This issue Current issue

April 2009

Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.

By. P. W. Singer, Penguin Press, 2009, Hardcover, 499 Pages,$29.95

Review by Thomas G. Vincent, Contributing Writer.

Review first published in "Real Change"

If you are curious about what the Pentagon will be doing with some of the more than $500 billion they are asking for in 2009, P. W. Singer has the answer. Whether you like what he tells you will depend in large part on whether you play computer games, read science fiction, or enjoy movies like Star Trek, Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Terminator. Wired is a masterfully complete exploration into the technology and cutting edge research that this country is currently devoting to unmanned and robotic war machines. Singer interviews everyone: soldiers and Pentagon officials; pundits and politicians; scientists and arms manufacturers. He even talks to futurists and science fiction enthusiasts like Donna Shirley, the director of Seattle’s own Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Add in some well researched facts and statistics, and a confident easy writing style and you get a narrative that is as engaging and thought provoking as it is disturbing.

For example, Singer notes that in 2000, the Senate Armed Services Committee chair John Warner mandated into the Pentagon’s budget that “by 2010, one-third of all aircraft designed to attack behind enemy lines be unmanned, and that by 2015, one-third of all ground combat vehicles be driverless.” While not exactly proof we face a bleak future of machines fighting machines, this sort of statistic does support the feeling of a number of his interviewees that the use of robots in warfare is “the real tsunami that will toss our lives into disarray.”

Enthusiasm for military technology is pervasive in Wired. The majority of witnesses Singer presents, not only support the use of robots in warfare, they are positively giddy about the prospect. Arms manufacturers extol the efficiency and precision of their products. Soldiers marvel about how “cool” it is to be able to target and engage an enemy from thousands of miles away. Even so, the book manages to highlight some of the surreal psychological consequences of remote control warfare. Singer quotes a soldier who pilots an unmanned “Predator” drone over Iraq from a base in Nevada: “You see Americans killed in front of your eyes and then you have to go to a PTA meeting.”

Not everyone in the book is enamored of unmanned war machines, however. One of the most interesting revelations is the degree to which the military itself has been reticent to embrace automated weapons systems: “Many believe the Air Force canceled its combat drone, Boeing’s X-45, before it could even be tested, in order to keep it from competing with its manned fighter jet of the future.” Not that fighter pilots are concerned with losing their jobs… just their status. As one analyst jokes, “No fighter pilot is ever going to pick up a girl at a bar saying he flies an unmanned aerial vehicle.”

Some unintended humor revolves around the military’s love of acronyms. Virtually every page of the book contains at least one alphabetized representation of a complex weapons system. There’s the Counter Rocket Artillery Mortar (CRAM), Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS), Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System (SWORDS), and even the Multifunction Utility/Logistics and Equipment Vehicle (MULE). At times these acronyms run together to form a kind of military “gobbledy-speak” that takes some doing to unravel. For example: “The UAV has EQ/IR/SARS to rely on. The pilot has the Mark I Eyeball.” (That’s “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle”, “Electro-Optical”, “Infra-Red”, and “Synthetic-Aperture Radar Sensors.”) Got it?

Though the size of the book is somewhat daunting, (Wired weighs in at 499 pages,) the subject is both serious and topical enough to merit its heft. More than just a compendium of cool technology, Singer’s analysis of unmanned and robotic weapons systems raises a number of important and uncomfortable questions about their use, questions that we will all have to face in the days to come. “Unmanned systems represent the ultimate break between the public and its military… When a citizenry has no sense of sacrifice, the decision to deal out violence becomes just like any other policy decision, like whether to raise bridge tolls.”

Perhaps my only major criticism is that the book tends toward think-tank style wonkiness. Like the pilots of unmanned drones who never see the actual battlefield, Singer’s analysis often seems a bit removed from the action. There are plenty of interviews with soldiers struggling to cope with an increasingly computerized battlefield, but nowhere in the book did I find any interviews with civilians who have seen family members blown to bits by say, a hellfire missile launched from an unmanned Predator drone. Apparently for Singer, it is enough to document and analyze the use of robotic machines in war. Discussions of the actual corpses they produce he leaves to others.