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Monday Topsight, August 18, 2008

Special Future of War edition: robots, lasers, brain weapons, and a little thing called "strategic thinking."

• 174th Robot Wing: The 174th Fighter Wing of the US Air Force has flown its last mission, and has been replaced by an all-RPV (Remote Piloted Vehicle) squad. The MQ-9 "Reaper" is a real combat aircraft, carrying literally a ton of bombs; it also can stay in operation for over 14 hours straight, uses far less fuel and costs two-thirds less than the F16s it replaces.

Put simply, It's cheaper, more effective, and safer (for pilots) to use Reapers (or similar aircraft) for a lot of the ground support work. Fighters are still needed to keep the skies clear of enemy aircraft, although Reapers are better suited for the dangerous work of destroying enemy air defenses. But for fighting irregulars, the Reaper is king.

It's unclear how much longer the superiority of fighters for air-to-air combat will last, especially if you can get three Reapers in the air for the cost of one Falcon.

These aren't true robots, of course -- they're remote vehicles, with human operators on the ground with radio controls. This means that sticky questions about autonomous systems pulling the trigger on human targets still remain on the horizon. It also means that we'll probably see even more effort put into figuring ways to jam or take over the radio controls.

Finally, it's not hard to imagine that such vehicles would be more likely to be used in situations which would previously have been avoided in order to not put human pilots in danger.

• ZZZZZZZZZAP!: Question is, how long until these remotely-piloted vehicles get outfitted with high-energy lasers for long-distance pinpoint attacks? Right now, the Advanced Tactical Laser system requires a big old C130 cargo aircraft. But -- if it works the way the Air Force claims (always a big if) -- it really does change the nature of tactical conflict.

The accuracy of this weapon is little short of supernatural. They claim that the pinpoint precision can make it lethal or non-lethal at will. For example, they say it can either destroy a vehicle completely, or just damage the tires to immobilize it. The illustration shows a theoretical 26-second engagement in which the beam deftly destroys "32 tires, 11 Antennae, 3 Missile Launchers, 11 EO devices, 4 Mortars, 5 Machine Guns" -- while avoiding harming a truckload of refugees and the soldiers guarding them.

Over at New Scientist, David Hambling explores some of the implications of a system like this. Since the ATL can "deliver the heat of a blowtorch with a range of 20 kilometers," it's not hard to imagine its use for covert operations. With a laser, there are no munition fragments to identify what hit the target, only an "...instantaneous burst-combustion of insurgent clothing, a rapid death through violent trauma, and more probably a morbid combination of both."

("It happens sometimes. People just explode. Natural causes.")

• Braaaaiinnnnnssssss: Mind bombs and lie disruptors and super-soldiers, oh my. The Guardian gives us a peek at the future of war, and this time, it's heavily medicated.

On the battlefield, bullets may be replaced with "pharmacological land mines" that release drugs to incapacitate soldiers on contact, while scanners and other electronic devices could be developed to identify suspects from their brain activity and even disrupt their ability to tell lies when questioned... Drugs could also be used to enhance the performance of military personnel.

Of course, the first would be restricted by existing chemical weapons treaties -- and while we've seen in recent years that treaties are only as good as the people willing to abide by them, it is an issue -- and the second is one of those "real soon now" developments that remains perpetually on the horizon. As for the last one, the drug-enhanced soldiers, get in line: The military will be following the commercial market, not leading it.

• Whoops. Our Mistake: Of course, this all assumes that war has a future. At least in some cases, it really is the worst option, at least according to those crazy left-wingers at the RAND corporation:

The comprehensive study analyzes 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006, drawing from a terrorism database maintained by RAND and the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The most common way that terrorist groups end -- 43 percent -- was via a transition to the political process. However, the possibility of a political solution is more likely if the group has narrow goals, rather than a broad, sweeping agenda like al Qaida possesses.

The second most common way that terrorist groups end -- 40 percent -- was through police and intelligence services either apprehending or killing the key leaders of these groups. Policing is especially effective in dealing with terrorists because police have a permanent presence in cities that enables them to efficiently gather information, Jones said.

Military force was effective in only 7 percent of the cases examined; in most instances, military force is too blunt an instrument to be successful against terrorist groups, although it can be useful for quelling insurgencies in which the terrorist groups are large, well-armed and well-organized, according to researchers. In a number of cases, the groups end because they become splintered, with members joining other groups or forming new factions. Terrorist groups achieved victory in only 10 percent of the cases studied.

The key point of comparison here: a terrorist group is more likely to achieve its desired goals than to be put down by military force.

You can download the research monograph for free as a PDF, or buy it in paperback.


I asked a question at last year's Singularity Summit to Rodney Brooks: "Why did you make all of your robot remotes look like video game controllers?"

His answer led me to believe that it will make it easier for our children to kill each other.

That Rand Corporation study on terrorism is only relevant if the government actually places a high priority on fighting terror.

The appearance of terror, and of of fighting terror is very useful for nominally democratic governments with hegemonic aims.

As for soldiers using drugs, it's already the case for pilots. A couple years back some American pilots fired on a group of Canadian soldiers doing an exercise in Afghanistan, killing a few of them. It came out in the investigation that the pilots had been given amphetamines (or some other kind of 'upper', I forget the specifics) to keep them awake and aware, not to mention on-edge and paranoid.

Drugs and soldiers have been a combination for many years now. I know of stories about helicopter gunship pilots tripping on acid in Vietnam. The soldiers who marched into Tiananmen Square were widely reported to have been on speed or some other drug(s). The child soldiers in Somalia were regularly doped up on cocaine and gunpowder.

And there is always alcohol in wars going back to when the Egyptians first brewed beer.

The future is, I think, in heavier but fairly fast airplanes with RC drones that can connect and disconnect in midair. The RC plane holds drone operators, 1 to 2 per 2 drones, and the ability to use plane-to-drone beamed link control will be essential - anything operated more remotely will increase the odds of hacking. Of course dronetenders and drones will only be required one development cycle - as soon as they become well-tested the drones will be fully AI-capable and can act independent from humans (2040?).

A great way to act against terrorists, or unsettle them, is to fake splintering up. If the terrists have the US as an enemy, it's ideologically easy. However if they have a mishmash of TLA's and political factions and semi-individual states, and overlapping alliances to contend with, it will be harder for the terrists to find a focal point or a credible strategy. If you use a terrist act against a subway in NY and the whole of US white trash midwest cheers in unison and applauds the act, that's kinda wasting the effort right?


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