No Comment, Six Questions — January 27, 2009, 3:54 pm

Prepare for the Robot Wars: Six questions for P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War

P. W. Singer of the Brookings Institution labors at the intersection of the military, defense contractors, and the world of high tech. In his latest work, Wired for War, Singer confesses his passion for science fiction as he introduces us to a glimpse of things to come–the new technologies that will shape wars of the future. His new book addresses some ominous and little-discussed questions about the military, technology, and machinery. (Subscribers may also be interested to read “The Coming Robot Army,” by Steve Featherstone from the February 2007 issue.)

1. The received wisdom is that developments in military technology allow the fortunate nations that control them to fight more effectively and with reduced risk to their own career military. Is that putting too rosy a perspective on things?


These systems are being bought in such great numbers (5,300 in the air already, another 12,000 on the ground) not only because they save lives, but also because they offer an amazing array of military capabilities. But we also have to remember that there is no permanent “first mover” advantage in either technology or war. The Turks and Chinese discovered this with gunpowder, the French with tanks, and, in turn, I doubt you still use your Wang computer. Forty-three other nations have military robots programs, including states like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China. But, importantly, robotic warfare will also be “open source” warfare. The systems are also available to non-state actors, made all the easier by the fact that so much of the technology is off-the-shelf or do-it-yourself. For a thousand dollars, you can now build a drone that has essentially the same capabilities as the Raven drones our soldiers used in Iraq just a few years ago. The book features a group of college students who raised money to do something about the genocide in Darfur, upon which a private military company offered to rent them an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) of their own.

A particular area of concern is the use of such systems by terrorists. During its conflict with Israel, Hezbollah operated at least four drones of their own. A militant website already has offered as a prize the chance to remote detonate an IED in Iraq via your home computer, while one of our bomb-squad robots in Iraq was even captured and then turned back into a mobile IED. So we may also see new sparks of terrorism. One of the people I interviewed was Richard Clarke, the government official who warned about 9/11, but was unfortunately not heeded. He talked about how our new technologies raise such fundamental questions in ethics and law that we’ll see the rise of “neo Ludditism”–people who will resort to violence to stop it. The next wave of terrorism may therefore be a mix of Al Qaeda 2.0 and the Unabomber.

2. Historically, the United States has taken enormous care clearly to define command authority over weapons systems—the introduction of nuclear weapons in the closing days of World War II, for instance, led to extended deliberation over exactly how the principle of civilian control would be maintained, resulting in very complex protocols. However, nothing comparable seems to be happening with the latest generation of weapons—particularly robots and drones. If anything the trend is to make things even murkier as contractors without training regarding the law that governs the use of force direct and discharge these weapons from remote locations. What needs to be done to change this?

In all my various interviews, this issue of control, particularly over increasingly autonomous systems is the equivalent of Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, the issue That-Must-Not-Be-Discussed. What happens to the human role in war as we arm ever more intelligent, more capable, and more autonomous robots? When this issue comes up, both specialists and military folks tend to either change the subject or speak in absolutes, saying things like “people will always want humans in the loop,” as one government official put it. But the reality is that I came across gobs of programs focused on taking humans out of the loop. And we ignore how we have continually redefined what it means to be in the loop. On many of our most sophisticated systems right now, the human power is mere veto power. But even then it is one that we are afraid to use against the perceived better judgment of the computer. This also connects to the increasing civilian role in warfighting, even with these systems. Just as we have more private contractors in warzones, taking on more roles, we are seeing more of these “Soldiers of Fortran” on the digital side.

3. Your book is filled with references to science-fiction writers, many of whom you credit with anticipating not only significant technological innovations, but also the ethical issues that come with them. Is there any writer you would name in particular who foresaw the coming robotic age of warfare and provides some useful guidance?

I love the writings of the cyberpunks, who don’t dream of alien worlds, but instead explore what happens when technology is put in our very own strange world now. “Battlestar Gallactica” today is another example of great work. Their season on insurgency was a better exploration of the issue than about 99% of what came out of all our thinktanks and defense journals on the issue. I don’t know if anyone predicted robotic warfare and where we are exactly headed so well, but its somewhat beside the point of what science fiction can offer. I’ve always been partial to H.G. Wells, who is known as the “Father of Science Fiction.” Wells was born in 1866, but in his various stories he forecast the 20th century with incredible accuracy, predicting such things as computers, video cassette players, televisions, and even super highways, each of which seemed unfathomable at the time. His book often had a theme of conflict running through them and so he also predicted various military developments well before their time. For example, he wrote about tanks, or what he called “Land Ironclads,” in 1903, which inspired Winston Churchill to champion their development a decade later. Similarly, his 1933 book The Shape of Things to Come, predicted a world war that would feature the aerial bombing of cities. Wells was not a fan of such technologies, as he saw them as “unsporting.”

Perhaps Wells’s most important prediction was in his story, “The World Set Free,” written in 1911. In it, he forecast a new type of weapon made of radioactive materials which could destroy cities, which he called “the atomic bomb.” At the time, physicists thought radioactive elements like uranium only released energy in a slow decay over thousands of years. Wells described a way in which the energy might be bundled up to make a powerful explosion. Of course, at the time, most scoffed; the famed scientist Ernest Rutherford even called Wells’s idea “moonshine.” One reader who differed was Leó Szilárd, a Hungarian scientist. Szilárd, who later became a key part of the Manhattan Project, credits the book with giving him the idea for the nuclear “chain reaction.” Indeed, he even mailed a copy of Wells’ book to Hugo Hirst, one of the founders of General Electric, with a cover note that read, “The forecast of the writers may prove to be more accurate than the forecast of the scientists.”

The book’s influence extends, and illustrates the way science fiction can guide in multiple directions. Wells’s story ends with his fictional scientists trying to organize an effort against war and the use of what were then fictional atomic bombs. After Hiroshima, the idea inspired Szilárd, Einstein, and the others to organize modern day arms control efforts such as the Pugwash movement. Wells’s book, in turn, is now the inspiration for the “refuseniks” today, scientists who are trying to organize to keep the robotics trend from following what happened with atomic research.

4. America was founded as a republic with an army of citizen warriors shaped by a special ethos that reflected respect for the dignity of those who fight, including the enemy. That aspect of our warrior culture has been greatly undermined by changes that President Bush introduced. But you suggest that the technological changes will also erode that ethos. Why? And what do you think should be done about that?

There are all sorts of ripple effects that we are just starting to be aware of, and again, these are already happening with the first generation of these systems, the Model T Fords compared to what is coming. For instance you have the rise of a new type of warrior, who I call “cubicle warriors” These are combatants who have the novel experience of juggling the psychological disconnect of being “at war” while still dealing with the pressures of still being “at home.” In the words of one Predator pilot, “You are going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants and then you get in the car, drive home and within 20 minutes you are sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework.”

This, of course, has taken the already preexisting tensions that soldiers in the field have towards those behind the lines and put them on steroids. It also has some worried that it might make the experience of war too distant, make us lose respect for the foe who share the bond of risk, and even make the contemplation of war crimes too easy. More than a century ago, General Robert E. Lee famously observed, “It is good that we find war so horrible, or else we would become fond of it.” He didn’t contemplate a time when war became a daily grind of commuting to work each morning in your Toyota Camry, shooting missiles at an enemy 7,500 miles away and then hoping you are going make it home in time for Friends. Being able to move more Americans out of harm’s way may effect our very decisions on when and where to use force. Many I met with worry that more robots will make us more cavalier, a return to the “cruise missile diplomacy” of the 1990s, but on a whole new level. “We’ll have more Kosovos and fewer Iraqs” is what one former Pentagon official predicted.

5. In the Iraq War, the Rumsfeld Defense Department placed historically unprecedented reliance on military contractors, particularly including security contractors, to accomplish its missions while maintaining a surprisingly small uniformed military force. This seems to reflect a reconfiguration of defense capabilities in which contractors play a sustained role, occupying steadily more roles that were seen as a part of the uniformed military’s core. Contractors also seem to maintain a tenacious control over some of the new technologies. Are they locking their position in at the heart of the defense establishment?

I do worry that we seem to be entering an interesting bind. We have become more and more reliant on contractors to carry out almost every type of traditional governmental endeavor. Yet, we still haven’t figured out how to maximize the marketplace as a client or regulator or how to avoid a wide variety of blowback effects in the execution of these operations. You’ll recall that we discussed that back in September 2007. One concern I have is what happens with this new technology revolution and how it interfaces with our defense industrial complex. We have an American system right now that drives all our defense purchases towards exceptionally large, usually overpriced, weapons that take not years but often decades to develop, and are filled with hardware and increasingly software that is actually built elsewhere. What we have to wonder is whether that model will turn out to be the best for staying ahead in the robotics revolution?

6. There is remarkably little discussion in your book of Congress. The issues you raise seem momentous, and prior waves of technological development garnered close scrutiny from congressional committees, which closely monitored contract relationships and insured that principles of command and control were properly addressed. Is it fair to say that Congress has gone AWOL?

What is this “Congress” thing you are referring to? I think I remember reading in some musty old document about an institution that was supposed to such things as “declare war,” “promote the progress of science and useful arts,” and “regulate commerce,” right? I wonder what ever happened to it…


In all seriousness, one of the greatest disappointments of my brief time in D.C. was sitting in on the Blackwater hearings. To recall the context, this was just days after the Nissor Square shootings, which had left at least fourteen dead and severely damaged the U.S. war effort in Iraq. It was highly educational, just not in the way the Founding Fathers intended. The best encapsulation of the entire hearings on this important matter of national security was that offered by Rep. Darrell Issa. He led his remarks by saying, “Hopefully, we will get to serious discussion.” Then he proceeded to talk about everything from diabetes drugs to—as opposed to the actual issues at hand in national security.

Let me be clear: I don’t expect Congress to start holding hearings on protecting Wall-E’s right to work or anything like that (though, I do document in the book a presentation that took place a few years ago on Capital Hill about the potential of a robot revolt). But I hope that the book helps better inform members and staffers about the various real world issues surrounding the robotics revolution that are just now starting to break. Perhaps it might open a window into a historic moment, so that people aren’t afraid to talk seriously about issues that are too often steered into the realm of mere science fiction. We made that mistake with atomic weapons, and hope we don’t do the same here.

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Combustion Engines

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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