- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Are we really going to see independent robotic weaponry? It looks that way.

Pushed in part by the war in Iraq, the Pentagon is getting more serious about the deployment of remotely controlled semiautonomous and autonomous weapons.

John Pike, of GlobalSecurity.org, has said, “It’s going to change the fundamental equation of war. First you had human beings without machines. Then you had human beings with machines. And finally you have machines without human beings.”

And it will be a different, though not necessarily better world. The effects on war will be great. More important will be the effects on the behavior of states that have these weapons.

The development programs are scattered. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is investing heavily. Boeing with its X-45, Northrop with its X-47 unmanned planes are heavily involved, and the Advanced Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University is working on control systems.

Other programs work at improving the wheeled robots used by bomb squads in the United States and troops in Iraq to disarm bombs. The Predator, a remotely piloted craft, has been firing missiles at ground targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere. There are others.

Unmanned weapons have advantages. First, they can be much smaller and cheaper than current versions. Much of the expense of, say, a tank goes into keeping the crew alive. Armor is heavy and expensive, and you have to armor a space big enough for four crewmen. Without a crew, you can armor only vital parts and maybe not worry too much about even those.

Second, robotic weapons are expendable. You can’t easily send pilots on near-suicidal missions. With an unmanned plane, if it doesn’t come back, you just order another one. This will be especially true of remotely controlled “soldiers” consisting perhaps of the equivalent of a riding lawn mower, a video camera, and a rocket launcher or gun. You could send one into the most dangerous street in Iraq with no concern for its safety.

Finally, unmanned weapons tend to demoralize an enemy.

Soldiers will often fight against heavy odds if they have a chance to kill their attackers. Being blown up by machines controlled from afar is dispiriting.

Now, what technology is necessary to build robotic weapons? The answer is: not much that we don’t already have. We need only to put the pieces together.

To make them work at a distance without crew, you need good networking, which we have. Global Positioning System satellites exist to allow precise location. Satellite uplinks can provide communication with remote controllers. Powerful computers fitting in a lunchbox can sometimes allow weapons to find their own targets if need be.

What are the implications for foreign policy? A war has to seem pretty important for a country to put up with expensive, long, bloody fighting. This gives an enemy the option of trying to drag out the conflict until that limit is reached, as happened in Vietnam.

A public is less likely to care how many cheap motorized “soldiers” are destroyed.

The downside is that unmanned armament may make it easier for governments to engage in military adventurism. To the extent that war can be made cheap and bloodless for one side, less reason will be required for going to war.

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