Sunday, January 21, 2007


He enlists for life. He will follow any order. He'll pick up a roadside bomb and tear it apart. Killing doesn't bother him at all. If he's wounded, he's really easy to patch up and if he's killed nobody cares very much. He is completely immune to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and he'll never expect a pension or veterans' benefits. He is warfare without conflict.

"He" is actually "it", the latest variant of combat robot currently under devlopment in the United States. The military is hoping that "It" will be the solution to its ultimate nemesis - the people back home and their angry refusal to accept friendly casualties.

Just over 3,000 American military personnel have died in Iraq. Back in grandpa's army, that was just a bad day at war and the folks at home were pretty much resigned to it. That was then, this is now and the current generation with their Ipods and Blackberries want bloodless wars. If they don't get what they want they will elect leaders who will do their bidding and there goes your war right out the window.

Harper's magazine this month has a feature article on the robot army of the near future now under development in the US. A host of new companies are springing up in competition with the old stalwarts, names like Raytheon and Boeing, and there are billions and billions up for grabs.

Robot weapons aren't new. Primitive models have been around since the First World War. Their numbers have been limited mainly because their capability was limited. They were invariably remote control, often via cables, and had no capacity to sense much less think. Those days are gone.

The new generation of robotic weapons will be able to locate, sense and identify targets and to attack, sometimes autonomously, with precision guided munitions. If that sounds like something out of "The Terminator" well it is, sort of.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned ground vehicles - their arrival was inevitable, their attraction irresistable. There is, however, a dark dimension to this. Are we ready for warfare by software? Will killing matter anymore if it goes unseen, unmentioned? What is the value of the lives of our enemies, real or just perceived, or the innocent civilians for whom war will be anything but bloodless? When the casualties of war become mere entries in a database, will we lose our revulsion at killing? Will we become indifferent to waging wars?

How far has this gotten in development? Well the manufacturers are already staging conventions to show off their wares to the military types. That's pretty far down the pike.

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