In a turn of phrase that seems designed to provoke headlines, the US Department of Defense this week said one of its primary goals is to “take the ‘man’ out of unmanned” combat. This quote and much more comes from the latest in the Department’s ongoing series of Roadmap to the Future reports, which seek to lay out both the current realities and future plans of the US military and defense industry. This time, the topic was ripped straight from the headlines: remote combat systems.
While the American military has for a long time remained static in terms of overall manpower, one type of recruit it just can’t seem to get enough of is drone pilots. It’s not just the US, either; in the UK, they’re so desperate to meet their need for highly skilled cyber-warriors that they recently threw out the physical fitness requirements for those positions. However, as much potential as there is for an unmanned future, the most recent update (PDF) on unmanned systems policy shows that it’s autonomy that really interests the DoD.
And why not? After all, while drone pilots are far less likely to require long-term medical care than a soldier in the field, paying and feeding troops (not to mention taking care of their pensions) is still one of the most expensive aspects of running a military. Additionally, the precision of computerized war brings the frailty of the human element into sharp relief; Britain recently threw up its hands in frustration when it lost 12 of the 26 British drones deployed in Afghanistan, many due to pilot error.
Additionally, exposés like the the Collateral Murder video that brought Wikileaks to prominence have stirred up significant criticism for the program. A computer might not shoot at the wrong time, and if it does it will not need therapy afterward. From a purely utilitarian perspective, why not cut the pilots out altogether, if we can? To this question, the US Department of Defense has no answer.
This report looks up to 25 years into the future, beginning by pointing out that the only true autonomy in the US military today is designed to take over during an emergency like a lost connection to control. At most, an autopilot executes a very limited set of instructions under close supervision — say, to fly in a circle over a particular stretch of Pakistani desert and report any movement. Real autonomy, says DoD, would involve recording, playback, projection, and parsing of data, followed by delivery of “actionable” intelligence to the appropriate overseer. For an autonomous combat robot, direct mention of which is mostly avoided in this document, the requirements would be even stricter.
One of the only mentions of kill-bots is a reference to the DoD’s official kill-bot policy, DoD Directive 3000.09 (pdf). This lays out only a few concrete rules beyond basically requiring them to be rigorously tested, though it does make sure to point out that robots should not start indiscriminately killing civilians upon losing a connection to command. Interestingly, all legal language is phrased in relation to a hypothetical human overseer; it’s the humans who launch the robots that are bound by the treaties and the generally agreed upon rules of war, not the robots themselves. This is essentially a “guns don’t kill people” sort of idea, but if a gun is incapable of taking responsibility for an action then perhaps the gun should be restricted from taking that action at all.
In the end, this comes down to budget constraints. Under the original rules of sequestration DoD faced up to $ 500 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, and even with new reforms it could face cuts of as much as $ 50 billion in 2014 alone. Still, it’s not sequestration that seems to be driving this push for autonomy, but a more general implication that manpower is a the bottleneck in, at this point, too many efficiency reports. This report readily admits that a set of algorithms with human-level versatility is but a pipe dream today, but takes it as a foregone conclusion that there is no way to both increase global dominance and decrease spending without significant cuts to (and replacement of) manpower.
“One of the largest cost drivers in the budget of DoD,” it says, “is manpower… Therefore, of utmost importance for DoD is increased system, sensor, and analytical automation…” Though automated drones will certainly cut away at the need for regular soldiers in the numbers seen today, the primary short-term target of these austerity measures is the drone programs themselves. If unmanned systems are about to become the order of the day, then DoD wants to shrink the teams necessary to direct them — preferably to as near zero as possible.
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