Skip to content

On Robot Soldiers and the Recession

After more than twelve years in Afghanistan, with approximately 2,200 Americans killed and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, the proposed conclusion to what has ended up being America’s longest war has been met with resigned apathy from many Americans, and predictable vitriol from Congressional Republicans.

The triumvirate of senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Kelly Ayotte called Obama’s promised withdrawal of troops “irresponsible and a triumph of politics over strategy.” Channeling Bush’s counterintuitive reasoning for bloating troop presence in the first place, they went on to call the announcement of American departure “a short-sighted decision that will make it harder to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly.”

Exasperated with faux-disappointment and mock betrayal, the senators’ statement echoes the same language conservatives use to express their opposition to downsizing the military more generally. Retired colonel and Medal of Honor recipient (an award that not only honors bravery, but in conservative circles grants instant and unexamined legitimacy to the opinions of the medal holder) Jack Jacobs accused the White House of having a “Rumsfeld mentality” that underestimates the importance of manpower, of the effectiveness of sheer numbers of boots on ground.

Jacobs said that America “did take Baghdad easily, but could not control anything because there were not enough people.” According to Jacob’s logic, massive military occupations of Asian countries won’t be made any easier by the 8 percent overall cut in Marine manpower, the retiring of U.S.S. George Washington, and the shuttering of a handful of Air Force bases.

The shift of Defense Department focus from manpower to a technology has been a slow corrective that was originally set in motion after Vietnam and then seemed (but only seemed) validated by America’s swift victory in the first Persian Gulf War. The trend now continues unabated, despite the questionable ethics and effectiveness of replacing humans with war-fighting technology.

Meanwhile, maudlin conservative handwringing over military budget cuts is juxtaposed with the sunny marketing language defense corporations use to sell things to the government. Two of the latest advancements in military technology bridge the gap between gadgets and manpower, staying loyal to the traditional notion of what the military’s post World War II mission is while using fewer people to accomplish it.

The Black Hawk drone, for example, takes the iconic helicopter and refits it to perform autonomous refueling and maintenance missions. Chris Van Buiten, vice president of technology and innovation at Sikorsky, the makers of the Black Hawk, said in a statement:

Imagine a vehicle that can double the productivity of the Black Hawk in Iraq and Afghanistan by flying with, at times, a single pilot instead of two, decreasing the workload, decreasing the risk, and at times when the mission is really dull and really dangerous, go it all the way to fully unmanned.

The Black Hawk drone, which also goes by the blandly precise name Optionally Piloted Black Hawk (OPBH), is almost exactly like the latest DARPA effort, The Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS). ALIAS would basically allow for a skeleton crew on most flight missions. The pilot would become more of a “supervisor,” using a touchscreen to issue commands. Daniel Patt, DARPA program manager, has said of the latter:

Our goal is to design and develop a full-time automated assistant that could be rapidly adapted to help operate diverse aircraft through an easy-to-use operator interface. These capabilities could help transform the role of pilot from systems operator to a mission supervisor directing intermeshed, trusted, reliable systems at a high level.

If these quotes sound like marketing jargon, it’s because they are. Defense budgets are shrinking, but if more of those diminishing funds go to purchasing machines rather than paying for the salaries and health care of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, then it’s a win for defense companies. Replacing humans with technology in the name of efficiency is an old story (PDF). But this shift within the military-industrial complex is more than just analogous. It’s indicative of the dangerously close tie our military has to our markets, and it’s a predictable symptom of neoliberal policies in general.

The case has been made again and again about the dubious ethics of using drones on the battlefield, with some studies even indicating that they might not be effective in the strategic sense. As important as those things are, they aren’t the only reasons that we should take a critical stance towards taking more humans out of the mission. Cutting troop numbers might be dangerous for Americans, but not necessarily only by making us less safe from foreign attack or inflaming Anti-American sentiment. Another very real threat might be that tens of thousands fewer families have reliable access to housing, education, and a regular paycheck. Conservative pundits are right about this dangerous trend—but for the wrong reasons.

At least since the Second World War, military service has been a way for the working class to move up a socio-economic rung or two. The most obvious example of this is the original G.I. Bill. By 1956, over 6 million veterans had used the G.I. Bill to attend some sort of job training, with over 2 million attending college on the bill. The military still fills this economic void for a lot of Americans. For PR reasons, the Department of Defense may claim that today’s military enlistees are better educated and more middle-class than a cross section of average American youths (PDF). But conflicting evidence, such as an AP study showing that most soldiers who have been killed in Iraq were from poor, rural areas, seems to confirm the common-sense notion that Americans who enlist are usually the least privileged.

My argument here isn’t that we need to save the middle class by doubling or trebling recruitment numbers. Rather, that military enlistment is, sadly, one of the few paths out of poverty in America, and even this is disappearing. Of course, many Americans would love to see defense dollars go to WPA-style jobs programs, or even less radically, to retraining programs and continuing education. I’m one of those Americans. But these programs don’t exist right now; they’re just wishful thinking. Meanwhile, the military jobs being lost are very real.

The choice between economic stability for fewer Americans and a bloated, gargantuan military might seem like a false dichotomy, a choice that shouldn’t have to be made. And perhaps it shouldn’t. But that’s only a valid argument to make in an abstract policy debate. In an economy defined by a withering middle class, what will it mean to have one more economic opportunity stymied by budgetary concerns? If you’re one of those Americans who may need to rely on enlisting in the military for economic security, the dearth of opportunity isn’t an abstract debate—it’s your life.

As Western Washington University sociologist Jay Teachman told The Fiscal Times, “I don’t see a plan B for these people. They’re going to get left behind.”