Its name is SWORDS, or the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System. Moving about on tank-like tracks, this soldier can be armed with a variety of different weapons, including machine guns and grenade launchers. Its 360-degree camera can pan and tilt, read people’s name tags at 400 yards, see the expressions on their faces, what weapons they are carrying, or even if a weapon’s safeties are on or off. SWORDS can accomplish this day or night, in the thick of sand or snow storms, and even drive underwater at depths of 100 feet only to pop up in unexpected places and take out a target with 100 percent accuracy. SWORDS is joined by flying counterparts with names such as Global Hawk, Shadow, and Raven. Equipped with similar sci-fi-like cameras that can see far better than the human eye, these daredevils can pinpoint enemy targets from the sky: the tiny Wasp can skim over rooftops and give views of enemy activities, while the armed Predator can fly as high 26,000 feet, peer through smoke, clouds, and dust to read license plates from two miles away and lock onto a target via its laser designator.
All are remote-controlled robots. All send images back to soldiers controlling the robots from computer or TV screens either on or near the battlefield. Or, in the case of the armed Predator drone, flown by “reachback” or “remote-split” operations, in converted single-wide trailers located 7,500 miles away in military bases in the US. Pilots connect to the drones via satellite using control panels that look like 1980s-type two-player arcade video games. Working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, scanning three TV screens for suspicious activities, these modern-day “aces” can kill with the touch of a control, and leave work each day in time to be home for dinner.
With most born in the minds of sci-fi writers over the years, these are just a few of the modern day soldiers highlighted by P. W. Singer, in his latest book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. Having worked for Harvard, the Pentagon, and recently served as coordinator of the defense policy advisory task force for the Obama campaign, the 34-year-old Singer is the youngest senior fellow ever at the Brookings Institute. Senior Editor Lorna Tychostup spoke with Singer recently about the capabilities of these futuristic warriors, the ramifications of their presence on the battlefield on the laws and ethics of war, and the profound effects these robotic warriors will have on the front lines and the political atmosphere back home.
The media tells us all about the surge, successes on the ground, but we don’t hear about the use of these robots in Iraq.
Part of what drove me to write this book, was the sense that in many ways people were in a little bit of denial simply because robotic devices sound so much like science fiction. There hasn’t been much reporting on these systems because one, the growth rate and use of these technologies happened incredibly quickly. In the air, we go from a handful—5,300 when I wrote the book—to 7,000 now. In the last few months, we’ve added another thousand in the air. That’s a lot in a short amount of time. Two, writing about robotics often comes across as science fiction—and that often makes it easy to ignore battlefield reality. Third, the way our media approaches things is complex. What doesn’t fit within previous understandings can’t be summed up in a single bullet point in 15 seconds. Also, stories that don’t fit pre-existing storylines often don’t get reported. The surge was an incredibly complex operation with different facets, yet has very different meanings to different people. For some, it added more troops to Iraq. For others, it’s represented by the Sunni Awakening, the turning of the tribal leaders to our side. Yet others see that the US figured out how to better use our technology. The book cites the role of Task Force Odin, which broke the IED-makers asymmetric advantage by finding and killing more than 2,400 insurgents either making or planting bombs, as well as capturing 141 more, all in just one year. The surge was all of these things and if you didn’t have just one element you wouldn’t have the success. But that’s a very complex story to tell in 15 seconds on CNN or FOX. And even with this amazing technology, war is still driven by human psychology that drives how it’s utilized and the dilemmas that come out of it. The main argument of the book is that you can’t forget the human side of war, even when you’re talking about this incredible technology.