May 16, 2009

Special Abu Muqawama Interview: P.W. Singer

Gang, I am in East Tennessee this weekend for a wedding, so to keep the readership amused, I give you Peter Singer from the Brookings Institute. Pete is the author of the excellent Wired for War as well as a friend of the blog and defense policy guru extraordinaire. I have been meaning to sit down with him and talk about his new book for quite some time now, and being techno-nerds, we did so last week over teh interwebs.

1. So Pete, where did you find the nerve to write a book about robots and technology in the midst of two decidedly low-tech wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Yes, when I started out on this project, to tell people you were writing on robots and war would certainly get me some strange looks here in DC. But as the book lays out, we may have this perception of these wars as being low-tech (largely out of reaction against the Rumsfeld network-centric fetishism that got so much, so wrong), but the reality is that these are also the wars that history will describe as when robots came into their own.

Look at the raw numbers. When U.S. forces went into Iraq in 2003, they had zero robotic units on the ground. By the end of 2004, the number was up to 150. By the end of 2005, it was to 2,400. Today it is over 12,000. The same thing happened in the air, where we went from a handful of drones to over 7,000. And these Packbots and Predators are just the first generation, the equivalent of the Model T Ford and Wright Brother’s Flyer. Already in the prototype stage are varieties of unmanned weapons and exotic technologies, from automated machine guns and robotic stretcher-bearers to tiny but lethal robots the size of insects, which often look like they are straight out of the wildest science fiction.

The most apt historical parallel to the current period in the development of robotics may well turn out to be World War I. Back then, strange, exciting new technologies that had been science fiction just years earlier were introduced and used in increasing numbers on the battlefield. Indeed, it was H.G. Wells’ 1903 short story “Land Ironclads” that inspired Winston Churchill to champion the development of the tank. Another story, by A.A. Milne, creator of the beloved Winnie the Pooh series, was among the first to raise the idea of using airplanes in war, while Arthur Conan Doyle (in “Danger”) and Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea) pioneered the ideas of submarines full use in war. When these new technologies were used in World War I, they didn’t really change the fundamentals of the war. But even their earliest models did quickly prove useful enough to make it clear that they weren’t going back to the realm of fiction any time soon. Indeed, the number of UGVs now is just about equal to the number of tanks the Brits had in 1918.

And, more importantly, their effects began to ripple out, raising questions not only how best to use them in battle, but also generating an array of new political, moral, legal, and ethical challenges. For instance, differing interpretations between the US and Germany over how submarine were allowed to fight was one of the issues that drew America into the world war, which ultimately led to its own superpower status, while airplanes were not just useful in spotting and attacking troops at greater distances, but also allowed the new phenomenon of strategic bombing, which created a profoundly new link between the fighting and the public.

And yet, I found it striking that no one was talking about our growing use of robots, no one was writing about it (akin to how in my past work I thought useful to explore what were seemingly crazy topics at the time like private firms offering soldiers for hire or children fighting in war). That was the point of writing Wired for War, to capture this incredible moment in history. I set out to gather the stories of everyone from the scientists who invent robots, to the science fiction authors who inspire them, to the 19 year old pilots who fly them from afar, to the soldiers in the field who use them, to the insurgents they target, to the generals and politicians who lead them, to the lawyers and human rights activists just trying to figure out the new rights and wrongs in this space. And then, explore what are the ripple effects on our wars, our politics, our ethics, etc.

But I should add one more thing: we describe the insurgents as “low-tech” at our own peril. Without spending 1.4 trillion dollars, our adversaries have come up over 90 different ways of exploding IEDs, planned, communicated and recruited using the Internet, pinpoint targeted using GPS and Google Earth, and utilized both captured US military and homemade robots. What some say is low-tech, others might see as incredibly efficient.

2. Do you think the U.S. military has a technology fetish? Does our strategic culture doom us toward looking for the newest and best widget at the expense of the human dimensions of conflict?

I don’t know if it is a technology fetish, but one aspect I worry about in the chapter entitled “Robots That Don’t Like Apple Pi,” is how we Americans definitely have a “bigger is better” mentality. Not just in our soft drink sizes and waistlines, but also bigger in terms of the size of our systems (even the UCAS on the cover of my book is the size of a school bus), bigger in terms of their cost (in the most positive scenarios, it will price out around $60-80 million, meaning it won’t be used disposably or purchased in high numbers), bigger in terms of the costs overruns (the Pentagon’s acquisitions programs put together are about $300 billion over budget), bigger in terms of the companies (we effectively have an oligopoly in our industry and are trending towards a monopoly in certain key areas), bigger in terms of the technology time cycle it takes to get systems from idea into war (for example, the F-35 was conceived roughly the same year as the Apple Macintosh computer; imagine if Apple was only just now delivering a prototype, decades later), etc.

But we know from history that war goes through cycles, that sometimes quality triumphs and other times it is quantity, often dependent on the prevalent technology of the day. One example is the shift from tiny professional armies to the large levee en masse allowed by muskets in the late 1700s. So, as we look at the 21st century, is “bigger better?” What if we are entering an era where “smaller is better?” What if it is better to have large numbers of tiny systems that cost little and so can swarm a foe and even be used disposably, designed and built by a highly competitive marketplace of tech-savvy, innovative small firms, that are constantly being upgraded, updated and even replaced in quick technology cycles akin to the iPod? If this is the case, will the US be like the other great powers that led a technology revolution and then instead turned out to be “The Biggest Loser?”

3. My favorite part of the book is when you interview an Air Force officer, in command of so much high-tech gadgetry, who compares the enemies of the United States to the hapless humans in the Terminator movies. (p. 306) You point out that in those movies, the humans were the heroes and the machines were the bad guys. Do you think that we Americans make our enemies look heroic -- or at least romantic -- when we attack them with unmanned drones? When you visited our book club, Dave K. had a visceral reaction to these drone attacks, as if there was something fundamentally dishonorable about them. Do you agree?

That quote is a great illustration of one of the underlying points in the book, while war may involve more and more machines, it is still about us. War is still driven by our human failings and all of the ripple effects of these technologies are about our human psychology and our human politics.

One huge policy riddle we have right now is this question of what are robots’ impact on our very human “war of ideas” we are fighting against radical movements? What is the message we think we are sending with our robot warriors vs. what do foreign publics actually receive?

It sounded like a silly question at the time, but I went around interviewing people on this, what we thought in terms of the message sent. That quote you cite is from an officer who worked on drone operations in CENTCOM. Another great quote is from a senior Bush Administration official, who describes how our unmanning of war “…Plays to our strength. The thing that scares people is our technology.”

But what about when you speak with those “people?” This is what Dave K. was raising. There is another great quote in the book from a leading newspaper editor in Lebanon, who while a drone buzzed over head, describes how our growing use of robotics is, “…just another sign of coldhearted, cruel Israelis and Americans, who are also cowards for because they send out machines to fight us… that they don’t want to fight us like real men, but are afraid to fight. So we just have to kill a few of their soldiers to defeat them.”

Now I would certainly argue with that logic, but the underlying fact is that we have an absolute disconnect between message sent and message received.

At that meeting, Dave K. was adamant against using any drones at all. I am not so doctrinal against it. That is, these technologies have killed a reported 11 of the top 20 AQ folks we have gotten. So, you can see the effectiveness by one measure, and why it is so hard for policymakers to eschew them. But what I raise is that we must also acknowledge that they have a blowback effect that has gone undervalued. In Pakistan, we now have an unintended but huge public outcry that ranges from the leading newspaper there describing the US as “enemy number 1” to the permeation of our drones into their pop culture as evidence of our ill intent. Indeed, the book cites how a pop song there last year even had lyrics about how America fought without honor (NYTimes recently lifted that factoid from the book). So, when we weigh these strikes (which also perhaps shouldn’t be just CIA domain, given their wider impact beyond just the intel world), we need to do more to factor in the short and long-term tradeoffs, including in the war of ideas. The numbers of strikes have gone a huge uptick with no debate (reaching Kosovo target levels now), but my sense is that some of these strikes were not on high value targets, but more low-hanging fruit or even non-AQ types. That is, we’ve become enamored of the tactical, perhaps at the expense of the strategic.

There is also another aspect that I have to say again and again, especially in relation to the civilian casualties issue. We must be doubly sure in our targeting, as what is true in software is also true in intelligence reports: “Garbage in, garbage out.”

4. You're a social scientist who writes big, serious books about military issues that nonetheless reference Hollywood movies and video games. Do you purposefully try and make your books accessible to the lay reader in a way that some works of strategic studies are not?

Most definitely! It is so odd that our field writes on something so intrinsically important and interesting as war, but usually does so in a way that almost deliberately makes it inaccessible. I can think off hand of several journals and even award winning books in the field of security studies that are just simply painful to read. The result is that our field too often closes itself off, too frequently only debates internal to itself, and the wider public is less informed about this crucial area. Can you think of a topic as important as war, that people understand less about?

As you and I spoke about, it was considered a major career risk to research and write a serious book on what many people insisted was just science-fiction. Many people advised that my career was going well in thinktankdom and politics, so I should stop trying to screw it up by writing on something so unconventional as robots (at the same time, they also told me that I should avoid working for that young Senator from Illinois, as he “had no chance” and I “would regret it”).

So, I decided to double down the risk factor. I decided to do my best to create the kind of book that I wanted to read in our field, and very much wanted it to be representative of my generation. My influences were as much The Sports Guy, Chuck Klosterman and Danger Room as John Keegan, Jared Diamond, and Sam Huntington, So, as I joke, the book has both kinds of references, scholarly footnotes to Iraq war reports and history journals, to allow scholars to build on the research, and shout out references to Wookies and the Gilmore Girls, to help the reader better understand what is being discussed. It is a very pop-culture book, with lots of anecdotes, lots of stories, lots of neat characters in it, but it also leaves the reader with an understanding of the latest debates in COIN, IR theory, causes of war, unit cohesion, the laws of war, etc. The sub title of the book “and Conflict in the 21st Century” is very deliberate choice. My goal was that just as a book like Fast Food Nation wasn’t just about McDonalds, but shined a new light on the changes in the American economy, Wired for War could use robots to shine a light on the major issues of war today. If I have done my job well, it makes people laugh out loud at some point in the reading, but also makes them stop and think and even look at war and technology with an entirely new lens.

5. Okay, as a student of counterinsurgency warfare and a veteran of the light infantry, I'm pretty much a military Luddite. Make me a believer in high-tech weaponry in two paragraphs or less. Go.

Let me be clear: I am no Pollyanna on robotics. The point of Wired for War isn’t to convince you that this weaponry is good or make you a believer. Rather, it is that this technology is not mere science fiction anymore. Well before we get to Terminator like scenarios, it already today presents some incredibly important possibilities and dilemmas in everything from doctrine to politics to the laws of war. So, for the young infantry officer in Iraq or Afghanistan now, they already go out on patrol every day with a robotic drone flying above them, that might do everything from overwatch to strike. They likely use a robot to defuse any IED they might find. If they are so unlucky enough to not see that IED until too late, they may well have an arm or leg replaced by a robotic prosthetic (over 400 troops have had this “Luke Skywalker experience” so far, getting a robotic limb and going back to combat units).

And this is where we are now. Like it or not, their careers will be shaped more and more by these technologies as they spread ever wider and get ever better, much as officers in the past went from saying they would never, ever use [INSERT “guns,” “tanks,” “computers,” etc. here] and soon used them every day. Indeed, in one survey of US scientists and US soldiers who had worked with robotics, they asked them when we would deploy humanoid equivalent infantrymen. The scientists said on average, the year 2020. The soldiers on average said the year 2025. Now, these experts may be right or wrong (I think they are wrong, with a big stress on what “equivalent” means). But the essential point is that within your lifetime, you will likely be talking about robots and COIN not with a human author whose book quotes COIN experts like John Nagl, Bob Bateman, Steve Metz and Abu Exum (along with Biggie Smalls), but with an AI that can do the same.

6. In my mind, you lot at the Brookings are even bigger nerds than the CNAS crew. You certainly enjoy more science fiction and other suspect material. Do you guys ever find the time to relax over beers and wings? If so, what are your Top Five Bars within walking distance of Dupont Circle?

What is this CNAS you speak of? I don’t think I have heard of it. : )

Not that I ever visit any bars, but once I had to meet some friends at The Big Hunt (on my way to choir practice, of course). I told my wife that night where I had been and nearly got kicked out (say “I was at the Big Hunt” out loud fast and you’ll see why). Dupont actually is not my favorite place for bars, so I would suggest a strategic withdrawal to Clarendon and hit Liberty Tavern (for the nice scene and great pizza), IOTA (for the music), Harry’s (for the relaxing vibe), Rocklands (for the grilled BBQ wings and outdoor picnic table patio), and the new place EvenTide (where your guest blogger Dr. Irak, formerly of CNAS, and I recently discussed the finer points of Battlestar Galactica and COIN theory over pints –now how is that for nerdy?).

Uh, pretty nerdy, Pete. Anyway, readers, you can buy Pete's book here.