The New York Times: A New Model Army Soldier Rolls Closer to the Battlefield
The American military is working on a new generation of soldiers, far different from the army it has.
"They don't get hungry," said Gordon Johnson of the Joint Forces Command at the Pentagon. "They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes."
The robot soldier is coming.
What happens when you upgrade your tools, when they are better and easier to use? You tend to use them more because you get more out of them. It makes sense if the usage results in more efficient and pleasurable outcomes for the user.
So what is the greatest drawback of a flesh and bone military?
American military deaths. The very first thing most people worry about in wartime are the casualties: men and women killed in action, wounded in action, and taken prisoner.
It is already the case now that unmanned aerial drones are quite active in Iraq and Afghanistan, doing the jobs that riskier manned missions would otherwise have to do. I'm willing to bet good money that some missions wouldn't have been attempted if unmanned drones were not available...in no small part because no American military commander - from the captain on the ground to the Secretary of Defense - wants to have casualties and POWs hung around his or her neck.
If the political cost of going to war or engaging in warlike activities drops, I predict the willingness of those who make those military decisions will increase. If you can face the press and Congress and say, "The frontline forces we expect to use will mostly consist of robots and therefore we predict casualties to be minimal at worst," the greatest restriction on warfare is eased.
Granted, those political restrictions are not limited to just cases of KIA, WIA, MIA, and POW. There are also considerations of the war's cost.
Robots are a crucial part of the Army's effort to rebuild itself as a 21st-century fighting force, and a $127 billion project called Future Combat Systems is the biggest military contract in American history.
The military plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in automated armed forces. The costs of that transformation will help drive the Defense Department's budget up almost 20 percent, from a requested $419.3 billion for next year to $502.3 billion in 2010, excluding the costs of war. The annual costs of buying new weapons is scheduled to rise 52 percent, from $78 billion to $118.6 billion.
Technology ain't cheap, even when it's financed with stolen cash. At some point, the Department of Defense's growth will chafe so many domestic statists' asses that they'll rein in it and allocate it elsewhere. I'd expect other programs to get pushed aside within DoD to make room for these projects.
As the article's author, Tim Weiner, makes clear, even with all this spending, the US won't be in a position to deploy robo-soldiers for decades.
The robot soldier has been a dream at the Pentagon for 30 years. And some involved in the work say it may take at least 30 more years to realize in full. Well before then, they say, the military will have to answer tough questions if it intends to trust robots with the responsibility of distinguishing friend from foe, combatant from bystander.
Even the strongest advocates of automatons say war will always be a human endeavor, with death and disaster. And supporters like Robert Finkelstein, president of Robotic Technology in Potomac, Md., are telling the Pentagon it could take until 2035 to develop a robot that looks, thinks and fights like a soldier. The Pentagon's "goal is there," he said, "but the path is not totally clear."
That isn't any consolation to me, however.
The Pentagon intends for robots to haul munitions, gather intelligence, search buildings or blow them up.
All these are in the works, but not yet in battle. Already, however, several hundred robots are digging up roadside bombs in Iraq, scouring caves in Afghanistan and serving as armed sentries at weapons depots.
By April, an armed version of the bomb-disposal robot will be in Baghdad, capable of firing 1,000 rounds a minute. Though controlled by a soldier with a laptop, the robot will be the first thinking machine of its kind to take up a front-line infantry position, ready to kill enemies.
"The real world is not Hollywood," said Rodney A. Brooks, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at M.I.T. and a co-founder of the iRobot Corporation. "Right now we have the first few robots that are actually useful to the military."
Despite the obstacles, Congress ordered in 2000 that a third of the ground vehicles and a third of deep-strike aircraft in the military must become robotic within a decade.
I was not aware of this. Predator drones firing missiles and soon ground machines armed with automatic weapons.
Like I said, it's being driven by a cost-benefit analysis.
Pentagon officials and military contractors say the ultimate ideal of unmanned warfare is combat without casualties. Failing that, their goal is to give as many difficult, dull or dangerous missions as possible to the robots, conserving American minds and protecting American bodies in battle.
"Anyone who's a decision maker doesn't want American lives at risk," Mr. Brooks said.
Bingo. Politicians routinely cite military deaths as their greatest concern. No American can survive politically these days without a near-daily paean to "support the troops" and wish regularly for their safety. Take that away and the next concern becomes wealth. Mr. Brooks continues:
"It's the same question as, Should soldiers be given body armor? It's a moral issue. And cost comes in."
Money, in fact, may matter more than morals. The Pentagon today owes its soldiers $653 billion in future retirement benefits that it cannot presently pay. Robots, unlike old soldiers, do not fade away. The median lifetime cost of a soldier is about $4 million today and growing, according to a Pentagon study. Robot soldiers could cost a tenth of that or less.
Just like GM or American Airlines, the "tail" of the entity is becoming a threat to the rest of it. Despite the federal government's ability and desire to suck wealth from individuals, it cannot just do so at greater and greater levels indefinitely. Efficiency must be introduced at some points.
"It's more than just a dream now," Mr. Johnson said. "Today we have an infantry soldier" as the prototype of a military robot, he added. "We give him a set of instructions: if you find the enemy, this is what you do. We give the infantry soldier enough information to recognize the enemy when he's fired upon. He is autonomous, but he has to operate under certain controls. It's supervised autonomy. By 2015, we think we can do many infantry missions.
"The American military will have these kinds of robots. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
As an individualist anarchist, I am sympathetic to efforts intended to reduce the costs of government and expand our spheres of freedom. However, this should not be done in order to expand the government's sphere of action, for that would run against the purpose of the latter.
War should never be cheap.