Page 1 of 2 BOOK REVIEW The coming robot wars Wired for War by P W Singer
Reviewed by David Isenberg
If you want to understand why Peter Singer's latest book, Wired for War: The
Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, is a tour de
force, just consider some headlines from the past month.
"Study Urges Using Neuroscience to Improve Soldiers' Performance"
"Pentagon Joins CIA's [United States Central Intelligence Agency] Drone War on
"Mullen: Drones Future Stalwart of US Force"
"America's New Air Force"
"Engineers at the Mojave Desert base are developing a miniature
missile that can be launched from a robotic plane against terrorist targets."
"In future, machines could decide when to fire weapons"
The most fascinating thing about them is not that they are appearing only
months after the book's release, though that will undoubtedly help boost sales.
It is that every one of those headlines reflects an aspect of the issue, each
of which has its own chapter in the book. They serve as testimonials to the
prodigious amount of research and serious reflection on the issue that Singer
It bears mentioning that Singer, a senior fellow at the Washington, DC
Brookings Institute must be making many other scholars gnash their teeth in
envy. He is either the luckiest academic on the face of the planet or has an
unparalleled sense of coming military trends. If he could discern economic
futures as well as he does with military ones he would be giving advice to
Warren Buffett and George Soros.
His 2003 book, Corporate Warriors, examining the realm of private
military and security contractors, came out less than six months after the US
invasion of Iraq. That book became the gold standard for academic writing and
media reporting on the issue. It was also the work which inspired the writing
of countless other dissertations and theses on the subject. Although the
subject had been covered by others, including myself, before then, his book
made firms like Blackwater and Halliburton household words. To this day one
can't read a paper on the subject without seeing a discussion of Singer's
"typology" of the different types of private military contractors.
That book's popularity was all the more impressive, considering it was his
former PhD dissertation. A type of writing normally known for giving one bleary
eyes and splitting headaches.
After that he wrote a well received book on child soldiers.
Fortunately, Singer has improved even more as a writer. Stylistically he has
lightened up. His copious research is lightened by numerous pop culture
references, much of it understandably drawn from science fiction, which is
quite understandable, considering his subject is robots. That means references
to the like of H G Wells and Jules Verne to Star Trek, Terminator movies,
and, of course, Isaac Asimov. And almost all of them are highly informative and
amusing. How many people knew that Wells predicted the advent of the atomic
Despite the effort to appeal to a broader audience this is not a casual book.
It is a very serious book about the future of one of humanities oldest
activities, war. And while war and conflict has long been a staple of science
fiction the problem, as Singer notes, is that science fiction is turning into
science reality. He notes the famous quote by the late English physicist and
science fiction author Arthur C Clarke, who wrote the novel 2001: A Space
Odyssey, and gave us HAL, the malevolent supercomputer (think the
artificial intelligence SkyNet from the Terminator movies) that: "Any
sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
While robots are not magic, the technologies that are on the battlefields
today, not to mention those on the drawing boards, are at the limits of human
imagination. And perhaps beyond the limits of contemporary ethical and moral
limits on the use of force and rules of war.
Singer has very methodically and dispassionately looked at the past and present
and has peered, on the basis of future weapons contracts, peered into the
future. What has he seen? The answer is, though he does not put it this way
himself is, to quote the tag line from one sci-fi movie classic (The Fly,
1986) is that we should "Be afraid ... Be very afraid."
Right at the outset, in his author's note, Singer makes some critical points as
to why this subject is important. Given that many people might think this is
just another book about "gee whiz" technologies on the battlefield they are
First, "We embrace war but don't like to look to its future, including now one
of the most fundamental changes ever in war."
Second, "While we accept change in other realms, we resist trying to research
and understand change in the study of war. For example, the very real fear
about what the environment will look like as far away as 2050 has driven
individuals, governments and companies alike to begin (belatedly) changing
their practices. Yet we seem willing to stay oblivious to the changes that will
come well before then for war, even though, just like the changes in global
climate, we can already see the outlines of the transformation under way."
Some of what Singer writes about has been known for years, at least for those
who follow military technology issues. These include PackBots, used for
explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), made by iRobot, the same firm that produced
Roombas, the robotic vacuum cleaner. PackBots can also be equipped with a
shotgun. So much for Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, the first of which
says robots shall do no harm.
Another firm, Foster-Miller, produced the Talon, a ground robot which comes in
EOD, reconnaissance, and hazardous material versions. Its true lethal weapon
claim to fame, however, is its SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation
Reconnaissance Detection System) version. This is the military version of a
Transformer toy; able to carry almost any weapon less than 300 pounds, from
automatic rifles and machine guns to grenade launchers and anti-tank rocket
But is not just quantitative firepower that is remarkable; it is the accuracy
and immunity to battlefield chaos. Not being affected by emotional stresses,
every weapon it carries is capable of pinpoint precision, turning it into the
equivalent of a sniper's rifle.
The arming of a system likes SWORDS vastly increases the range of combat
military duties it can do, from street patrols and sniping to urban warfare.
Considering it can drive through snow or even underwater to a depth of 100
meters feet that means it could show up in the most unexpected places.
But lethal weapons are not the only kind that robots are being equipped with.
There is also ongoing work to equip robots with incapacitating chemical,
acoustic, and directed energy weapons (think Star Trek phasers), and
Ground robots can come in all shapes and sizes. The MARCBOT (Multi-Function
Agile Remote Controlled Robot) is essentially a toy car with a video camera.
But it has been used to carry anti-personnel mines to kill insurgents in Iraq.
As of last year there were 22 different ground robot systems, over 12,000 in
all, operating in Iraq. But robots aren't just for the army. They operate on
the air and sea also.
Most people today are familiar with the Predator, a UAV (Unmanned Aerial
Vehicle) or drone, which can fly for a day and reach an attitude of 26,000
feet. Their cost of US$4.5 million each is miniscule compared to average cost
of today's fighter or bomber aircraft. More importantly, they can stand
stresses that human pilots cannot. Thus, the trend is that pilots will be used
less and less.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks Predators were armed, both by the CIA and
the US military with Hellfire missiles, and have carried out thousands of
missions, and at least hundreds of armed attacks.
Aside from the predator there is its bigger brother, Global Hawk, which can
stay in the hour for up to 35 hours and reach an altitude of 65,000 feet.
Systems like these are actually piloted by human controllers working back in
the United States. One hour they might be at work firing a missile from a
Predator and the next back home eating dinner with the family. That has
interesting, to say the least, implications for military professionalism and
the warrior ethic.
There are many other smaller aerial systems, used for reconnaissance, such as
the Raven, Shadow and Wasp. Last year, according to Singer, there 5,331 drones
in the US military inventory, almost double the number of manned planes.
Drones are also being used domestically for homeland security and for policing
the border with Mexico.
At sea there is REMUS (Remote Environmental Monitoring Unit) used for clearing
mines from waterways.
In short, increasingly the US military will rely on robots. Even former
president George W Bush acknowledged that. "Now it is clear the military does
not have enough unmanned vehicles. We're entering an era in which unmanned
vehicles of all kinds will take on greater importance - in space, on land, in
the air, and at sea." To borrow from the world of fashion, military robots are
the new black.
All that just comes from the introductory overview. That is followed by
chapters on the history of robots from ancient times to the end of the 20th
century, fundamentals of robotics, and exponential change in technological
In chapter five, things become even more intriguing, and ominous, as Singer
looks at the robots of the future, now on the drawing board. SWORDS is
scheduled to be replaced by MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System).
Aside from more powerful weapons, a green laser "dazzler" and tear gas it will
have a loudspeaker to warn insurgents that "resistance is futile".