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Thoughts on CNAS “Preparing for War in the Robotic Age”

Friday, January 24th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

My reading at CNAS, which had once been frequent, declined with the waning of the Abu Muqawama blog. While formerly I usually scanned through CNAS reports on a regular basis after reading what Exum and his commenters had to say, toward the end I only visited when Adam and Dan had new posts up.

At the gentle nudging of Frank Hoffman, I decided to read the latest CNAS product;  I’m pleased to say with the release of ” 20YY:Preparing for War in the Robotic Age by Robert Work ( CNAS CEO and former Undersecretary of the Navy) and Shawn Brimley (CNAS Executive V.P. and former NSC Strategic Planning Director) CNAS has rolled out an intellectually provocative analysis on an important emerging aspect of modern warfare.

Work and Brimley have done a number of things well and did them concisely (only 36 pages) in “20YY”:

  • A readable summary of the technological evolution of modern warfare in the past half century while distinguishing between military revolutions,  military-technical revolution and the the 80′s-90′s  American “revolution in military affairs“.
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  • A more specific drill-down on the history of guided munitions and their game-changing importance on the relationship between offense and defense that flourished after the Gulf War. 
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  • An argument that the proliferation of technology and information power into the hands unfriendly states and non-state actors is altering the strategic environment for the United States, writing:
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  • “Meanwhile in the 13 years since the last 20XX game, foreign nation-state C41, surveillance and reconaissance systems, and guided munitions-battle network capabilities have become increasingly capable.  Indeed, these systems now form the very robust and advanced “anti-access and area denial”  (A2/AD) capabilities envisioned in the 20XX game series. The effect has been that the dominance enjoyed by the United States in the late 1990′s/2000′s in the area of high end sensors, guided weaponry, space and cyberspace systems and stealth technology has started to erode. Moreover the erosion is now occurring at an accelerated rate.”
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  • Positing the near-future global proliferation of unmanned, autonomous, networked and swarmed robotic systems replacing( and leveraged by diminishing numbers of) expensive manpower and piloted platforms on the battlefield and altering the age-old relationship between a nation’s population base and the traditional calculation of its potential military power.
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  • An argument that “warfare in the robotic age” will mean substantial to fundamental shifts in strategic calculation of deterrence, coercion, the use of force, operational doctrines and the evolution of military technology and that the United States must prepare for this eventuality.

This report is well worth reading.  In my view there are some areas that require further exploration and debate than can be found in “20YY”. For example:

  • While the power of economics as a driver of unmanned, autonomous weapons is present, the implications are vastly understated. Every nation will face strategic investment choices between opting for simple and cheaper robotic platforms in mass and “pricing out” potential rivals by opting for “class” – fewer but more powerful, sophisticated and versatile robotic systems.
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  • The scale of robot swarms are limited primarily by computing power and cost of manufactureand could be composed of robots from the size of a fly to that of a zeppelin. As John Robb has noted, this could mean billions of drones.
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  • The US defense acquisition system and the armed services are ill-suited for fast and inexpensive introduction of robotic warfare technology – particularly if they threaten to displace profitable legacy platforms – as was demonstrated by the CIA rather than the USAF taking the lead on building a drone fleet.  Once foreign states reach parity, they may soon exceed us technologically in this area. A future presidential candidate may someday warn of  a growing ” robot gap” with China.
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  • Reliance on robotic systems as the center of gravity of your military power carries a terrific risk if effective countermeasures suddenly render them useless at the worst possible time (“Our…our drone swarm….they’ve turned around…they are attacking our own troops….Aaaaahhhh!”)
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  • The use of robotic systems to indiscriminately and autonomously kill is virtually inevitable much like terrorism is inevitable. As with WMD, the weaker the enemy, the less moral scruple they are likely to have in employing lethal robotic technology.
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  • For that matter, the use of robotic systems by an authoritarian state against its own citizens to suppress insurgency, peaceful protest or engage in genocide against minority groups is also highly probable. Is there much doubt how the Kim Family regime in north Korea or Assad in Syria would make use of an army of “killer robots” if they feel their hold on power was threatened?
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  • International Law is not currently configured for genuinely autonomous weapons with Ai operating systems. Most of the theorists and certainly the activists on the subject of  ”killer robots” are more interested in waging lawfare exclusively against American possession and use of such weapons than in stopping their proliferation to authoritarian regimes or contracting realistic covenants as to their use.

All in all “20YY:Preparing for War in the Robotic Age provides much food for thought.

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Foust on “False Fears of Autonomous Weapons”

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Hat tip for a strong recommendation from Adam Elkus:

Josh Foust has a very sensible piece up about the seemingly endless furor about “killer drones” (we never called our warplanes “Killer F-16′s” or guided weapons “killer cruise missiles”).

The false fear of autonomous weapons 

….Many of the processes that go into making lethal decisions are already automated. The intelligence community (IC) generates around 50,000 pages of analysis each year, culled from hundreds of thousands of messages. Every day analysts reviewing targeting intelligence populate lists for the military and CIA via hundreds of pages of documents selected by computer filters and automated databases that discriminate for certain keywords.

In war zones, too, many decisions to kill are at least partly automated. Software programs such as Panatir collect massive amounts of information about IEDs, analyze without human input, and spit out lists of likely targets. No human could possibly read, understand, analyze, and output so much information in such a short period of time.

Automated systems already decide to fire at targets without human input, as well. The U.S. Army fields advanced counter-mortar systems that track incoming mortar rounds, swat them out of the sky, and fire a return volley of mortars in response without any direct human input. In fact, the U.S. has employed similar (though less advanced) automated defensive systems for decades aboard its navy vessels. Additionally, heat-seeking missiles don’t require human input once they’re fired – on their own, they seek out and destroy the nearest intense heat source regardless of identity.

It’s hard to see how, in that context, a drone (or rather the computer system operating the drone) that automatically selects a target for possible strike is morally or legally any different than weapons the U.S. already employs.

Yep.

Most of the anti-drone arguments are a third hand form of opposition to US foreign policy or Counterterrorism policy for a variety of reasons, sometimes tactical and strategic, but mostly just political. Saying you are against inhuman drone strikes sounds a hell of a lot better than honestly saying that you would be against any kind of effective use of military force by the US against al Qaida and the Taliban in any and all circumstances. I can’t imagine Human Rights Watch would be happier if the US were using F-16′s and B-52′s instead.

Or commandos with small arms for that matter.

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Book Review: Kill Decision

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez 

Shlok Vaidya did an early review of Kill Decision here previously. I finally have caught up to Shlok and I’m ready to add my two cents without giving away any spoilers:

First, I enjoyed the book. Kill Decision is a tense, fast-moving,  page-turner. As I tend to read books at night before bed, Kill Decision kept me up later than I should have been and I was reluctant to put it down. I fully agree with Shloky that this book is a movie waiting to happen.

Secondly, the plot is all too plausible. While there is some of the normal deus ex machina in action-thriller novels of this kind, readers who are knowledgeable about the defense and intel worlds will have the uncomfortable feeling that while the first lethal autonomous drones would not operate on exactly the clever and disturbing premises outlined by Suarez , they will be within shouting distance. And with all the same dangerous societal implications.

Third, like William Gibson, Daniel Suarez excels as a conceptual novelist – the writer as futurist ( a near-term futurist in the latter case) with his labor of love going into theme, setting and plot. Suarez creates dynamic hooks for his books. Unlike Gibson, character development is still a weakness for Suarez. Of all the characters in Kill Decision, only Odin, the SOF covert operative, projects real depth and motivational development; he is the Sun around which the other, mostly one-dimensional characters, orbit – including the book’s nominal protagonist. The good news is that you’ll be so wrapped up in the flow of the story that you won’t much care. I can also commend Suarez for having a George R.R. Martin kind of willingness to ruthlessly terminate his characters with extreme prejudice because it kept me wondering until the very end as to who would survive.

Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez is strongly recommended.

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Rethinking Fortification

Monday, August 13th, 2012

John Robb now has a Facebook page for Global Guerrillas, where he posts quick snippets of big ideas. It seems to be a replacement for his old, informal, personal blog which served a similar purpose some years back. In any event, John had a spectacular picture of Mexico City and an intriguingly dystopian caption:

Mexico City. 

Future of warfare. Megacities + millions of drones.

I wandered into a Mexican shantytown once, back in the 1990′s . Not sure I would care to repeat the experience at the present time.

Robb’s facebook post started me thinking. If drones of all sizes and functions become ubiquitous someday, it creates a great incentive for the powerful, at least to safeguard their privacy, to apply human ingenuity toward concealment, countermeasures and postmodern “citadels”.

All the moreso, if “megacities’ are all girdled in vast seas of slums. Imagine the LA or London riots with 20 times the underclass population. The bloody experience of the New York City Draft Riots during the Civil War taught the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age to support the building of public and private armories to defend the gentle classes from the great uprising that never came.

Fortification is something of a lost art, but it was up until recent history, a critical military capability. After castles went into a temporary decline with the advent of cannons blasting apart their high walls, post-renaissance architects redesigned European fortifications to endure the new bronze siege guns and defense again triumphed over offense. Military engineers like Vauban were more valuable than field marshals and kings staked their strategies on the strength of chains of fortifications and arsenals.  Obsolete by the time of the Napoleonic wars, massive fortresses nonetheless enjoyed a long twilight march to military irrelevance, ending in WWII with the ignominious capture of Belgium’s mighty Eben-Emael fortress by 75 lightly armed Germans and the utter uselessness of the extremely expensive Maginot Line during the Battle of France.

Fortification began to receive renewed interest as governments sought defensive measures to allow their leadership to survive a nuclear attack, such as the Cold War era secret bunkers for USG officials at Greenbrier or Raven Rock or efforts by rogue dictatorships to build facilities carved deep into a mountain to protect their leadership or nuclear weapons programs from American attack. The ancient arms race of defense and offense continues with the designers of “bunker-busters” as a peripheral military activity.

Governments and occasionally corporations and superwealthy individuals will continue to build and tweak these doomsday bunkers but as strategic investments they do not offer very good ROI. For one thing, if your national leadership is cornered fifty stories underground, it will be little comfort to you and your fellow citizens as the nuclear bombs are exploding; the game is pretty much over at that point. Secondly, the ultimate risk they are hedging against is far more remote and the benefits infinitesimal compared to what rethinking fortification as a concept would do to minimize more mundane and probable risks faced by the rest of us.

A great fortress conjures the idea of impregnability and, ironically, usually achieves eternal fame for falling or being breached – the walls of Constantinople,  the Great Wall of China, Masada, Alamut, Murud-Janjira and the aforementioned Maginot Line. “Impregnability” is a misnomer, what a good fortification really does is raise operational costs for adversaries, hopefully high enough to discourage them from making the effort to attack in the first place. Raising costs for those who bear us ill-will by adaptation and a priori design should be our paradigm.

What are the primary risks we will face in coming years as individuals and societies? Erosion of privacy and the security of our persons, property and data at the hands of criminals, avaricious elites, government and private surveillance and bouts of civil disorder, all in a number of forms. For example

  • Drones: As John Robb suggested in his FB post and at Global Guerrillas, drone usage could potentially become ubiquitous by governments, corporations and individuals with an axe to grind or an interest in stalking, terrorism or committing mayhem.  Imagine the Unabomber or Osama bin Laden with a drone swarm controlled from a laptop – superempowerment will go robotic.Drones will/are becoming semi-autonomous. They are easily modified to carry cameras, recording/SIGINT devices, imaging systems, weapons, toxic substances or explosives.
  • Civil Unrest: The UK Riots were an excellent reminder that, as with the LA Riots, in the case of dangerous criminal-class rioting, elites will be unable to reestablish order or rescue law-abiding citizens until their reticence becomes a political debacle (and they may, as in Britain, initially restrain law enforcement personnel from suppressing the rioters). This contrasts with elite willingness to mobilize vast police and paramilitary forces against mere embarrassing political protests.
  • Cybersecurity: This adds a new dimension to fortification that is not limited to a physical space and place, even securing your home networks, but to your identity.

How might we adapt individually and collectively to these risks?

First, we are managing risk within reasonable costs and means while living a normal life. If you imagine something to hold off  an angry mob indefinitely or that will allow you to defy the US government then you need to come out of fantasyland or have a Bill Gates budget to play with. Here are some more practical possibilities:

Privacy architecture: Building design embedded with the idea of  promoting privacy, adjusted to the surrounding environment, which today includes thwarting advocates of a panopticon society. You want a structure that breaks clear fields of vision from the outside to the interior. Overhangs, angled exterior surfaces, material surface to reflect heat and light, ornaments/catwalks/netting and  landscaping to break up spatial fields. Perhaps layered walls of different materials to diffuse or mislead spectral/thermal imaging. This could be incorporated in public spaces in neighborhoods or campuses improving both aesthetics as well as privacy.

Underground: Increasing useful space by building down to sub-basement level gives you more possible points of egress, protection from surveillance technologies, storage and living quarters while concealing the true extent of your property from street level view. Best of all, it usually does not count toward your property tax assessment. Substreet complexes, like the system at Disneyworld, could easily planned into the development stage of residential and commercial construction.

Unobtrusive but Unconventional:  Attracting large amounts of attention is helpful in commerce or branding but generally disadvantageous to security. A home should be designed to frustrate opportunistic predators and delay determined ones with the most interesting elements reserved for the interior and (if possible) the rear with the street view presenting a target that is visually more bland than adjacent structures and also unattractive for forced entry. Windows should be treated to make it more difficult to see in or observe when residents are home vice away.

Defensive Security: This is something to consider individually and cooperatively. I once lived in a house in a town with a modestly high crime rate but never had a problem because the house was in a cul-de-sac with a wide oblong court and a long bottleneck entry. The neighbors knew one another and it was impossible (unlike on a conventional street) to not notice a strange car or pedestrian as every home faced the court.  Aside from alarm systems, simple things like better quality doors and locks buys you time to react. If multilevel, you should have at least two ways to escape from an upper floor (when I designed my second home, there were three) which also increases the interior complexity for an unfamiliar intruder. First floor windows should be out of easy reach from ground level.

Manage your Connectivity: Aside from normal cybersecurity precautions, you might consider managing, blocking or at least being aware of your geolocational activity by being selective about tracking devices (like smart phones) and your exposure to “the internet of things”. Do you really need to hook your fridge up to the internet or pay for everything with a debit card?

Fortification is largely about thinking ahead to put objects and systems between yourself and the world.

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They Are Coming…..

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Sure, it’s all fun and games now, but….

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