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Reading Dan's latest drone piece, I was reminded of some arguments about airpower and information warfare I first encountered in 1999 while watching the Kosovo War on TV. About 15 years ago, you couldn't pick up a defense or international relations publication without reading a downbeat analysis of "virtual" or "post-heroic" war. Modern technology had made wars cost-free, more likely, and could potentially subvert democracy, the theme went. Today we're hearing a similar jingle, and this time, the future of robotics technology is the bogeyman.
The 1990s literature on virtual war and post-heroic war was not uniformly bad. Some of these reflections were thoughtful, as Jack McDonald notes about Michael Ignatieff's always fascinating oeuvre. Others were completely ridiculous and sprung from intellectuals' loathing and suspicion of any and all standoff weaponry. Perhaps the nadir of this era were Jean Baudrillard's arguments about the Gulf War. Yes, most people got what it really meant wrong. But even when you take into account the points Baudrillard really wanted to make about the relationship between media, information-based warfare, and politics, he was still a tad off course. The post-heroic moment was fundamentally rooted in a deeply rooted sense of fear about the implications of the information-based Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). It seemed to cement the dominance of the West and the US in particular. Worse yet, it promised a future of war in which Third World armies were swatted away by precision weapons as surely as a little boy could fry a helpless nest of ants with a magnifying glass.
The post-heroic critics were wrong on multiple levels. First, they were wrong (as they are now) about the novelty of power projection enabling discretionary wars. As Dan has noted, if you're unhappy about discretionary wars, blame the Navy. If you're unhappy about privatized force being used as tools of state power, well, blame John Hawkood. David Parrot has also written about how privatized force has been the norm for most of Western history. Private CIA air forces supporting local allies is the Agency's equivalent of a cheap bar band playing "Free Bird," as is the peculiar idea held by many supporters of drone operations and humanitarian intervention that operating in an a country's airspace without its expressed permission is not violating its sovereignty. It's true that America's intervention in Libya had troubling implications for war powers---but I'm talking about the first one 200 years ago. You know, the one fought by a crew of foreign mercenaries Uncle Sam dredged up from every sundry Mediterranean watering hole from Athens to the Levant.
Second, the "virtual war" movement took Pentagon ad copy seriously without realizing that all of the "systems of systems" rhetoric was an aspiration rather than a military fact. Most postwar analyses of the actual impact of RMA platforms during the Gulf War also cast doubt on the idea that platform superiority would translate into operational effectiveness. The grisly ambush of Blackhawk Down also proved that special operations forces aren't always so special when they are outnumbered by massess of Third World infantry in urban environments. Finally, the Future Combat Systems (FCS) fiasco and the numerous tactical surprises encountered by ground forces in the 2003 invasion phase of the Iraq War laid the final nail in the coffin in the technocentric vision of dominant battlespace knowledge that would supposedly "lock in" American military advantage. This didn't mean that an RMA hadn't occured, or that Admiral Cebrowski and others were not correct about the way technology was transforming military operations. But those that feared the political impact of these technologies, at home and abroad, had made future projections that did not take into account the zig-zaggedy trajectory of strategic history.
Military revolutions also do not remain within a single country. The Chinese were so shocked by the seemingly effortless way the US intervened in the Middle East and Balkans during the 1990s and resolved to invest in "informatizing" their forces and building up an anti-access capability. People's Liberation Army (PLA) military writings, though shrouded in the political jargon characteristic of Communist militaries, could have been written by a DoD green-badger during the height of the Effects-Based Operations (EBO) craze. Yes, PLA doctrine, is, like a particularly inspired Houhai Bar Street cover band, partially inspired by the top 40 "hits" of yesteryear. But the specific way the PLA built its own information warfare, precision-strike, and joint operations doctrine bears little resemblance to the American assimilation of the RMA. Quite naturally, it's shaped by unique Chinese roles and missions, technological base, doctrine, and strategic culture. And this is to say nothing of the way technology may have transformed non-state militaries.
Military innovation literature has consistently demonstrated the basic fact that individual national culture, economics, and defense requirements dictate the form a particular state's use of technology or doctrine will take. How a state or non-state actor assimilates a given technology matters more than whether they have it or not, especially since technological innovations do not necessarily stay with first adopters. Examples can be found in the evolution of tank doctrine and carrier operations. The British may have been initially ahead in tank design and doctrine, and but that didn't save them from deploying them in a manner distinctly inferior to the Wehrmarcht. The fragility of RMAs was grasped by the early RMA writers, who often warned that the US could not expect to be the only actor to exploit precision-strike technology.
Another basic truth is that those who forecast continued impunity also forget that the defense is the stronger form of war. Tanks soon were countered by layered anti-tank defenses. Massed artillery barrages in World War I were frustrated by elastic defense. Aircraft once prophesized to be invincible were torn to pieces over the skies in Europe in the Combined Bomber Offensive. And what of the nuclear weapon, the so-called "ultimate weapon?" Well, its ultimate-ness meant that it could not be employed as an effective operational weapon, and using nuclear weapons to do anything more than deter was very chancy. For every ambiguous success of nuclear compellence (such as the end of Pacific War and the Korean War), there have also been many more failures to achieve escalation dominance. Iran is likely to discover that all they do is protect it from something the US has never seriously contemplated: full-bore regime change. And covert action, the political "ultimate weapon" of the Cold War era, has a checkered history so infamous that even reasoned scholars of intelligence history such as John Prados think the entire idea in and of itself is dubious. Maybe Prados is a bit too harsh, but his point is important.
Solly Zuckerman noted in 1962 that technological complexity actually make it more difficult to achieve strategic effect on the battlefield. More complex systems tend to increase personnel requirements and require a complex backbone of supporting technologies and systems to optimize. This will not change with the introduction of autonomous weapons. In fact, the need to ensure that these military technologies act in accordance with the commander's intent will likely create new classes of technicians and operators--just as remotely piloted vehicles generated their own set of support requirements. Zuckerman also argues that more complex technologies also limit freedom of action, which is also true when one examines the political implications of actually utilizing drones in expeditionary environments. Autonomous weapons, should they emerge, will be targeted by a group of international lawyers and activists opposed to their mere existence. Using an autonomous system is one thing on the open seas or skies, but even the most gung-ho robotics supporter is likely to see their relative lack of utility in a populated area. As Martin Libicki predicted in The Mesh and the Net, urban warfare will remain an infantryman's game. Sure, technology will transform infantry operations, but all of the robotic bells and whistles will not change the fact that the ultimate decider of the "three-block war" is the man on the scene with the gun.
Maybe future robotics technology will expand impunity, but strategic history suggests that impunity never lasts very long. The predictions of "virtual war" during the 1990s must have seemed very hollow to Army and Marine soldiers slugging it out house-to-house in Fallujah or armor commanders discovering in 2003 that they were still fighting encounter battles in the age of dominant battlespace knowledge. Critics of American intervention and the Shock and Awe crowd are strangely both (unintentionally) in agreement about the future of warfare. But the future, as that great philosopher James T. Kirk once said, is an undiscovered country.