zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Foust on “False Fears of Autonomous Weapons”

Foust on “False Fears of Autonomous Weapons”

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.


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.

12 Responses to “Foust on “False Fears of Autonomous Weapons””

  1. Saturday Afternoon Linkage » Duck of Minerva Says:

    […] Safranski very much likes Joshua Foust’s critique of fears of autonomous […]

  2. Negro Diente Says:

    it’s Palantir, not Panatir. Minor quibble

    Foust sets up a strawman argument against drones.  heat seeking missiles are fired by human pilots (all weapons once fired are autonomous….duh).  Phalanx close-in weapon system is defensive in nature (no human can react fast enough to Soviet Mach 3 antiship missiles).  Counter battery fire is also defensive in nature (btw I’ve served in the Army for close to 10 years now and have not heard of this automatic counter mortar system….sources Mr Foust?  we have C-RAM and Germans have Mantis, which are basically Phalanx CIWS taken from ships and placed on lands, again defensive in nature and does not automatically launch mortar shells in response). 

    major complaint against drones (and I’m surprised Zen you didn’t post this yourself, being a fan of John Robb and Daniel Suarez) is that they are OFFENSIVE in nature and threatens to take the human operator out of the loop by future development in autonomous decisionmaking (kill decisions).  It is also much easier to make decisions when one does not have “skin in the game.”  Drone pilots do not suffer blowback in direct or immediate forms, safely ensconced in their bases stateside.  soldiers, diplomats, NGO workers, etc do.

  3. Ken Hoop Says:


    You’ve read the imperialist sociopathic argument. Here’s a little of the moral argument.
    For the Nation, against the Empire.

  4. zen Says:

    Hi Negro Diente,
    Very good points. I did read an email passed along from a Palantir company guy that said ” hey, we can’t actually do that stuff yet, Palantir only cn do “x””. You’re right, Drones are offensive weapons, or surveillance platforms, I did compare them to warplanes but I should have made the point explicit in stating the real argument was about policy – how they are used, against whom and in compliance with the laws of war or not.
    hi Ken,
    If the ISI engages in a moratorium on IEDs and suicide bombers, the US should halt the drones. Reasonable symmetry, which would speed a withdrawal. However I don’t think the ISI really cares if their tribal levies are blown up or anything else,except maintaining their “strategic depth” against India

  5. Mr. X Says:

    +1 what Ken Hoop said, but Juan Cole’s odd enthusiasm for the Arab Spring has probably turned to disillusionment with the increasingly jihadist/sectarian nature of the Syrian uprising.

    Kudos to the comment from the Army member above. I don’t like Pakistan’s ISI either but let’s not mince words: many of the same ISI who have been supporting the Haqqani network have been considered untouchable by our own intelligence community. It’s hard to win a war with ‘frenemies’ like that.

    And again, the real issue with drones is the ‘bringing the war home’ potential they hold. And those at the top who fantasize about taking some bitter clinging Americans out but can’t find sufficient volunteers for house to house gun confiscation won’t have to deal with pesky pilots who refuse to bomb their countrymen — they’ll send drones with Hellfire missiles instead. You’ll just go out and find some sociopathic prozac heads to fly these drones…if human remote operators are needed at all.

  6. Mr. X Says:

    And before our gracious host says I’m a paranoid loon, he ought to take a good hard look at the eliminationist rhetoric on Twitter describing constitutionalists and patriots as ‘neo Confederates’ and DEMANDING that Gov-oogle censor all their sites. You know what happened to a lot of Johnny Rebs right? They went to Andersonville.

  7. zen Says:

    Hi Mr. X,
     “I don’t like Pakistan’s ISI either but let’s not mince words: many of the same ISI who have been supporting the Haqqani network have been considered untouchable by our own intelligence community. It’s hard to win a war with ‘frenemies’ like that.”
    Yes, I think this was a terrible, terrible, strategic error. As far as I am aware, the decision to tolerate Pakistani doubledealing instead of walloping the living hell out of Pakistan along with Afghanistan in 2001 was made at the NSC level, probably after Dick Armitage threatened an unknown Pakistani senior general. Perhaps this story is IO myth. Regardless, the IC later did more than enough to invest in the situation as the status quo. We’ll only know when the archives open but to me it looks like a shortcut that made for a long war and the wrong kind of war.
    Any attempt by the Federal government to confiscate guns – much less a house to house search – would be a disaster. It would be resisted by a large majority of the governors, rejected by SCOTUS, most rural state members of Congress and tens of millions of Americans. There’s gun control extremists who dream of doing this but as policy it would be an epochal nightmare

  8. carl Says:

    Mr. X:
    The unfortunate truth is the gov WILL be able to find many volunteers to go house to house and do just about anything authority gave them permission to do.  Whether it will be enough I don’t know, but there will be people who will do whatever they are told to do.  It is just human nature that there are people who will do anything, and I mean anything, if they are given permission by a boss of some kind.  Our foul national experience with enhanced interrogation is good evidence of that.
    Good point about resistance to such a thing centering around governors, ie state governments.  You are one of the few I’ve read that see this.  I think in our history when there was serious resistance or even violence against the central gov, the states were the ones who led it.  That is why when I look at how the red and blue areas are lining up by states and rural vs. urban, I get worried and think of 1830.
    Mr X and Zen:  I probably annoy people by continuing to bring up Charles Murray’s idea about how the ‘superzips’ are so different from everybody else but your two responses brought it to mind again.  For people to seriously consider that they could get away with something so radical as house to house confiscation shows how cloistered in their own worlds they are.

  9. morgan Says:

    Gregory Copley points out in his latest book Uncivilization: Urban Geopolotics in a Time of Chaos, that cities are vulnerable to food shortages if it boils down to an urban versus rural clash. The rurals grow the food that feeds the urban population. 

  10. Mr. X Says:

    I agree Zen that barring economic collapse + ‘national emergency’ and multiple other horrific shootings…there is no way such a policy could be carried out…particularly with just the lawless fig leaf of an unconstitutional executive order or even a UN Treaty authorized at the 11th hour ‘you’ll have to vote for it to see what’s in it’ Pelosi-style by a cowed Congress.

    Nonetheless given that there apparently are such psychopaths ensconced in the bureaucracy and in the supporting media who would see nothing wrong with the bloodshed such an operation would entail as it the end would justify the means, the whole large Creepy State gun grabbing agenda bears closely watching.

    Sadly I am starting to agree with Carl when I see Americans killing other Americans for their Air Jordans shoes or trampling others to get at Black Friday deals more quickly…that if re-filling the EBT card to support one’s own family depended upon it many Americans would turn on each other at the drop of a hat. I’ve already seen the eliminationist rhetoric on Twitter from the two-legged drones over there.

    Happy Holidays and snovom godom to ZP and Charles. 

  11. Mr. X Says:

    And per the ‘super zips’, yep the Colorado shooter if not the Newtown shooter was probably in the top 2 percentile of IQ for the country. Just goes to show the stereotype of the mad scientist is not entirely baseless.

  12. newrepublicoftexas.com Says:

    Never tought it will be possible to say that considerably about zenpundit.


    Just info Chester

Switch to our mobile site