With the post-9/11 financial spigots drying up, and sequestration at least partially taking a bite, the U.S. military has been put in the rather unfamiliar position of searching for cost savings over the past few years. In a speech last week at the Army Aviation Symposium in Arlington, VA, General Robert Cone, the Army’s head of Training and Doctrine and Command, indicated that they may begin looking to borrow a technique from the private sector in responding to the need for cost controls: automation.
He specifically said that the Army is considering slashing brigade combat team sizes by a quarter, from 4,000 to 3,000 troops, and making up the difference with military-grade unmanned platforms, or robots. “I’ve got clear guidance to think about what if you could robotically perform some of the tasks in terms of maneuverability, in terms of the future of the force,” he said, as well as rethinking the size of the nine-man infantry squad. As reported in Defense News, ‘Over the past 12 years of war, “in favor of force protection we’ve sacrificed a lot of things,’ he said. ‘I think we’ve also lost a lot in lethality.’ And the Army wants that maneuverability, deployability and firepower back.” As Paul McLeary of Defense News pointed out, “It’s hard to see such a radical change to the makeup of the brigade combat team as anything else than a budget move, borne out of the necessity of cutting the personnel costs that eat up almost half of the service’s total budget.” The Army is already reportedly set to slash its forces by 120,000 by 2019 to 420,000 from 540,000.
With Google buying military robot manufacturer Boston Dynamics, autonomous war machines have bubbled back into public consciousness, just in time for the new RoboCop reboot. Military robots are often the stuff of technological dystopias, when the machines rise with uber-rationalistic calculuses that invariably decide that human beings are alternately too inconstant, cruel, self-destructive, or wasteful to continue existing as a species. These machines are often told as a fable of man’s overreach, a Frankenstein for the computer age offered as a cautionary hedge against flying too close to the sun.
Cone’s speech offers a valuable counter-narrative of the robotic rise, one likely closer to the path the near future will follow. In this narrative, machines are not the manifestation of man’s ambition, but his parsimony. Technology is not the path to imitating God, but rather coping with the very limits by which our mortal finitude constrains us. And robots may enter the field of battle not by letting slip the hydraulic dogs of war, but rather ladening down the gyroscopically-guided pack mules. Especially as our human soldiers have become ever more precious commodities, we invest tremendous amounts of money to keep them safe, making manned missions ever less economical. In this telling, ever more mechanized warfare is not nightmarish, but positively mundane.
That said, I’m sure the boys at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the DOD’s personal sandbox of futurism, are hard at work on projects of sufficient dystopian potential to keep all of us up at night. And Google’s merchants of war in Boston are already halfway there.
(h/t Alexis Madrigal)