Robot Ethics & Future War - Part II

by CAPT (ret) Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., USN, Professor of Practice, NPS, whughes(at)

In November 2010 the Naval Institute published its robotics essay contest winner, “How to
Fight an Unmanned War,” by Lieutenant James E. Drennan, a student in the Systems Engineering
Analysis curriculum at the Naval Postgraduate School. It is a brilliant piece, not least
because it is oriented around tactics. Drennan answers the who, where, when, how, and why
questions of combat that incorporates robots. A runner up in the competition is on the Naval
Institute web site: “Our Own Worst Enemy: Institutional Inertia and the Internal Challenges
of Embracing Robotics” by a former Marine, Nathan Hughes (no relation). He contends that
the greatest resistance to the development and deployment of robotic systems is neither in the
research and development community nor outside the Department of Defense. It is systemic
within DoD, created by “a robust and layered series of barriers to [the fulfillment of their

Both writers are over the top in their criticisms, as any visionary is allowed to be. Neither seems aware of a Naval Postgraduate School program for rapid development and deployment of UAVs with a direct pipeline to the Special Operations command. Our work at NPS shows how to exploit technology quickly by fostering bottom-up pressure from the working level of soldiers, Marines, and Special Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to overcome the inertia and impediments at the top described by Drennan and Hughes. Most of our unmanned systems are not yet autonomous, but progress may come faster than most people expect. The broad ranging Naval Postgraduate School CRUSER program is developing autonomous defensive swarms to fight swarming manned or unmanned attackers. We are also pursuing tactics and technologies for autonomous surface and underwater vehicles.

Perhaps the two Naval Institute articles will help foster what is probably the greatest need in the immediate future, which I believe should be to develop new tactics for cooperation between manned, unmanned, and autonomous aircraft. If cooperative robotic operations potentially offer the biggest tactical-technological reward across the armed forces, then the Navy’s biggest operational problem is probably to decide where robots will be based. Unmanned aerial vehicles can fly from large carriers, smaller amphibious ships, small warships like the Littoral Combat Ship, or most affordably of all, from commercial ships adapted to the purpose.10 One thing seems certain: there is no single solution that fits all tactical needs and all sizes of UAVs. There are equally complicated questions about the employment of autonomous surface and underwater vehicles that go hand in hand with technological advances.

In my view, more attention to the ethical issues can be a positive force in recognizing the tactical
and technological future that is closing in on all the armed forces of the world. American
military leaders too readily assume they are the only experts in all aspects of warfare. Missiles,
unmanned vehicles, and robots are cold blooded. Ethicists emphasize their heedless cruelty as
a vice. Soldiers ought to emphasize their coolness under fire as a virtue. A robot won’t panic, or
duck, or flee, or lose its temper. Analyzing robot warfare will be easier than analyzing combat
between humans when both mind and spirit are prominent. Against human opponents the
purpose of gunfire is often as much to destroy enemy morale or make him keep his head down
as it is to kill him. Robots never wince.

At the Commonwealth Club I said the Weinberger Doctrine was more useful than Just War Doctrine because it was intended specifically to guide decisions by the United States. In closing I said, “States do not kill the enemy; soldiers do. If our nation requires its soldiers to take an oath to defend their country, then it owes its soldiers an accounting of the conditions under which they may be sent to war. . . Contrariwise, the state owes its citizens a dependable army who will fight for them when the conditions are met.” But the Weinberger doctrine is obsolete and needs to be replaced, not least because it was promulgated during the cold war when the Soviet Union was the focus of attention.

In the spirit of the Air Force officer who said an ethical nation should not hesitate to develop robots that will save American lives, how might a moral doctrine of war be framed today—a “Gates Doctrine” as it were? The need is the more compelling because the U. S. economy is overextended and hurting. When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was asked recently what was the biggest threat to the country, he said it was our economic health. A significantly smaller defense budget seems inevitable and will entail more risks than are prudent if national defense were paramount. We will need to pick our fighting machines carefully, including the integrated roles of unmanned vehicles that increasingly will operate autonomously.

The modern world fights in a twilight zone between war and peace. World War II was the last declared war. Conflict since then, violent or non-violent, has been in the spectrum that is neither. The United Nations Organization muddied rather than clarified the distinction. The Korean War was formally a police action and it still not over; the full weight of the UN against North Korea has been unable to bring it to a formal conclusion. To block the movement of nuclear missiles into Cuba the U.S. invented the term “quarantine” because a blockade was an act of war; the contemporary arcane term is maritime interdiction. Moving further toward the non-violent end of conflict that is neither war nor peace we find economic “warfare;” its means of “fighting” have been greatly enhanced by computer technology. Reconnaissance, essential for maintaining stable deterrence of violence, entailed U-2 and SR-71 aircraft operated by the CIA that were arguably an invasion of Soviet air space. One might be tempted to paraphrase an old Army slogan made famous by General MacArthur: Old wars never die; they just fade away for awhile.

Implementing an ethical doctrine of just violent or non-violent conflict that is internationally accepted is not possible. Robots and computers are new wrinkles and, as George Lucas suggests, other complicating possibilities are impending, such as laser weapons, and small, inexpensive, long range, very-high-speed missiles that destroy by kinetic energy rather than high explosives. That is all the more reason why the U.S. should have a declared unilateral doctrine for today. We should be guided by a viable but affordable set of national goals. I am no strategist, but here is my best shot at an American doctrine for conflict. It has five provisions with some new elements and some worrisome gaps. If these five goals are not the wisest ones, then they nevertheless illustrate what could be a concise, published policy that is more focused than existing guidance. They are listed in order of frequency of occurrence and in inverse order of deadliness and destructiveness.

I. The nation will maintain the capability to attenuate cyber attacks, including active defensive and offensive operations. [The three unique things about cyber operations are, first, they are going on right now and cannot be completely stopped; second, cyber attacks are non-lethal but they can be very destructive to the American economy and living conditions; and third, cyber operations contribute in wartime by communications security and communications countermeasures against an enemy. A sensible but intricate policy should be constructed by the National Security Council in cooperation with the National Security Agency and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, with advice from other departments and agencies.]

II. The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security will defend the homeland from terrorist attack within the limits of affordability and be capable of conducting offensive operations overseas against non-state organizations who threaten the nation. [I have included an explicit “affordability” clause because there is no hope of buying a disaster-proof defense. An affordable strategy would continue to make such an attack difficult to achieve, but would put more emphasis on organized disaster relief at home and endorse preemptive attacks on the sources. No hint of action only as a last resort is intended.]

III. The Department of Defense will maintain the military capability to fulfill our treaty obligations worldwide. [These alliances include NATO, Iraq, Japan, and South Korea. Here, an affordable capability is not the issue because the forces entailed can be much the same as those designed to influence China in provisions IV and V. Though the treaties are defensive in nature, any of them could escalate into devastating, costly war. For a great power there is no avoiding each commitment, short of terminating the alliance. The hazard of treaty escalation makes the hazard from U. S. robot attacks pale by comparison. Iran is a distinct and difficult case that illustrates the danger. Either of two American military actions might be become necessary, one being to keep the Strait of Hormuz open to international traffic, the second being to prevent Iran from using or selling nuclear weapons—in both cases one would hope without having to invade Iran.]

IV. The Department of Defense will create the military capability to retain influence with our friends in Asia. [Implicit is new respect for China as our emerging peer competitor whose ambition is to be the hegemon of Asia. The U. S. strategy in response should specify that (1) we will not fight a land war with China; (2) we will not attack targets in China first, neither with nuclear weapons nor conventional air or missile strikes, but we will have a secure retaliatory capability; (3) we will keep the China Seas safe for commercial shipping for all the friendly nations of the world; and (4) we will realign the U. S. Navy for a maritime strategy comprising forces that respond to unwanted Chinese actions against our Asian friends with step-by-step actions at sea to curtail or prevent Chinese export of goods and import of energy, first with forces for distant blockade and second, with submarines for attacks in the China Seas themselves. These actions can only be taken when world opinion endorses American action at sea, because there will be dire economic consequences for all. Yet the strategy is our best hope to keep the competition peaceful because the greatest penalties from a war at sea will be suffered by China. The capability is affordable, but it will take a preponderance of the Navy’s budget.]

Nothing in the Weinberger Doctrine distinguishes the extraordinary destructiveness of weapons of mass destruction. Nor is it covered in classical just war doctrine, when such weapons did not exist.11 The U. S. has never expressed a formal doctrine against first use of its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Yet this would seem to be the single most important policy decision of a great power, if for no other reason than to set an ethical example for other states.

V. The Nation will maintain a secure, nuclear retaliatory capability to devastate another state that employs a weapon of mass destruction. [On one hand the doctrine implies no first use of nuclear weapons.12 On the other hand, it is explicit that “overwhelming force” is intended by the policy. This is widely thought to be the best deterrent of an attack by another state that has nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. There is no question of a proportionate response. This departs from just war doctrine, but the policy must be just if the threat prevents first use by another state. Our use of nuclear weapons is clearly contemplated to aid an ally such as Japan if it is attacked with them, as indicated in provision III. U. S. employment of nuclear weapons when another state, such as Israel, suffers a nuclear attack is not explicit and ambiguous. The policy applies only to sovereign states. Nuclear retaliation on terrorists is difficult, undesirable, and in many instances impossible. The doctrine for action against non-state entities is covered in provision II.]

In the 1980s when the Weinberger Doctrine was in effect the defense budget was much bigger and our armed forces larger. For example, the Navy had twice as many ships. The doctrine was a unique thing, valuable in the 1980s in constraining American military action. But Secretary of State George Schultz thought it stifled flexible negotiations, which was why it was never the “Reagan Doctrine.” I admit that today “the Gates Doctrine,” or better yet “the Obama Doctrine,” is not likely to be formulated and published—one would wish in consultation with the American Congress. Nevertheless it ought to be constructed—to guide affordable American military plans and policies in the difficult years ahead.

10 Relatively low cost Q-ships and spy ships and aircraft are antecedents.
11 That said, when just war doctrine was formulated, war was brutal. I am not thinking of the means employed by the Roman Empire but by the Tartars and Mongols at the peak of their effectiveness.
12 I personally would prefer to be explicit. The U. S. has never been able to make such a declaration, although it seems settled policy that we will never initiate chemical or biological warfare.

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from the Naval Postgraduate School's CRUSER NewsAll opinions expressed are those of the respective author or authors and do not represent the official policy or positions of the Naval Postgraduate School, the United States Navy, or any other government entity. 


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