We have seen the future, and it sucks.

Military Robots and the Laws of War

29th June 2009

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In one case, a group of Iraqi soldiers saw a Pioneer flying overhead and, rather than wait to be blown up, waved white bed sheets and undershirts at the drone—the first time in history that human soldiers surrendered to an unmanned system.

In technology circles, new products that change the rules of the game, such as what the iPod did to portable music players, are called “killer applications.” Foster-Miller’s new product gives this phrase a literal meaning. The Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System (SWORDS) is the first armed robot designed to roam the battlefield. SWORDS is basically the Talon’s tougher big brother, with its gripping arm replaced by a gun mount that can carry pretty much any weapon that weighs under three hundred pounds, ranging from an M-16 rifle and .50-caliber machine gun to a 40mm grenade launcher or an antitank rocket launcher. In less than a minute, the human soldier flips two levers and locks his favorite weapon into the mount. The SWORDS can’t reload itself, but it can carry two hundred rounds of ammunition for the light machine guns, three hundred rounds for the heavy machine guns, six grenades, or four rockets.

The small UAVs, like the Raven or the even smaller Wasp, fly just above the rooftops, sending back video images of what’s on the other side of the street; Shadow and Hunter circle over entire neighborhoods; the larger Predators roam above entire cities, combining reconnaissance with the ability to shoot; and too high to see, the Global Hawk zooms across an entire country, capturing reams of detailed imagery for intelligence teams to sift through. Added together, by 2008, there were 5,331 drones in the U.S. military’s inventory, almost double the number of manned fighter planes. That same year, an Air Force lieutenant general forecast that “given the growth trends, it is not unreasonable to postulate future conflicts involving tens of thousands.”

In some ways, this seems reasonable. Many wartime atrocities are not the result of deliberate policy, wanton cruelty, or fits of anger; they’re just mistakes. They are equivalent to the crime of manslaughter, as compared to murder, in civilian law. Unmanned systems seem to offer several ways of reducing the mistakes and unintended costs of war. They have far better sensors and processing power, which creates a precision superior to what humans could marshal on their own. Such exactness can lessen the number of mistakes made, as well as the number of civilians inadvertently killed.

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