A lot of attention has been paid recently to the Obama administration’s use of drones in and around Afghanistan and in the “war on terror” in general. According to a recent New York Times article on the subject, more than four hundred drone attacks have killed more than 3,000 people with the majority taking place since 2004; garnering much hostility toward the U.S. around the world. The United States is not the only nation with a drone program. According to the article, more than 50 nations either currently utilize drone technology or are trying to get it.
Interestingly how drones are used parallels another game changing technology. Much like the first biplanes used in World War I, the first use of drone technology was for surveillance. Not too far into the War to End All Wars pilots started carrying pistols to shoot at enemy planes; not long after drone introduction they began to mount some basic weaponry to existing models. First world war aircraft evolved into purpose-built warplanes which prowled the skies; dedicated offensive drone designs began to roll off the assembly line.
Drones are not limited to the air. Military combat robots are beginning to show up on the ground too. Don’t call them drones, they don’t like that. Ground-based drones are called robots. They perform a host of operations from cargo carriers to pulling wounded from the line of fire to full blown combat. I’m not sure we’ll ever get the ED-209 calling out “you have ten seconds to comply,” but the notion is not so far off. Clearly warfare has entered a new era.
The question now is how pervasive will these be on the battlefield of the future? Will we see a scene out of Terminator with shiny silver robots walking around? Will humans even take the field? A number of additional questions must be asked to answer the fundamental question of robot or human.
Will combat robots be completely autonomous or controlled? The “controlled” half of the question is relatively easy to answer. Today most drones are guided by human controllers, but in a modern battle between technological equals, the ability to get control signals to a robotic warrior is suspect. Radio frequencies can be jammed, laser communications blocked, one can never be sure of the ability to continuously control a robot/drone. As such I believe the era of directly controlled robots will come to an end in battles where both sides have capability to intercept or jam control signals. They could still be utilized as they are today where one side has vastly superior technology, but not in a relatively equal battle.
So now that brings us to completely autonomous units. This type of drone/robot will make their way to the battlefield; the allure of a casualty-free war will be too much to resist and the capabilities they bring to aerial combat will make human-piloted fighter aircraft obsolete. The air combat usage of a drone is very straight forward. Pilotless aircraft have a huge advantage in air-to-air combat over aircraft flown by a human being. Aside from the weight saved by not having to support a human, a pilotless aircraft is not limited by the gee capability of its occupant. Even with gee-suits, today’s aircraft are limited to nine gee maneuvers. No such limit exists with combat drones. They would be able to literally run circles around their human-flown counterparts. Additionally, it is relatively easy to distinguish friend from foe in the air and the chance for unintended casualties or actions is low. Autonomous ground-based units are not so easy to deploy. No doubt they will make it to the battlefield, but I also have little doubt that at some point after their introduction a horrible incident reminiscient of the My Lai massacre will take place. Limits will be placed on their mission profiles. Likely the robot warrior of the future will be a hybrid where it can be controlled by a human yet maintain the ability to act autonomously in the event of lost communications, perhaps with a limited subset of available actions.
So I still haven’t answered the question of human vs. robot. The reason is that the answer is not binary, not an either-or. There will likely be a mixed-force approach. Many years will pass before human ingenuity, adaptiveness and resourcefullness can be programmed into a computer; compassion potentially never. There is value in an army with the firepower and capabilities of robotic vehicles matched with the cognitive abilities of the human soldier.
Lastly I’ll touch on the human psyche component. There have been more than a few science fiction stories written with the notion of robots fighting all the wars of the future. Some have seen robots completely take over while others allude to the diminishing human reticence toward war when the only casualties are machines. It is hard to imagine a military relinquishing full control of a battlefield to unthinking, unfeeling robots. I won’t completely rule out the possibility, but I don’t find it a likely scenario.
So robots or people? The answer is both. Robots already exist on the battlefield and won’t go away and I don’t believe people can ever be completely removed from the equation. There is no substitute for boots on the ground.