Wired for War

The US Army’s Future Combat Systems program calls for one third of their fighting strength to be robots by 2015. The American pilots seeing the most combat in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, do so from flight consoles in the United States, and they are controlling Predator unmanned vehicles. Every branch of the U.S. military has aggressive robotics programs in place. This is not anything unusual. Other nations are also developing and purchasing robotic systems designed to be used in combat. Advances in communications, software and hardware make it inevitable that robotics will have a profound effect on conflict in the future. The development of these systems has been rapid and while technology hurtles forward, culture and understanding seem to lag behind. Similar to the way our legal codes are playing catch up with new technologies, combat enabled robots raise questions and issues that did not even exist a short time ago. Wired for War by Dr. P. W. Singer is an excellent opportunity for anyone interested to dive into just what is going on all over the world with regards to robotics and their use by the military.

Singer is Senior Fellow and Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. His focus and study on changes in modern warfare have made him one of the world’s top experts on the nature of modern day combat as well as what developments are likely to come. Singer is an academic, but Wired for War is not a strictly academic approach to the issue of robots in war. He has made an intentional effort to make the book approachable, delivering a large amount of information wrapped in the context of popular culture and current events. The average geek is going to feel right at home in the sea of references made throughout the book as they often turn on sci-fi. This is not to say that the book dwells in a possible future of far-flung vaporware. Wired for War is divided into two large sections. The first is “The Change We are Creating” and deals with the definition, history and current technology of robotics. Some of this is talking about robotics in general but primarily with a view to military applications. Singer makes it clear that he believes that robotics is going to have a huge impact on many more areas of society and culture, but war is the focus of this work.

The last chapter of the first section, “The Refuseniks: The Roboticists Who Just Say No” is an interesting look at those who are not comfortable with the direction they see technology being deployed. It makes for a very natural segue into the second section, “What Change is Creating for Us”. It also serves as an excellent illustration of just what Singer does in this book. There is not a lot of highly technical detail or information. The discussion of various technologies in play deals primarily with capabilities available as opposed to how those capabilities are achieved. This is in keeping with Singer’s stated desire to keep the book open to a wide audience. It also serves to reinforce what I believe is the real purpose of the book, though it is more subtly stated. That purpose is to educate the members of democracies on what is going on in the militaries of their nations, so that they can be more informed in how they participate in the political process. This is as much a sociology book as it is a technology book and as much as it gives insight into how the military uses technology it also gives insight into military trends and subcultures. Primarily the examples given and information shared deal with the U.S. military. The Chinese military gets some time as well but it is quite small in comparison.

This would probably be my only disappointment with the book. (Well there are two but the second is very specific and small. John Scalzi is called Joe Scalzi on page 369 and in the index.) It is understandable that most of the information is U.S. centric. Singer has been involved with America’s Department of Defense and the American military is one of the few that is spending the amounts of money they spend on such a wide array of robotic systems. Singer does discuss how others are getting into the game, and even how less likely players, like insurgents can make use of robotic tech, but there is never the same depth of analysis and information for any other nation as the U.S. It’s not that large an issue, the book is still excellent but I would love to see a work of the same depth and breadth that dealt solely with abilities and programs that are not American.

As I mentioned the second section deals much more with how all of this change is apt to change us. Singer deals with questions about not only what robots do to war but what they do to warriors, military leaders, governments and civilians. There is a lot here to chew on and to be honest I found the book to be more than a little frightening at times. Singer doesn’t just point out new machines and revel in the engineering challenges that have been overcome. He digs in to see what the ramifications are for all of us and some of it could be very bad. At the same time Singer is not against technology and can see the good side of many developments. I think that what he fears most is that many will remain ignorant of just what is taking place and by the time they are all playing catch up it will be too late. I try to stay current on unmanned systems and military changes but there were quite a few revelations to me in the pages of Wired for War. Singer does not shy away from tough questions and I think his previous experience studying warfare, especially in the third world, comes to bear.

This isn’t just a book for gun nuts that love to see stuff explode. This is a book for anyone who wants to be up to date on the technological changes that have come and are coming to warfare. As I mentioned, Singer emphasizes the importance of being informed about these things for the members of any democratically governed society. The people of such a nation are culpable in the actions of their leaders and how force is is deployed against others. How can they rightly use the power they have if they are ignorant of the capabilities and the very nature of the systems their military uses? And even more importantly what happens if they do not question the changes in perspective that robots in warfare bring not only to those who deploy such systems but to those who are the targets of automated violence and finally those who look on from the sidelines?

The book covers a lot of ground but does so in an eminently readable way. Part of this is that the notes do not occur at the bottom of the page but at the back of the book. In the back they are numbered but those numbers are not placed in the text. This can make it very difficult to find just how the information fits together. I can see the up side of not interrupting the flow but at the same time it could be frustrating working my way through to be sure I had found the matching note. This also reflects the book having part of one foot in the academic world while the rest of it stands closer to popular literature. The index is decent. This book will in all likelihood be quoted quite a bit and stand as the standard on military robotics for a while. There is a center section of black and white photographs featuring current robotic systems, military and civilian.

Singer addresses the debate over the rate of change in technology and the views of some that we are approaching the singularity where all bets will be off. Whether or not change is gaining momentum at an exponential rate, it is taking place quickly and at some point the technology that Singer covers will be old news. That said, the majority of the attention is given to questions and issues revolving around ethics and morality that will not go away any time soon. This book is going to be a fascinating read for many while educating and expanding their horizons at the same time. I recommend it without reservation.

Title: Wired for War
Author: P.W. Singer
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Pages: 499
ISBN: 978-1-59420-198-1
Rating: 10/10
Tagline: The robotics revolution and conflict in the 21st century.

Posted under NonFiction Tags: ,

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