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Two Can Play at the Wired War Game

Two Can Play at the Wired War Game

The U.S. military has greatly expanded the use of unmanned, robotic technologies over the past few years. While that trend may put fewer American lives at risk in battle, the Brookings Institution's Peter Warren Singer has warned of some of the downsides to replacing humans with machines. Enemies with strong hacking skills could pose a major threat, and psychological issues could also play a part.

By Richard Adhikari
03/09/10 5:00 AM PT

As the United States military increases the use of robots like unmanned drones in battle, it increases the danger that our enemies will take and adapt the technology to use against us, according to Peter Warren Singer, senior fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

"Just like what happened in software, warfare is going open source," he told an audience last week at RSA 2010 in San Francisco.

This means terrorists and other enemies of the U.S. can not only get their hands on top-of-the-line technology, but they can also get it cheaply. That, in turn, will facilitate their battles.

More important still is the ripple effect that using robots has on our society and the way Americans are perceived abroad.

The Robots Are Coming

The U.S. military has been massively increasing its use of robots over the years.

It had a "handful" of unmanned planes when it invaded Iraq in 2003, but there are now more than 7,000 drones in the U.S. military's inventory, Singer said. Whereas the invasion force on the ground used no unmanned ground vehicles at the beginning of the war, it now has more than 12,000.

Meanwhile, this year, the U.S. Air Force will train more unmanned system operators than it will train manned bomber and manned fighter plane pilots combined.

No More Firstest With the Mostest

While the United States is currently ahead in the technology of warfare, it's not going to hang on to that lead for very long, Singer warned.

"There's a rule in technology and war -- there's no such thing as a permanent first mover," he explained.

For example, the British invented the tank, and the Germans then figured out how to use the tank better.

Meanwhile, lots of other countries are working to catch up with our lead. "The U.S. is very much ahead in robotic tanks right now, but there are 43 other nations working on it -- nations like Russia and China as well as allies like Great Britain," Singer said.

Technology that's critical to America's national security will be hit by attempts to steal everything from information to design, and other hostile acts. For example, one American robotics company claimed to have seen a clone of its project on sale at a Singapore air show, and another has been hit by five different automated attacks.

Insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan are now able to tap into video feeds from U.S. spy drones cheaply because of advances in technology.

While they could do so as early as 2000, the cost was prohibitive. "What took thousands of dollars in 2000 to watch this video feed is available for (US)$30 from the Internet," Singer pointed out. "It's software that allows college kids to illegally download video feeds."

That capability gives the insurgents information on U.S. military plans and actions.

Sowing the Wind

Eventually, the flattening and proliferation of technology could harm the U.S., he stated. "As we utilize more and more systems that are digitally controlled, we move from battles just of destruction to battles of disruption," Singer said.

This could involve jamming communications or co-opting our devices by recoding the software in U.S. tanks, for example, or rerouting bombs steered by global positioning systems.

The proliferation of technology and its falling cost leads to three key trends we must watch for, Singer said.

The first trend is the reinforcing of the power of individuals against the state. In the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, for example, Hezbollah, a private organization, managed to build and fly four drones against the Jewish state, Singer pointed out.

The second is the elimination of the culling power of suicide terrorism. Suicide bombings are a major threat to U.S. forces abroad. "Individuals in small groups now have a greater reach, and they don't have to be suicidal," Singer explained. "That means they'll be far more lethal."

Third, terrorism will raise its head in new areas, through what Singer called the return of the neo-Luddites. "Not everyone is excited about this new technology; some people want to stop it because they're scared of it," he said. "We're looking at Unabomber 2.0."

Theodore Kaczynski, nicknamed the Unabomber, carried out bombing attacks on Americans over 17 years, from 1978 to his arrest in 1996. He killed three people and wounded 22 over that period.

Eve of Destruction?

Perhaps even more important than the military effects of using robots is the ripple it will have on America's democracy, Singer said.

"Robots take certain trends that are happening in our democracy maybe to their final logical point," he explained. "We don't have the draft anymore, we don't declare war anymore, and now we have a technology that allows us to carry out war without the consequences of having to write a letter to someone's mother."

For example, the U.S. has carried out more air strikes in Afghanistan than it did in the war on Kosovo, but there has been no debate in Congress on this issue, whereas the air strikes on Kosovo sparked fierce controversy. The U.S. is bombing Afghanistan heavily because there's no cost to this, Singer contended.

The use of robotics also colors other countries' perception of us. For example, a senior official of the Bush administration said our technology scares the enemy, but a leading Lebanese newspaper editor described our use of robots as "just another sign of the cold-hearted, cruel Israelis and Americans who are also cowards because they send out machines to fight us."

That might hearten our enemies, Singer said -- they'll think Americans aren't brave enough to fight in person, so all they have to do to discourage us is kill a few Americans.

Robotics are also used by law enforcement and private corporations for surveillance here in the U.S., and that could have serious effects, Singer warned. "I met with a Federal court judge who said within a couple of years we'll have a Supreme Court case on this issue because this cuts to the heart of privacy and probable cause," he explained.


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