Drones are 21st Century Superweapons
There's this strange sense in the zeitgeist that robotic warfare is somehow disreputable. If you read the news, hardly a day goes past without some deprecatory reference to the use of drones by the United States in its ongoing war against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups. The sense that there is something amiss with the deployment of drones in combat permeates popular media. Indeed, thinking off the top of my head, I can't think of a single example in recent popular culture where the deployment of a drone has been positively portrayed. I believe that this is madness -- the sort of reflexive prejudice that revolutionary weapons often face from people who lack the knowledge necessary to have informed opinions about such matters.
A major reason why I wrote my newest novel, Robot General, is to argue that, like the submarine or the aircraft at the dawn of the 21st Century, combat robots (both land and air based) have the potential to wholly revolutionize warfare. Used properly, they can become a class of so-called "superweapons" -- weapons so new and revolutionary that they can beat anything possessed by an opponent and whose use is so devastating as to crush the morale of our enemies. Deployed properly, drones can become a table-turning tool of asymmetrical warfare. The technology required to manufacture them and the logistical base required to support them in substantial numbers is beyond the capacity of all of the likely enemies of the United States and the West in the near-term.
In the years since the Second World War there has been one clear strategy for a nation or a non-state group to inflict a defeat upon a Western nation: recognize that the West places an extremely high value upon the lives of its individual citizens and, therefore, that if you can inflict a large number of casualties upon any Western nation you will create intolerable political pressures on the home front and force that nation to come to terms. This remains true even when you suffer grossly disproportionate casualties in the process of doing so. This was the case in Korea, Vietnam (both for the French and the United States), Algeria, Afghanistan (for both the United States and the USSR), Somalia, Lebanon (for both Israel and the United States), and Iraq. The massive deployment of drones has the potential to nullify that strategy.
Consider, for example, how a war such as the Iraq War might play out if the United States were to be armed with substantial numbers of both land and air-based combat robots.
The first stages of such a conflict, for the time being, would likely be conducted by conventional forces. None of the drones that have been deployed (or seem likely to be deployed in the near future) can fully replicate all of the capabilities of high-end manned forces. Conventional air power would combine with sea-based missile attacks to destroy the enemy's air defenses and large-scale formations on the ground would either have to be destroyed by the sort of intense air attack that is best delivered by aircraft that can carry substantial ordinance combined with regular land forces. While it is certain that there will be losses during such a conflict, the people of most Western nations have long shown that they are willing to tolerate these. It's in what comes next that drones will bring a change.
Instead of risking Western soldiers on the ground during extended counter-insurgency operations, combat robots could be deployed in substantial numbers in order to suppress continued enemy activity. The only soldiers that would need to be risked, at least initially, would be those who would be called upon to maintain these robots near the front and these would be as well-defended as possible. Eventually, we could probably build a robotic support structure that might allow extended counter-insurgency operations to be conducted without actually placing a single friendly life at risk. Ground-based combat robots, such as those that DARPA is already developing, could be paired with swarms of combat drones to defeat almost any threat that would exist on the ground. When larger concentrations of enemy force developed, conventional aircraft could be called upon to deliver heavier strikes.
My gut feeling is that if we were to fight an extended counter-insurgency campaign using largely unmanned forces, domestic opposition would be reduced to the lunatic fringe. In general, Western populations in recent wars have been moved to oppose wars on account of friendly, not opposition casualties. And, in any case, I believe -- though this is an untested proposition -- that the mass deployment of robots is likely to be incredibly demoralizing to our enemies in the field. It is one thing to risk or lose a life for the sake of killing a hated foreign oppressor -- it is altogether another to send your sons to die in order to attempt to blow up something whose innards are difficult to distinguish from those of a toaster oven.
It's worth stopping to think about what a long-term mix of robotic forces might look like. Because drones have, to borrow a wonderful phrase from a video advertisement for the Avenger drone, "attrition tolerance", you can use them in ways that would be considered intolerable on account of risk for human forces. Imagine, a decade or two hence, a combat force that consisted of robotic soldiers supported by unmanned tanks, self-propelled artillery, and logistical support vehicles. That could be effectively combined, on the other side, with unmanned combat aerial vehicles that make the Predator drones of today look like cloth-covered biplanes. I see no reason why we should not have a mix of fast-moving drones, with capabilities comparable to Sixth-Generation fighters, that could engage enemy aircraft and air defenses, backed up by long-endurance missile-armed drones constantly orbiting, supported in turn by unmanned bomb trucks and gunships.
Eventually, as Robot General envisions, you could fight and win entire wars without losing a single friendly life. I believe that this is a good thing. I think that the opponents of combat drones fall into two camps: those who know and accept this and those who do not. The latter group oppose drones simply because they have a generalized aversion to killing that they can't quite articulate. That is to say, these same people who have specific objections to drone strikes would also have a problem with the extrajudicial execution of our enemies if we used a remotely-detonated explosive or a rifle to carry out the act. I understand that position, though I disagree with it. However, I would put it to you that these people have less a problem with drones than they do with the policy that drones are used to support. The second group, I would argue, see the potential for drones as a revolutionary weapon and are against them precisely because they understand how heavily they would weigh the odds against any low-technology group fighting a high-technology power and these are people who, whatever their ostensible loyalties, have been friendly towards the cause of every insurgent or terrorist group fighting the West in my own lifetime. I, for one, don't feel that the opinions of such people and groups are worthy of any consideration whatsoever.
I believe that, so far as drones are concerned, we ought to embrace them and their use wholly and enthusiastically. To be certain, there are good reasons for opposing specific instances of their usage -- for example, when capturing an individual and extracting information from them might be preferable to killing them outright -- but our overall policy ought to be one of full speed ahead.
Adam Yoshida is a Vancouver-based author. His latest book is Robot General.