Sunday, 24 February 2013

Robot Wars

An editorial in today's Observer claims: "Conflicts are defined, in large part, by how they are fought and their technologies. The First World War we associate with gas and tanks and the earliest use of airpower; the Second World War with strategic bombing and the first use of nuclear weapons". The listed WW1 weapons were emergent technologies that had minimal impact on the war itself. Many soldiers will have survived the trenches without witnessing any of them. The key technology was the railway, which allowed the concentration of massive amounts of men and material (AJP Taylor famously argued that the outbreak of the war was the result of rigid mobilisation schemes dependent on railway timetables). The lack of a knockout blow on the Western Front was due to an even balance of this technology.

Strategic bombing in WW2 was an oxymoron. It was ground battles that defeated the Axis powers, not thousand bomber raids. The point about the Blitz was not that Britain was unique in its ability to "take it", but that it proved any society could weather mass bombing. Its value was tactical at best (the other new weapon lauded in the 30s, parachutists, turned out to be a damp squib). While the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki curtailed the war, the Japanese military had already been beaten and a surrender was simply a matter of time. Wars are usually won by mature technologies, which in the case of WW2 meant tanks and motorised artillery on land and heavy warships and aircraft carriers at sea. The former enabled the early German victories in Europe and then led to the Soviet defeat of Germany once the production lines beyond the Urals outbuilt the Nazi war machine. After Midway, the war in the Pacific was a slow grind in which the US Navy brought massive firepower to bear on one island after another.

It's worth remembering this when the topic of new technologies in warfare is raised. For example, drones (or UAVs - unmanned aerial vehicles) are not new. The Nazi V-1 (the Doodlebug) was an early example and the US Air Force first used UAVs in combat during the Vietnam War. The more recent developments, in terms of the variety of vehicle and capability, reflect technological maturity in the areas of miniaturisation, telemetry and datacoms. Despite this mundane reality, popular discussion on weaponry tends towards the "killer robot" trope. This is unfortunate as it distracts from the real change in the prosecution of war, which is ironically better understood as a return to 19th century practices rather than the coming of cyborg armies.

One of the features of modern warfare is that it isn't always clear when you are at war as opposed to peace. How will we known when the "war on terror" has concluded? In the past, the transition from one state to another would be marked by high ceremony. WW1 is remembered in terms of a shot in Sarajevo, followed by various telegrams making formal demands, and by the abrupt end at the 11th hour of the 11th day of November 1918. WW2 started to blur the boundaries, with the start coming somewhere between 1936 and 1939, depending on which national history you read, and the end marked by two separate victory days in 1945. The post and neo-colonial conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century shifted uneasily between "policing" operations (Malaya, Cyprus) and outright war (Indo-China, Falklands). The breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s saw a series of rolling conflicts and the normalisation of the idea of great power intervention on a periodic and selective basis. The two Gulf Wars against Iraq were essentially a single, discontinuous operation to restrain and ultimately overthrow the Saddam regime, with the "war on terror" providing a bogus pretext for the second intervention. The long-running policing operation in Afghanistan is just a mess.

This pattern of asymmetric conflict, open-ended intervention and selectivity is a return to the small-scale wars of the 19th century. The UAV is the modern equivalent of the gun-boat - a relatively mature technology that supports remote coercion and discipline. The Royal Navy enabled Britain to project power globally, to protect trade and impose advantageous commercial terms, and to avoid the need for an expensive land army. All this fell apart in the 20th century as the technical edge of the Navy was eroded, costs spiralled due to the arms race (from Dreadnoughts to nuclear submarines), two world wars necessitated huge land army expenditure, and independence ended the commercial benefits of the Empire. The US now faces the same challenges: conventional weaponry is ineffective against asymmetric attacks such as 9/11, the costs of the military have ballooned the fiscal deficit, and globalisation has led to a trade deficit. UAVs offer the US (and the UK) both a potentially cheaper arsenal and a more flexible means of intervening abroad.

The danger of such a discriminating approach to war is that the threshold for intervention gradually drops. Air-strikes are envisaged where "boots on the ground" are not. This doesn't make ground intervention less likely, it simply makes air-strikes more likely. Military operations become wars of choice not necessity, and after a while they become routine. The chief argument against ground troops is not that they are expensive per se (a trained human will be cheaper than an effective cyborg for a long time to come), but that they are rarely used. The cost of a standing army is mostly wasted on standing, so there is always a desire to get "value for money", to "use it or lose it". Our chief protection against this mentality is prohibitive expense. Ironically, spending money on a Trident replacement is likely to limit the enthusiasm of future British government's for foreign adventures.

A couple of weeks ago, Gary Younge accused Barack Obama of lacking moral authority and ethical consistency for supporting tougher domestic gun laws while approving drone-strikes. There is no inconsistency here. Both proceed from a belief in the benefit of the state's monopoly of violence. History is on Obama's side. Where the state does not monopolise violence, the people tend to be more vulnerable to assault and death. This is not just the Hobbesian war of all against all in a society lacking an effective state (which lives on in popular culture through the zombie trope), but the acceptance of low-level and persistent conflict as a proper feature of society, from the defence of the nation's honour to the defence of family honour. Drones and gun control are quite consistent.

The popular fear associated with the state's monopoly of violence is that the state will use this to repress the people (the black helicopter trope). In fact, what matters is not the state's monopolisation of violence but the monopolisation of the state itself (compare Churchill and Hitler). The practice of democracy is a better guarantee of liberty than the individual's right to bear arms. This legitimate fear of a coup d'etat is present in the debates around robot weapons, where the suspicion is that the computers will eventually tire of us puny humans and take control, a la Skynet. This is a projection of our fears onto an external enemy (our robot overlords) and into the metaphysical (the singularity). In reality, the abuse of the state's monopoly of violence is far more likely to originate with commercial interests, as Eisenhower recognised in his warnings about the military-industrial complex. Despite red herrings about the Red Army, it's pretty obvious that the Chinese tolerance of hacking is more about industrial espionage than cyber-warfare.

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