The end of humans in charge of the battlefield is coming. The era of machines dominating warfare approaches. The science fiction of robotic combat is already here.
Far from the view of the mainstream news, face of warfare has been steadily changing. Drones have taken their place in the force structure substituting technology for humans.
The Middle East has become the testing ground for a new generation of Warcraft. In much the same way that Spain served there’s a place for world powers to experiment with the mobile warfare of tanks in the 1930s, the deserts of the Middle East today serve the function of testing how to use drones and technology to make humans more efficient at killing each other.
In the Middle East today, surveillance and reconnaissance has become the province of robots. Not just American ones. Countries like Iran field fleets of patrol drones whose designs are Copied from American designs to patrol the Persian Gulf. In March 2019, the Iranians demonstrated capability to operate 50 drones in the air simultaneously on patrol. Their machines play the same dangerous game of chicken that ours do and shoot downs are not uncommon, if only occasionally making the mainstream news.
On June 20, an unarmed US RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, the size of a 737 jetliner, was shot down by the Iranians highlighting the provocative dangers of aerial surveillance. The US briefly considered a punitive attack to punish the Iranians but decided against it. There were claims that the missile that shot the $110 million US asset down was launched while the drone was in Iranian airspace.
A month later on July 18, an Iranian maritime patrol drone approached the USS Boxer to within 1,000 yards prompting the American ship to shoot it down for coming dangerously close even after numerous warnings by the Boxer.
The June 20 incident was not the first downing of a US drone by the Iranians. Earlier in June on the 6th, an armed MQ-9 Reaper was shot down by Houthis over Yemen using Iranian supplied ground-launched infrared guided missiles. A second MQ-9 Reaper drone was shot down over Yemen in August 2019.
Then in September, an attack using Iranian drones and cruise missiles was launched from Yemen against oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia.
If all of this sounds like chapters from “Star Wars” or “Dune”, you’re not far off the mark.
The Middle East has become drone city. Everybody gets to play.
Even the Chinese are getting into the act selling their artificial intelligence enhanced “Blowfish” short distance armed patrol drone, which looks like a puppy dog sized Mil MI-24 helicopter gunship, not to the Iranians, but to the Saudis, for uses including perimeter patrols not unlike how the Iranians and Americans deploy their swarms in the skies over the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.
This is the new form of proxy war where machines are the proxies for humans. Lives are cheap in this form of warfare, there aren’t any at stake. Instead, nations are allowed to proceed threatening each other’s assets in an escalation of “Grey Zone” conflict beyond the bluster of diplomacy and sanctions into robotic kinetic engagements.
The Iranians are particularly provocative in this regard. They’ve been baiting the Israelis with drones and missiles for years. They have provoked the IAF in the air attacks by flying drones down the Israel-Jordan border to bait IDF F-16L’s into elaborate surface to air missile traps. More recently they have fired missiles at Israel trying to get Tel Aviv to attack and give the regime the desperate propaganda it needs to tell the Iranian people that they are defending them from evil outsiders. Childlike motives? Yes. That’s what makes the Iranians so dangerous.
Their archenemies the Israelis are equally prolific. The IDF has raised drone warfare to new Heights in assassination making active use of drones firing nonexplosive warhead Hellfire missiles. These smart missiles They can target the occupants of a single vehicle or the bedroom of an individual deploy an umbrella like structure that acts like a fly swatter stamping out human life.
In May 2019, Israel took the concept of “economic sanctions” to a new level killing Hamas commander Hamed Ahmed Abed Khudri’s by destroying his car using a non-explosive Hellfire missile. Khudri was responsible for the transferring funds from Iran to Palestinian forces.
Israel use the missile again on November 12, 2019 against Islamic Jihad terror chief Baha Abu al-Ata in Gaza firing the Hellfire into his bedroom killing him and his wife in the pre-dawn as they slept. Ironically, his assassination, which was meant to prevent Islamic Jihad from raining Iranian made rockets into Israel, had the exact opposite effect. Hundreds of rockets showered the country from Gaza sending people into shelters and activating Israel’s Iron Dome defense system and prompting the Egyptians to assist the Israelis in quelling the bombardment they inadvertently triggered.
The point is, and read this carefully, we now have the technology to send machines after individuals we don’t like. Have a look in the mirror and ask yourself, who doesn’t like me?
Elsewhere in the Middle East, other forms of technology assisted robotic warfare abound. Whether it’s the mighty United States of America with its layer cake of assets from soldier operated drones to orbiting satellites, or improvised bombing drones releasing hand grenades stabilized by badminton shuttle cocks, drones are everywhere. The Middle East is the land where the Terminator’s Skynet has come to real life.
The future is not going to get less threat dense. It will be very, very dangerous to be a human on tomorrow’s battlefield. And the machines will get smarter.
There’s considerable debate today over the question of artificial intelligence for drones. In the US, the debate surrounds something called “ethical AI”. US culture places the human at the pinnacle of control over machines and results in systems architecture designs that require men to make the decisions over when a drone can or cannot kill.
That’s fine for now. Drone warfare is in its infancy where it is still used as an accessory part of the force structure. Much the same way airplanes were first used as artillery spotters. It won’t stay this way.
At some point, when the difference between winning or losing a war is inevitably measured by how efficiently the monetary investment each combatant can bring to the battle, algorithms will overwhelm ethics.
Other, more pragmatic, nations such as Russia have already realized this eventuality. It’s why their T-14 Armata tank is the only main battle tank that has a dedicated automatic anti-drone gun. That’s not a nice to have feature.
It’s a harbinger of a day to come when battlefields will be swarming with drones armed with whatever the equivalent of the US Javelin anti-tank missile will be by then.
The artificial intelligence will become better too as expert systems slaved to human commands give way to machine learning. Then weaponized drones will begin to play chess on tomorrow’s battlefields employing not just “ethical rules” but “desperate necessity” independent optimization to engage in sophisticated maneuvers and feints, human leadership decapitations, operations in depth and time, and other things that potty mouthed teenaged algorithms do.
That’s not really that farfetched. This is the same technology base that, in more peaceful settings, allows fleets of self-driving cars to work with each other to keep traffic flowing while their occupants tend to other things.
Think of future battlefield drones as a city full of smart cars that catches a zombie virus and becomes a flock of Angry Birds.
Feeling a little like Tippi Hendren yet?