Robot Wars

We hear a lot about the advances in robotic technology and the growth of artificial intelligence and one of its most common, and controversial uses, is through Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) also known as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) or simply as drones.

Military forces like to use UAVs in environments that are ‘dirty, dull or dangerous’. By this, they mean missions that might risk contamination to a human by nuclear, biological or chemical agents (dirty); missions that require a very long flight time to provide persistent coverage (dull); and missions that might otherwise expose humans to too much risk (dangerous). Their use – and that of their robotic cousins – might soon be even more prevalent.

Recently the Washington Post (March 30th) reported on what the Pentagon is describing as the ‘Third Offset Strategy’. The Pentagon considers its development of tactical nuclear weapons in the Cold War as the First Offset Strategy and the development of precision guided weapons using GPS as the Second. An offset strategy is a way of developing military advantage asymmetrically, when one is at a numerical disadvantage. Simply put, your smaller army can beat your enemy’s bigger army because you have, for example, tactical nuclear weapons. The ‘Third Offset Strategy is the development of machine learning and the distribution of military forces using swarms of tiny drones – perhaps allowing you to wage a robot war.

However, allow me to conduct a small thought experiment. The reason you need a new offset strategy to replace your last one is because your potential enemy has removed your asymmetric advantage by developing the same technology. So imagine now that a superpower has a military force that largely comprises of robots. Equally, his superpower foe has their own military force; similarly largely and robotic.

Taking this one stage further, a crisis erupts and these two nations launch a war – one nation is on the offensive, and seeks to take over the other nation; a re-run of the great wars of the twentieth century. The robot systems do battle and the offensive side gains an advantage and is ready to invade.  What happens next?  The enduring lesson of wars in the latter half of the 20th and early 21st century is that the only way to take land is to put boots on the ground. Even if those boots are worn by robots, the defending nation will have to commit soldiers to defend themselves if their robots have been overwhelmed. And even if the defending human army is defeated, the attacking nation will have to put humans into the conquered territory to police, control or govern it.  Ultimately then, both sides – the aggressor and the defender –  will, despite their enormous cost in robotic systems, have to revert to putting military people into harm’s way. One wonders if all that technology is worth it. Robots might assist us or give us a temporary advantage. But to take and hold ground requires people.

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