Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Return of the Condottieri? How Military Drones are Changing the World

A US  carrier strike group. It costs about 30 billion dollars to build and it may cost around 2-3 billion dollars per year to operate. These values may be optimistic and there are 10 US strike groups in operation today. And, by now, all this hardware may be worth little more than its weight as scrap metal.

Sometimes, the sect I belong to, that of the catastrophists, tends to dismiss technological progress as a minor factor in the trajectory of the world system, mainly determined by climate change and resource depletion. It is a reasonable position: no matter how much money is thrown at welfare queens in white coat in the hope that they'll save the world, they don't seem to be able to do much more than producing overhyped press releases about some wonderful new technology that, one day, maybe, possibly, will solve some kind of problem. But only if they can get more money for further research.

So, technological progress is often little more than a trick to pay the salary of scientists. But it is also true that, sometimes, it does change the world. It is just that it doesn't work the way people expect it to. Technological progress is not a supermarket where you can find everything you want: you pay for it and you bring it home. It is more like fishing in the sea: most of the time you find little, but sometimes you stumble into the big marlin and suddenly you are not an unlucky old man anymore.

Technology changes the world in ways that are usually rapid and destructive, but never completely unexpected. Think of what happened to Blockbuster when they were facing the competition of Netflix. At Blockbuster, they couldn't have missed that their technology was obsolete but they refused to believe that the change could be so rapid. And they were wiped out of the market.

In military matters, this kind of rapid revolutions are even more common and, in this case, being "wiped out" may take a quite literal meaning. Recently, we saw a hint of the things to come with the attacks carried out against the Saudi oil facilities by a swarm of drones launched from Yemen. There are different interpretations of an event that may hide much more than what has been made public. But one thing is clear: drones turned out to be impressively effective in terms of the ratio of damage to cost. They suddenly made conventional planes and carriers obsolete.

It was expected. The rise of military robots was in plain sight for everybody, even though the traditional military organization tried to look the other way -- as it is typical for large organizations entrenched in their previous investments on old technologies. In this sense, the US Navy is not different from Blockbuster, just much bigger. So, a few years ago, in 2012, I wrote a short text for Jorgen Randers' book "2052" under the title of "The Future of War and the Rise of Robots." Of course, I was not the first to examine these matters but I think my text was original in trying to examine how lowering the cost of warfare could affect society. My prediction was that

"Future wars may be more frequent but probably also smaller in scale and less destructive. It is possible that robotic weapons will make the concept of a nation-state obsolete, to be replaced by structures akin to present-day corporations."

I am no prophet, but the first part of this paragraph describes very well what's happening. What's remarkable in the recent attacks against Saudi Arabia is that no human casualties are reported. It was hardware against hardware: machines destroying other machines. For the second part, outsourcing wars to private companies is not yet a clear trend, but it may be starting.

Rethinking to these matters today, I think we can, as usual, learn something from ancient history and modern drones may be starting a trajectory similar to that of firearms in Europe. Firearms have been around for several centuries, they appeared as early as in the 12th century. Initially, they were rather expensive tools that required specialists to operate. Nevertheless, firearms were more effective than the previous dominant technology, that of armored knights, who were wiped out of the battlefield.

During this initial phase, we saw the development of private military organizations, led by the "condottiere" (contractors) which integrated several different fighting methods but tended to be the most advanced in technological terms, especially in the use of firearms. In time, firearms became less and less expensive and could be used by an average conscript. At that point, winning a war became mainly a question of the number of soldiers fielded and nation-states were the only entities able to field and control large armies. So governments took over the war business and private contractors disappeared.

Are drones going through the same trajectory? It could be: for the time being, they are clearly making obsolete the modern equivalent of the old armored knights: the gigantic, expensive, and vulnerable carrier strike groups. But drones require specialized, technical knowledge and that may imply the rise of private companies controlling the drones, maybe selling their services to governments, warlords, religious group, or whoever can pay. That may result in a harsh blow on nation-states that might become as obsolete as medieval noblemen.

And then, what if killer drones become so cheap that everyone can afford them? It is a concept that goes under the name of "slaughterbots," minimalistic drones that have only one purpose: identifying a victim and killing him or her. Which is, after all, the same job that guns do (drones don't kill people, people kill people, using drones). So, will we see killer drones becoming as diffuse as guns among suburbanites in the US? Maybe an amendment to the US constitution involving the right to bear drones? Who knows? The only sure thing is that sometimes technology changes the world in ways that are unexpected to everyone.

(about wars, see also our statistical study on their trends and frequency)

"The Future of War and the Rise of Robots" by Ugo Bardi (2016 revised version)

It is an easy prediction that, forty years from now, human beings will have no place on the battlefield. They will be replaced largely by robotic weapons—a trend already in motion with the rising use of remote-controlled military drones or “UCAVs” (unmanned combat aerial vehicles). We can expect the term “unmanned weapon” to become as odd as the term “horseless carriage” is today. However, it is more difficult to predict how robotic weapons will affect warfare and the structure of society. Future wars may be more frequent but probably also smaller in scale and less destructive. It is possible that robotic weapons will make the concept of a nation-state obsolete, to be replaced by structures akin to present-day corporations. These developments will occur first in rich countries with low levels of corruption and high manpower costs. To examine the future of warfare, we can use the simulation methods used in The Limits to Growth study in 1972—methods that predict behavior within a given system and, specifically, that describe how the world’s economic system transforms natural resources into waste or pollution.

The military sector is part of the industrial system. Typically, during the past few centuries, the military sector has been drawing around 5%–10% of the GDP of most strong states, while in wartime this fraction may rise up to 30%–40% and even more. In wartime, military activities generate an enormous amount of pollution in the form of infrastructure destruction. With the development of more and more destructive weapons, and especially of nuclear ones, the cost of war in terms of pollution may reach values several times larger than the pollution arising from the GDP of any state. So, while the military sector is expected to follow the size of the global economy, wars may accelerate global decline because of the large amount of pollution they generate. A nuclear war might make the most pessimistic Limits to Growth scenarios unfold almost instantly. Unfortunately, starting a war costs much less than cleaning up afterward.
Robotization may negate these trends by reducing the pollution cost of war. Robotic weapons are inherently precision weapons. They can be controlled to reduce collateral damage and, hence, pollution. In this respect, twenty-first-century robots are enormously better than the iconic weapon of the twentieth century: the nuclear warhead. There are other potential advantages as well. Present-day command-and-control systems are based on models developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to convince human beings to perform activities that are not natural for them: obey orders, march under enemy fire, and stand still while shelled, to name a few. The methods that accomplish these results are called “drilling.” But drilling is not only a slow and expensive process; it is also very difficult to undo. So, once fighting has started, it is very hard to convince people to stop. Because of this inertia, wars often tend to continue all the way to the near-complete destruction of the weaker side. On the contrary, robots don’t need propaganda. They can be easily reprogrammed, and therefore the decision to engage or disengage in a conflict can be very quick. If wars can be easily stopped as soon as it is clear who is winning, the result can be a great reduction in damage and, hence, pollution.
Overall, wars will become less costly with the use of robots, but that doesn’t mean a reduction in their frequency. New major wars— even nuclear ones—cannot be excluded for the future. Future wars may become more frequent even in the face of a progressive decline of the world’s industrial system caused by resource depletion. We may see war becoming endemic, and dispersed in a large number of small conflicts. Also, the low cost of war may make the distinction between “peacetime” and “wartime” disappear. Future wars may often be classified as police actions against groups defined as “rogue.” These are, clearly, already ongoing trends.
We can expect, therefore, drastic changes in the way wars will be managed and conducted. National armies may be replaced by private contractors deemed more suitable for managing high-tech robotic weapons in the kind of small-scale conflict that may become common in the future. These contractors need not be limited to serve a specific national government and may well sell their services to the highest bidder, as is already happening. Nation-states, then, may also decline and perhaps disappear, as there will be no need for propaganda to convince people to sacrifice themselves in battle. In addition, nation-states have evolved specifically with the purpose of “defending the borders” when the main source of wealth was agriculture, and hence territory. In recent times, however, the focus of war has been more on the control of mineral resources, with several recent wars described, correctly, as oil wars. It may be possible that the structure considered best adapted to managing war and resources, in these conditions will be not the nation-state but something akin to modern corporations— more effective, perhaps, than states in employing high-tech military contractors for small-scale conflicts.
The reduction of the destructive power of war is an improvement on the present situation. When human fighters become hopelessly outmatched by robots, most humans will simply cease to be interesting targets, while robots will be used mainly to fight other robots. Certainly, that doesn’t mean that war will not involve human victims any longer; military and political leaders will remain at risk, and the decision of targeting civilian infrastructure might still be considered an option. Terrorism, that is, military actions purposefully aimed against civilians, may turn out to be an especially suitable task for drones, which might easily be programmed for the extermination of specific ethnic, religious, or political groups. On the other hand, the fact that the actions of robots are recorded and traceable could create a barrier over their indiscriminate use against civilians—a plus when considering the violence, torture, rape, and other typical excesses of human troops. So even if war may become more frequent, it need not become more violent. Indeed, the trend of avoiding as much as possible collateral damage to civilians is already ongoing. It is a positive development after the emphasis on carpet bombing in the twentieth century.
War is so deeply embedded in the global economic system that we can expect it to exist as long as there are natural resources to compete for. Robots won’t change that, as long as they are controlled and programmed by humans. In a more distant future, however, the battlefield experience is likely to give robots increased capabilities to act autonomously and a chance to become something much different from what the term “drone” implies. That doesn’t mean that robots would take over their human masters. But it does mean that humans would not be needed as fighters. How such a society could develop is impossible to say at present. The only certainty is that wars are among the most unpredictable of human activities and that the future is, as always, full of surprises.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)