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Our New War Machines

For an institution synonymous with tradition and continuity, the American military is in quite a radical state of flux. In just the six or so years since I left the Army, two major demographic shifts that might superficially appear unrelated (or even contradictory) have taken place within the Department of Defense. The first of these transformations involves opening up the ranks of service to previously excluded or marginalized populations: bringing women soldiers into all combat roles, allowing gay and lesbian personnel to serve openly, repealing the ban on trans people in the military.

The other major change, known in the defense industry and milblog enclaves as the Third Offset Strategy, involves taking the human element out of combat entirely. Third Offset focuses on using robots to automate warfare and reduce human (or at least American human) exposure to combat. So at the same moment that more people than ever are able to openly serve in the United States military and find the level of service best suited to their talent and abilities, fewer people are actually necessary for waging war. 

The “offset” terminology itself signals the projected scale this transformation. In Pentagon-ese, an offset denotes a strategy aimed at making irrelevant a strategic advantage held by enemy forces. The first modern offset was the exploitation of American’s nuclear arsenal in the 1950s to compensate for the Warsaw pact participants’ considerable manpower advantage. The second offset was likewise geared toward outsmarting the Soviet war machine once it had gained roughly equivalent nuclear capabilities; it involved things like stealth technology, precision-guided munitions, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) platforms. But forty years on, our “near-peer” competitors, as the defense world refers to China and Russia, have developed their own versions of our second offset technologies. And so something new is needed; hence the Pentagon’s new infatuation with roboticized warfare.

The Pentagon isn’t adopting a Whitmanesque embrace of American diversity; Americans aren’t taking their military back.

But don’t get the wrong impression—the intersecting trends of automated combat and more inclusive terms of military service aren’t likely to translate into a more responsive, civically engaged military. The Pentagon isn’t adopting a Whitmanesque embrace of American diversity; Americans aren’t taking their military back. The veneer of democratic participation is just that, and the superficially heartwarming HR call for broader recruitment doesn’t mean that the military is becoming a glorified Benetton ad or a modern Lincoln Brigade.

If anything, the specter of automated combat likely betokens less democratic oversight of the American military, not more. The reason is simple, and stark: Theoretically, the only way people are able to exert control over their military is if they freely choose to die in its service. But if the Pentagon’s vision of fully automated combat comes true, it would mean that even fewer Americans would be risking their lives, and the denial of that ultimate bargaining chip means that citizens will likely have even less control over the American military than they already do.

Robert Work is the Deputy Secretary of Defense and point man for the Third Offset Strategy. Speaking at the Reagan Defense Forum in Simi Valley California last November, Work said, “I’m telling you right now, ten years from now if the first person through the breach isn’t a frickin’ robot, shame on us.” The “us” he was referring to were the gathered attendees, representatives of the defense industry, fan-boy milbloggers and Silicon Valley court poets. The small but powerful coterie of defense “thought leaders” his words were meant for were most likely already on board with the program. He wasn’t there to convince anyone of anything. He was there to go over the script they would all be working from if they wanted to stay on the defense economy’s gravy train.

As Work and other theorists have laid things out, the Third Offset Strategy is a bit more complicated than its predecessors. A good deal of this strategic reboot involves improving or implementing systems that already exist (3D printing, Big Data) or addressing the perennial post-World War II Pentagon lament of underfunding (refurbishing old materials for reuse). Still, at the heart of the strategy are robots—or, more precisely, human-robot pairings.

The implications of this approach have already been tested out in the chess world, where the pairing is cleverly known as a “centaur”—i.e., a bi-species mash-up. As Work explained at the 2015 Reagan Defense Forum, “In 1997 Garry Kasparov was beaten by a computer, Deep Blue. Everybody thought that was a big deal. Well, what was a bigger deal was in 2005. Two amateur chess players using three PC’s, personal computers, won a chess tournament, $20,000, against a field of supercomputers and grandmasters.” 

Work isn’t proposing any deep ruminations on the moral implications of completely autonomous weapons systems capable of “deciding” to kill all self-designated targets on their own. His arguments don’t address what it might mean ethically for a robot to actually pull the trigger and take a human life. Instead, the details of the Third Offset Strategy have been hashed out via the instrumental logic of the Pentagon’s cult of faux-practicality. American war strategists are simply pairing humans and robots together because, at this moment in time, that’s more combat-effective than unassisted artificial intelligence. But the key phrase here is “this moment in time”: Present thinking on the Third Offset Strategy leaves the door conspicuously open for using truly autonomous weapons systems as soon as they become more effective.

Centaur pairings are more combat- (and cost-) effective because they require fewer humans than traditional combat. As Dan Goure explained in National Interest, “Like the other offset strategies, this one has a somewhat hidden agenda: to obfuscate the fact that the U.S. is not spending enough on defense and that the Obama Administration is continuing with its plan to shrink the size of the armed forces in order to free up money for readiness and modernization. The hope is that the Third Offset Strategy will do for the military what is already being done for parking garages, fast food restaurants, and retail stores: reduce the need for human beings.” It’s the same concern that’s been part of every offset strategy since the early days of the Cold War: How do we replace manpower with technology?

The military has been pretty successful at replacing human Americans with machines. A smaller proportion of Americans are fighting in America’s current forever wars than have fought in wars in the past. During World War II more than 12 percent of the adult population served in the armed forces. Today, that number is less than 1 percent. While technology might only account for a portion of that decline, the trend itself is very real. It’s difficult to imagine a “war” in which there are zero chances of American casualties, or “combat” in which one side is composed entirely of autonomous weapons. But despite the current focus on centaur systems, human-free warfare is the goal that the DoD has already begun moving toward. In 2012, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter signed directive 3000.09, establishing “design, development, acquisition, testing, fielding, and . . . application of lethal or non-lethal, kinetic, or non-kinetic, force by autonomous or semi-autonomous weapon systems.” That same year, a Naval lab was opened to research autonomous weapons.

So what would it actually mean for citizens to be permanently freed of the prospect of having to fight and die in service of their country—to lack any meaningful skin in the game as the defense establishment continues to prosecute its lower-intensity forever wars across the world? Political thinkers going back at least to Kant have agreed that democratic control of the military is predicated upon citizens actually serving and laying their lives on the line in defense of their country. In his pamphlet Perpetual Peace, Kant argued, contra typical Enlightenment thinking, that peace may not be a prerequisite of “rightful civil constitution”; instead, he maintained that it was a consequence of that social contract.

In other words, give the people the power over war and peace, and they’ll probably chose peace. As Daniel Moran writes in The People in Arms, “Because they were founded upon universal values and the consent of the governed, [democratic republics] could respond directly to mankind’s natural preference for peace and prosperity over war and penury.” Kant speculated that lasting peace requires “citizens, whose periodic and voluntary military efforts will win security from aggression for themselves and their country. Mercenaries, “mere machines,” simply don’t have a vested interest in peace.

There’s a reciprocal relationship between citizens risking their lives in combat and exerting control over the military. Theorist Grégoire Chamayou points out in his masterly 2015 study Drone Theory that Kant’s text was rediscovered by military thinkers of the 1990s, partially in response to Vietnam Syndrome (i.e., the sickness that evidently befalls a populace when it realizes the futility of fighting meaningless wars). What are the elites to do when the people of a country discover, as Chamayou writes, “because [war] can destroy us . . . we must have some power over it”?

If people don’t die in wars fought in their name, then they don’t tend to care all that much about them.

Of course, Kant couldn’t have foreseen the use of technology as way to get around democratic control of the military exercised by citizen-soldiers. In Perpetual Peace, Kant compares the sovereign’s insulation from the actual horrors of war to his decision to convene a hunting party—something done virtually on a whim, “without any significant reason, as a kind of amusement.” The automation of war effectively puts citizens in the same position as Kant’s sovereign, capriciously deciding when and where to fight. J.A. Hobson, the notorious explainer of British imperialism, put it another way, “Though reducing the strain of militarism upon the population at home,” the insulation of citizens from combat duty “enhances the risks of wars, which become more frequent and more barbarous in proportion as they involve to a less degree the lives of Englishmen.” That somewhat obvious logic is borne out in the lack of any puissant popular movement that could potential end America’s Long Wars. Without bearing the burden of American militarism, there isn’t a compelling motivation for such a movement to even form.

If people don’t die in wars fought in their name, then they don’t tend to care all that much about them. For a case in point, compare the banal platitudes offered up by politicians this election cycle with the concerns and focus of the defense world. The two sets of stated objectives may as well be transmissions from far distant planets—one inhabited by clueless sloganeers, and the other serviced by a shadow army of drones. The divide between the public and actual American military operations in the world is stark—and the continued automation of combat isn’t going to lessen the divide. But at least the Pentagon will be able to hire trans people to operate American drones.