Robot Wars

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Robot Wars

James Carman

Will future conflicts be won or lost in the laboratory?

Read Time:
2m 7sec

P. W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, who wrote about the U.S. Military’s increasing use of robots in Iraq and Afghanistan in a WQ cover story last year, has an interesting piece in Popular Mechanics. In it, he says that today’s Packbots and Predators “are merely the first generation—the equivalent of the Model T Ford or the Wright Brothers’ flyer.” Singer warns that, historically, military planners often become enamored with the early success of new technologies, causing them to stop seeking more innovative weaponry:

“At the start of this revolution in robotics, it is folly for us to think we have all the answers yet. Back in World War I, the early tanks were visualized as mobile pillboxes, supporting infantry as they marched on trench lines. It later turned out, though, that the technology could be far more effective when gathered together into a single armored punch, a blitzkrieg that moved at a speed well beyond that of a soldier’s legs. Similarly, the future of unmanned weaponry may well be jacks-of-all-trades like the MQ-X or robotic Apache helicopters that look and operate very much like the manned and early unmanned versions they are replacing. Or, it might be something as vastly different as the Rand Corporation’s concept of PRAWNS (PRoliferated Autonomous WeapoNS). In this, rather than a single large (and likely expensive) plane trying to do it all, the task is divided among a variety of smaller, cheaper specialized robots, much like a swarm of ants at work. Much as no one knew the full potential of tanks back in 1918, we similarly don't know which model of war robots will ultimately win out.

“The answer then is not to turn back the clock on technologic change and cling to old systems or doctrines. Nor is it to leap before looking. Rather, now is the time to experiment, to play the field and be promiscuous with our technologic futures.... For the U.S. military, it means we should focus less now on what the perfect robotic system will look like 20 or 30 years out, fighting for kids not born yet in battles we know not where. Instead, we should return to our own tradition of experimenting, pushing multiple design contests and encouraging vast testing of prototypes, so as to ensure that our current defense purchasing isn’t pre-emptively deciding how we will fight in the future, but rather allows us to choose what will be best in that future.”