Ten years ago the concept of unmanned combat systems (UCS) existed more in the pages of science fiction yarns than on the battlefields of the real world. As the ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq rolled along, the UCS intruded more and more into the plans and actions of the American military. The evolution of both aerial and terrestrial UCS has been rapid. It will become more so in the next few years.
Arguably, the UCS in all its many forms--air, land, and on as well as under the water--have the potential to change human conflict at least as much as did the arrival of gunpowder weapons nearly a thousand years ago. There can be no doubt that the UCS far outstrips such game changers as the aircraft carrier, armored combat vehicle, submarine, and high speed aircraft in its impact on the nature and character of military operations. The high probability that the majority of warfare in the near- to mid-term will be of the asymmetrical sort increases the impact of the UCS all the more.
The UCS fits perfectly with the American way of war as such has existed and evolved since the horrifying joint losses of the War Between the States. Ever since then, the US has been willing to expend any amount of materiel, money, and technology in order to save American lives. All of our wars have been materiel and technology heavy--and casualty light. In the context of the counterinsurgent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this strong imperative of saving American lives gave an additional impetus to the development and deployment of UCS.
The use of such systems--whether UAVs like the Predator, the Reaper, and their smaller tactical kindred or the various ground systems suitable for bomb neutralizing or entering fortified structures ahead of the troops--has proven successful beyond even the most optimistic initial projections. The success has served to breed more UCS research, development, and deployment.
One cannot help but have noticed the proliferation of posts dealing with the ethics and legality of UCS employment. The assorted ethical arguments against the UCS are specious. There is nothing unethical in employing UCS when there is a human operator in the loop. The presence of the human in the loop makes the system no more "robotic" than a tank or artillery piece or manned bomber. True, the operator of a UCS is quite out of range, immune to the dangers which might exist for the tanker, the artilleryman, the pilot, but the absence of risk does not make a weapon system somehow ethically suspect.
The human in the loop also defeats objections from a lawerly perspective. The operator and his command structure are just as responsible to the strictures of the laws of land warfare as any other military institution. The same criminal liability exists when operating a Predator as when flying an F-16.
Ethical and legal objections might have some validity if and when UCS are capable of operating totally autonomously with no human in the loop. The rapid evolution of the necessary technology will allow for autonomous operation in the very near future, but the probability of allowing more than routine, non-contact environment, autonomous operation is slight at the present time. Operating agencies will demand a good deal of experience with any given UCS before risking autonomous operation in a combat environment. When that happens, the question will (or should) be straightforward: Does the autonomous UCS resemble a landmine or not? That is, does it represent a danger for civilians who happen upon it by accident after active combat has ceased in a given area? Or, does the presence of an autonomously operating UCS represent a clear and unacceptably high degree of threat to any civilian who finds himself wandering around a combat zone during periods of active combat?
The expense of a system as sophisticated as a UCS capable of autonomous operation militates against the system being left behind after combat has ceased. It is not a fire-and-forget device like a cluster munition. Nor is it a plant-and-forget expendable like the landmine. Programming solutions exist for the challenge presented by the apparent civilian found in an active combat zone. Presumably pattern recognition software coupled with contingent algorithm based decision making could prevent instant lethal action while permitting either non-lethal detention or the summoning of a human to the loop. In either broad case, the ethical and legal questions can be addressed fully and effectively.
The loudest and most vociferous denunciations of UCS will come as they have already not simply from civilian organizations dedicated to the most extreme understandings of civilian immunity but from those countries which are and will be inferior in the development and fielding of UCS. It is to be expected that states hostile to the US in particular will take the lead in seeking international conventions prohibiting the use of UCS. The historical record shows the pervasive but ultimately unsuccessful deep rooted desire of have-not states to shackle the have states to the lowest level.
The most silly objection to the further development and deployment of UCS is that these systems will make war not only more "thinkable" but far more likely. There are two, mutually incompatible components to this idea. One is the removal of the threat to friendly forces by providing the bravery of being out of range removes a powerful inhibition to the resort to war on the part of states such as the US. The other is the reduction in collateral civilian losses reduces the horror of war to the party inflicting the damage.
There is no doubt that reduction of friendly losses is critical to decision making in the US and other civilized states. War does become a bit less repulsive when there is little if any chance of soldiers coming home either in body bags or on stretchers. But other potent inhibitory factors are not removed by the use of UCS. Some of these, particularly diplomatic complications and the enhancement of enemy political will, can actually be enhanced by the employment of UCS. This has already been seen in the Predator strikes in the FATA of Pakistan.
The reduction of collateral civilian deaths and physical destruction made possible by the further development of UCS should be welcomed by human rights organizations. Increased accuracy in the delivery of lethal munitions allows the use of lower potency ordnance. There is no need to use a Hellfire missile with its impressively large bang down range if one can accurately deliver a "smart spike" which puts a large hole in the intended target without disturbing the dandruff of the person standing next to him. As has been demonstrated most recently in Libya, the concrete bomb can obliterate an antiaircraft gun mounted in a small courtyard without even breaking windows a couple of meters away. Evolution to greater accuracy has been and will continue to be rapid with life saving effects increasing accordingly.
The UCS operated by a man under no pressure of combat aided by technology oriented toward the utmost of precision can kill the person in need of killing without any collateral damage. The lofty thinking and tender hearted must remember that the purpose of war is to gain political dominance over an enemy in order to establish a better state of peace. This means there are people who need to be killed. The concept of the operation is to kill those who must be killed and not kill or injure anyone else. The UCS provides a much better means of doing this.
Another objection that has been raised in opposition to the UCS is the capacity resident in such systems to vastly expand the area of combat operations. This is one more risible example of a totally specious objection. While some military operations can be confined to a tidily defined geographic area, others, such as the neutralizing of groups practicing violent political Islam, cannot. Such groups by their very nature are diffuse in location and critical nodes of command and control. The practitioners of violent political Islam have defined their area of operations to be regional at the least and global at the most. The UCS provides the capacity to attack the noxious practitioner wherever he exists. The choice has been his, and the response is not a voluntary expansion of the military theater of operations but a realistic appreciation of the enemy's nature, character, and intentions.
While the UCS has much to recommend it and will have even more in the years to come, there is no way that the UCS can by itself win wars, that is impose one's political will upon the other. The UCS is and will remain a force multiplier, a way of doing much more with fewer active combatants involved in theater. There will be fewer boots on the ground, but those fewer boots will be all the more important.
There are several reasons why the boots will be there and be important in their presence.
One reason is purely psychological: Only human presence is truly intimidating. Being there, being in the enemy's face nearly every time he turns around, has the effect over time of undercutting his will to continue. Importantly, the surveillance capabilities provided by UCS allow the forces on the ground to be deployed more effectively, to be in the enemy's face more efficiently, and thus to undercut his will to resist faster with less actual blood being shed in the process.
A second reason is political. The presence of men on the ground is an easily understood signal of political will. Since all wars, but the asymmetrical form in particular, are contests of political will, the presence of boots on the ground is essential if the enemy is to be convinced that the US, for example, has the political will to fight on until victory. The UCS plays a role here. The casualty reducing capacities of the UCS assures that American political will remains intact for a longer period of time. Even the frustrating war in Afghanistan retained support for years in largest measure because so few US personnel were killed there.
A third reason is found in the intelligence area. Contact between friendly and hostile forces constitutes an important source of intelligence. Only contact and the resulting firefight can give a useful indicator regarding the enemy's will to combat as well as on his capacity to make good his losses in manpower and equipment. Perhaps the most important indicator of enemy morale, of his will to fight, is found in how eagerly he seeks contact, how he reacts to contact, how well he fights, and how prolonged is his resistance. This is an area, a very important area, in which the UCS is of little or no assistance. There are and will be some things in war which only humans can do.
The progress in the development of UCS has been revolutionary. Absent a real shooting war, the future evolution of the systems will be slower, more hesitant, and liable to interruption due to budgetary or political concerns. On the upside, we can be quite sure the believers in violent political Islam will make every effort to keep the war going. As the war goes on, so also will the development of the UCS. And, that, bucko, is a very fine thing.