Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gizmo Wars

by Jeff Huber

According to the New York Times, the U.S. Army says “War would be a lot safer if only more of it were fought by robots.”

Safer for whom, Army? 

It apparently hasn’t occurred to the mavens of the Pentarchy, and likely never will, that the only way to make war a lot safer is to fight a lot less of it.  None of the anointed warfare wizards will bother to bring that tidbit to the national attention, that’s for sure.

Don't shoot it, Honey!  It's cute!
John Dyer, a retired vice-admiral who is now chief operation officer of iRobot (yes, that really is his company’s name) says “One of the great arguments for armed robots is they can fire second.”  Dyer’s pseudo-logic blithely ignores the one might have more than ample reason for shooting first at an armed robot.  If an armed robot with a foreign flag painted on its arm were patrolling my block, I’d be inclined to do a little more than write a defamatory tone poem about it. 

iRobot makes those cute home cleaning gizmos, Roomba the robotic vacuum cleaner and Scooba the robotic floor scrubber.  The Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS), made by QinetiQ North America, is every bit as adorable as its domestic counterparts, maybe even more so.  MAARS is the size of a lawn mower, has tank treads, carries a video camera and a big honking machine gun and has a domed cylinder thingy toward the back that looks just like that peppy little R2D2 character from Star Wars.  The coolest thing of all about MAARS is that it’s remotely operated by technicians through “wireless video-game-style controllers.”

Army Special Forces units have bought six of the MAARS robots.  I guess that makes six soldiers who aren’t at this moment playing Call of Duty: Black Ops

Arguments that say remote operators will kill fewer civilians than on-scene soldiers presently kill are specious at best.  The notion that one can gain a superior map of reality from a remote video camera is sillier than the belief that coffee can sober you up.  But at least one theorist argues that we won’t have to rely on human decision making to conduct wars any more.

War wonk John Arquilla of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School says, “A lot of people fear artificial intelligence.”  Arquilla, an avid proponent of death by gizmo and, thinks an organizational structure “that skillfully blends humans and intelligent machines” is “the key to the mastery of 21st-century military affairs.”  Mastery of military affairs will only be achieved by developing intelligent humans to skillfully run them, not by fabricating “intelligent” machines to execute them.  But if by “mastery of military affairs” Arquilla means consummate skill at chumping the American public into going along with self-defeating, ever expanding wars throughout the New American Century and well into the next one, then he’s probably right.

Arquilla is part of the network-centric warfare cabal, that coven of brainiacs (most of them connected to the Navy) who evangelize the virtues of warfare through a “system of systems” that is really no more than a good-old-boy network of networks designed to sell cyber-age crap to the Department of Defense. 

Like fanatics who championed the spear and then the arrow and then artillery and then air power and so forth, Arquilla and his net-eccentrics fervently believe their new “way” is the “tao,” the long awaited arrival of the ultimate, universal reality in human conflict.  In an article from last spring in war porn glossy Foreign Policy, Arquilla promises that “netwar” (his streamlined version of the network-centric warfare buzz label) will “save untold amounts of blood and treasure” in future conflicts.  That makes you want to go out and start a few more wars doesn’t it?  Heck, if they cost less and none of the good guys get killed in them, we can’t afford not to have more wars, can we?

Arquilla’s arguments have a certain attraction, though.  He very correctly notes that “The U.S. military has exhausted itself in the repeated deployments since the 9/11 attacks” because “It has a chronic ‘scaling problem,’ making it unable to pursue smaller tasks with smaller numbers.” 

But he doesn't make the case that we can get by with smaller numbers.  He says that our present adversaries prevail because they are “networked” and present us with overwhelming numbers.  We could overcome the vast, networked enemy, his reasoning follows, if only we become networked ourselves and approach the problem with smaller numbers.

If we’re being out-networked it’s not because the ism soldiers have better communication technology than we have.  What the ism-ers are networking with is the 21st century equivalent of smoke signals.  No matter what kind of technology they buy off the shelf it can’t possibly be any better than the technology we can buy off the shelf, and we can buy a heck of a lot more of it than they can.

The kind of war Arquilla envisions is the same worldwide circle competition we’re engaged in now: an ever-widening effort to subjugate the rest of the world by occupying every square inch of it.   All he really wants to do is con civilian and military leaders into letting their computers make their decisions and replace all the soldiers with robots that are ten times more charming than that Arnold on Green Acres and ever so much more deadly. 

But wait: if we inhabit the world with that many killer robots, won’t that run into even more money than we’re spending on our self-immolating wars now?  Well, that’ll be okay, I guess.  As long as War Widgets Inc. is tossing seven figure bonuses at its executives and keeping the stockholders happy, that’s all that matters. 

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) is the author of the critically applauded Bathtub Admirals, a satire on America’s rise to global dominance.  


  1. The Pentagon has long needed its own national anthem. May I respectfully suggest the theme song to the old Mystery Science Theater TV show? It certainly fits with their fetish for useless gadgetry:

    In the not-too-distant future
Next Sunday A.D. --

    There was a guy named Joel,

    Not too different from you or me.

    He worked at Gizmonic Institute,

    Just another face in a red jumpsuit.

    He did a good job cleaning up the place,
    But his bosses didn't like him 
so they shot him into space.

    Maybe Dr. Forrester works for the army now. That would certainly explain their latest creation:

    U.S. Army rifles that use radio-controlled smart bullets

    I don't want to be a spoilsport, but has it occurred to the geniuses at the Pentagon that this new weapon might just be, um, hackable? If Dexter bin Laden can hack into U.S. drone transmissions and keep one step ahead in the IED wars, why couldn't he figure out a way to make G.I. Joe's piece blow up in his face?

    That would be a bit of a game-changer for warfare, although probably not the one the U.S. military had in mind (Fans of the novelist Frank Herbert will know exactly what I mean). The fact that the gun's manufacturer didn't mention this as a possibility makes me wonder if it's even occurred to them. Or maybe it has, and they're just waiting for the checks to clear before they mention it.

  2. Great point, JP.


  3. I read somewhere (disinformation alert!) that those things do go off at the muzzle already. That'll make you nervous. However, ROV's don't get nervous, so... no problem! We ought to just put up our best COD player against theirs. Winner takes all.

  4. Wow, you sound like the latest TomGram, only you are much much funnier.