Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Drones are Coming! The Drones are Coming! The Twilight of the Global Empire?


This clip looks like a videogame, but it is not (caution, disturbing images). You are seeing Azeri drones destroying Armenian military units during the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Is this the harbinger of the collapse of the Global Empire?


Many things have been happening in 2020 that will reverberate for many years in the future. While the West is busy with its "great reset," a small war was fought in a region of the world that you probably had never heard about before: the Nagorno-Karabakh. There, the army of Azerbaijan soundly defeated the Armenian army. 

What made this campaign peculiar is that it was the first time in history that a military confrontation was decided by drones. After that the Azeris (the people of Azerbaijan) had gained control of the sky, their drones could pick the Armenian military units one by one and destroy them at ease. There are video clips all over the Web showing vehicles and other installations being destroyed, and people being shredded to pieces and tossed around like ragdolls.

No surprise: the writing was on the rotor blades. Already in 2012, I had started thinking about the consequences of the development of military robots in a chapter that I wrote for Jorgen Randers' "2052" book. I returned to the subject in 2019, noting how cheap drones would change the rules of war because they could be managed by small organizations, possibly by private military contractors. 

We don't know exactly who managed the drones used by the Azerbaijan forces, but we know that they were made in Turkey, not a major player in the world's power game. Azerbaijan, then, could afford to deploy a number of drones sufficient to overwhelm the Armenian forces even though it is a small country with a GDP of just about 44 billion dollars per year. If Bill Gates, alone, had decided to fight Azerbaijan, he could won the war just using his private financial assets, estimated at more than $100B. 

Surely, the Azeri could never dream to be able to afford even a single carrier strike group of the kind that the Western empire deploys: each group costs about 30 billion dollars and the US has 9 of them. We don't know if the Azeri drones would be able to defeat an American carrier group. But we may be reasonably sure that, in terms of kills/cost, drones greatly outperform aircraft carriers. 

So, we know that drones can fight wars and win them. And now what? Are drones going to make all other weapon systems obsolete, just like tanks did to horses? Maybe, but things are not so simple. They never are. 

At the end of the story, war is simply about control, it is not about pulverizing people to atoms. You may want to use weapons to attain control over others, but that means you have to control the weapons you use. And not all weapons are easy to control. During the 20th century, we saw the development of new weapon systems that were incredibly powerful, but difficult to control. Chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons, all have a high kills/cost ratio, so much that they are called "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD). But they are difficult to aim at specific targets and the very fact that they are so cheap invites retaliation even from a weaker opponent. 

For example, chemical weapons were used several times in war, but they were decisive only in one case: during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. In that case, the Italians could happily go on gassing the Ethiopians without fear of retaliation since Ethiopia had no air force. It was a different canister of chlorine when Italy decided to go bombing Britain a few years later, in 1940. In that case, the Italians didn't even dream to use chemical weapons, knowing all too well that Britain could have retaliated in kind. 

Drones are cheap enough that, if manufactured in great numbers, they can kill a sufficient number of people that you can define them as weapons of mass destruction. But they look much better than the classic WMDs in terms of control: they can be aimed at very specific targets, even single persons. That's nice (in a certain sense), but things are not so simple. They never are.

Let me state this again: wars are not about pulverizing enemies, they are about controlling them. That brings the question, who controls drones? Behind this question, there is a deeper one: who controls the people who control drones? 

And we are at the core question: the human society is a complex system, and complex systems are never easy to control. The peculiar kind of complex system that we call a "national state" is normally able to reach a condition in which it engages in a common effort, a "war," against another state. But who decides that it is a good idea to go to war? It is rarely (if ever) the result of logic and reason. 

The minds of adult human beings are hard-wired in terms of likes and dislikes and that can hardly be changed except by means of drastic and unreliable actions, torture, electroshock, de-programming, and the like. Instead, it is relatively easy is to trigger aggressive reactions which are pre-programmed inside human brains. It can be done using the technology that we call "propaganda."

We can see propaganda as another kind of WMD: it has a very high kills/cost ratio, but it has control problems, too. It is relatively easy to use it to convince people to hate someone, much more difficult to convince them to stop. That's why most modern wars, dominated by propaganda, are wars of extermination. As usual, control is everything.

Of course, drones, unlike human brains, can be programmed to do exactly what their users want them to do. But that's a boon and a problem at the same time. If someone can hack into the drone's control system, the drone might well be re-programmed to attack its former owners or, simply, to fly harmlessly toward the horizon. Of course, there are ways to harden drones against this kind of attack, but no defensive system is ever perfect. At the limit, drones could be hard-wired in such a way that they would act in complete autonomy, without anyone being able to affect their behavior once they are activated. It was the way the first drones in history, the German V1s of WW2, worked: once fired, their trajectory couldn't be altered anymore. Their strength was in their stupidity: they had no "brain" whatsoever. But modern drones are supposed to be smart weapons: turning them into dumb ones would bring the same problems of the other WMDs. With this kind of drones, we would return to the "MAD" strategy, mutually assured destruction. No control, no way to win a war.

So, we return to the original point: wars are about controlling humans. Then, how do you control the people who control the drones? Would you be able to use standard propaganda techniques for that purpose? Maybe, but there is a big problem here. Modern propaganda was developed to control large masses of people and to convince them to line up on the battlefield to kill each other for the profit of people who would comfortably stay at home. Drone operators (let's call them "droners") are a different breed. They are specialists who might well decide that they won't be so easily tricked into killing people for the profit of others. It was the point I was making in my post where I compared modern droners to the European condottieri of the Renaissance, the leaders of troops of mercenaries specialized in the use of the newly developed firearms.

Controlling the condottieri was notoriously difficult: they tended to be unruly and easily switch sides. Droners might show the same tendencies. Mercenaries are like professional killers: you can hire one to kill someone you don't like, but there is no guarantee that the intended victim won't be able to pay the killer more than you do. One possible way to control droners might be returning to communication technologies developed during the Middle Ages, when the problem was how to control the most sophisticated weapon of the time: armored knights. For droners, it may be possible to develop something similar to the idea of the noble knight who fights for justice. You may object that there is nothing noble in pressing a button to kill a person, which is the job of droners. But, on the other hand, it was the same for an armored knight when he sliced in half a peasant, his main job. So, could we see in the future something like an epic of "Sir Lancelot and the droners of the round table"? Who knows? It might happen. 

A simpler solution to the drone problem would be to limit or even abolish drones by means of international treaties and straight threats to the smaller players. It was done, with a certain degree of success, with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. There are good reasons to do the same with drones: it is very much in the interest of the big powers to avoid that cheap drone technology could spread to smaller states and then challenge the top dogs of the game. So, people seem to be getting the message and there are ongoing efforts in this sense. Abolishing military drones would allow the Western Empire to keep the expensive toys its military like so much, carrier strike groups and others, at least for a while. 

Unfortunately, that would just hasten the speed at which the Empire is rushing toward disintegration. This is the way empires fall: they tend to bankrupt themselves by excessive military expenses. It is a deadly mechanism that sees empires gradually running out of resources while pollution does its damage, too. As a result, Empires become poorer but their leaders don't understand that they should cut down on military expenses. They do exactly the opposite, trying to maintain a military power they can't afford anymore. The result is well known: collapse, often in the rapid form called "Seneca Collapse"

But, no matter how rapid collapse is, during the twilight phase that precedes it there is a phase of mayhem when the blackberry jam hits the fan. Then, the game of war follows no rules. It happened when economic decline forced the Roman Empire to abandon its expensive heavy infantry units, together with its even more expensive static defense systems: the great walls built along the Empire's borders. The old cumbersome system was replaced with nimble cavalry units, patterned on the Barbarian forces they had once despised. It was a much cheaper army, but the Empire had lost its advantage over its enemies and the result was that it lost control over much of its territory. The result was a period of continuous small scale wars that further hastened the collapse of the Empire.

In our age, the Global Empire may soon become too weak to be able to outlaw drones or any other weapon system -- maybe it is already too weak. So, maybe drones are really coming and they will become the main tool for war, while the mighty carrier groups fall prey to rust. Think of something like the Armenia vs. Azerbaijan war that spreads all over the world (and do watch the clip above to see what it would look like, not good for humans, to say the least).

Bad times for human beings but, as usual, history marches onward and you can't stop it just by hoping things wont' change. And, who knows? Drones might turn out to be smarter than us and decide by themselves whom they want, or don't want, to kill. Pacifist drones?(*) You never know what AI could lead us to! 

(*) When we discuss these matters, we often go back to Isaac Asimov and his "three laws of robotics" which, among other things, forbid robots from harming human beings. Implementing these laws with modern AI technologies would be far from easy, as Asimov himself understood very well. Eventually, he arrived to consider the three laws as a moral code for robots that made them superior to human beings as being who could never be evil. Unfortunately, we are far away from such a thing. But, who knows?


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)