems. As a result, we will see more instances of what is called blowback, or unintended consequences: instead of reducing the terrorist threat, our strikes breed resentment and inspire people who might previously have been moderate to instead join forces with terrorists.

That is closer to what I want to talk about. For the most part now when we think about blowback, we think about radicalizing populations with whom we’re trying to ally. But unmanned and autonomous weapons in particular have the potential to generate another form of blowback.

Proponents of this kind of warfare argue that any technology that would make deploying more U.S. soldiers unnecessary and keep them out of harm’s way must be good.

Now, I am as much a fan of not sending young Americans off to die as anyone. But this argument overlooks one of the basic reasons that terrorism as a tactic exists in the first place: it is the kind of warfare a weaker, smaller group must employ against a bigger, more powerful, or more technologically advanced enemy. It is asymmetrical.

So as we depend more on unmanned and autonomous weapons systems, we make it so that strikes on civilians become the only way to wage war against us. Damaging machinery may begin to seem like a necessity to people living under the constant threat of drones in tribal Pakistan, but they will never be the real target of a terrorist or insurgent group, because their loss isn’t damaging enough for the U.S.

Likewise, readers who are familiar with Rachel Maddow’s excellent book, Drift, will recall that she described how a smaller portion of the U.S. population than ever actually serves in the military now. As a result, she argues, most Americans have become detached from our wars, and our decisions to wage them.

A greater emphasis on unmanned/autonomous systems will only further alienate Americans from the decision-making processes that lead us to war, even as it alienates the people whose hearts and minds U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine says we should be winning, if we want to genuinely make any kind of headway in the so-called War on Terror.

The War on Terror has, almost from its inception, seems to have focused mainly on tactics: Navy SEAL raids, drone strikes, surges, rather than on actual strategy: finding ways to change the narrative that generates so many terrorists to begin with.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Christina says:

    This was so interesting!

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