P.W. Singer, fully Peter Warren Singer

Singer, fully Peter Warren Singer

American Political Scientist, International Relations Scholar, Specialist on 21st century warfare, Author, Founding Director of the Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World in the Saban Center at Brookings, Founding Organizer of the U.S.-Islamic World Forum

Author Quotes

One thing that struck me with all this automation is that if going into battle starts to become only marginally more dangerous than, say, driving on the freeway, wouldn't that tend to make it easier to resort to force. Why bother with the complexities of non-violent solutions when force can be used so quickly, effectively and safely?

The implications of this training and involvement in military activities by large numbers of Iraqi youth was soon felt in the guerilla war that followed. Beaten on the battlefield, rebel leaders sought to mobilize this cohort of trained and indoctrinated young fighters. A typical incident in the contentious city of Mosul just after the invasion provided a worrisome indicator of the threat to come. Here, in the same week that President Bush's made his infamous aircraft carrier landing proclamation, an Iraqi 12 year old boy fired on U.S. Marines with an AK-47 rifle. Over the next weeks and months, incidents between U.S. forces and armed Iraqi children began to grow, to the extent that U.S. military intelligence briefings began to highlight the role of Iraqi children as both attackers and spotters for ambushes. Incidents with child soldiers ranged from child snipers to a 15 year old that tossed a grenade in an American truck, blowing off the leg of U.S. army trooper.

The tragedy that went on in Liberia. Liberia has seen two waves of wars over the last decade, much of it driven by this child soldier phenomenon. First, Charles Taylor seized power at the head of a mainly youth rebel army in the early 1990s. he recruited kids both through abduction and trickery, for example telling kids he would give them computers and Mercedes Benz cars if they fought for him, basically taking advantage of their gullibility. Soon, he won the war. By the end of the decade, Taylor faced new foes in the LURD and MODEL, rebel groups who also used child soldiers to eventually topple him in 2003. The UN estimates that some 20,000 children served as combatants in Liberia's war, up to 70% of the various factions' fighting forces. The war is now over, but the danger is what happens with many of these ex child soldiers if they don't get proper aid and assistance. Children return from these conflicts scarred by the violence they have either seen or been a part of, and have to wrestle with the demons of the past. They often find their homes or villages broken and are faced by family and neighbors that often do not know them, or treat them with suspicion, meaning they must not only recover for themselves, but must to regain the trust of those that should love them. They must rebuild the skills they need to survive, while at the same time battle the various temptations that threaten to pull them back into a world of violence. Their stories can be ones of turning tragedy into triumph, such as Liberian kids who returned to school and now support their families. Or, they can be of tragedy building upon tragedy; In Africa, one can find bands of former child soldiers that now travel across the continent in search of more wars to fight in. Liberian kids ended up fighting as far away at as in Congo.

What is the message that we think we are sending with these machines, versus what is being received in terms of the message. One of the people that I met was senior Bush administration official who had this to say about our unmanning of war, quote, "It plays to our strength. The thing that scares people is our technology" but when you go out and meet with people, for example in Lebanon, it's a very different story. One of the people I met with there was a news editor, and we're talking as a drone is flying above him. This is what he had to say, quote, "This is just another sign of the cold hearted, cruel Israelis and Americans, who are cowards because they send out machines to fight us. They don't want to fight us like real men, but they're afraid to fight. So we just have to kill a few of their soldiers to defeat them." The future of war also is featuring a new type of warrior. And it's actually redefining the experience of going to war, you can call this a cubicle warrior.

Perhaps the best expression of the pastoral cybernetic aesthetic expressed in Richard Brautigan's poem "All watched over by machines of loving grace" is that found in Asimov's "The Naked Sun" on the planet Solaria. But taking the phrase "machines of loving grace" by itself, the robots found in the frozen conclusion of Spielberg's film "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" are the best. If we could build machines like those, maybe they could serve as peacekeepers.

The irony of all this is that, while the future of war may involve more and more machines, it's our human psychology that's driving all of this, it's our human failings that are leading to these wars. So one example of this that has big resonance in the policy realm, is how this plays out on our very real war of ideas, that we're fighting against radical groups.

The U.S. is currently ahead in military robotics right now, but we know that in technology there's no such thing as a permanent first mover advantage. In a quick show of hands, how many people in this room still use Wang computers? It's the same thing in war. The British and the French invented the tank, the Germans figured out how to use it right. And so what we have to think about for the U.S. is that we are ahead right now, but you have 43 other countries out there working on military robotics, and they include all the interesting countries like Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran. And this raises a bigger worry for me. How do we move forward in this revolution given the state of our manufacturing, and the state of our science and mathematics training in our schools? Another way of thinking about this is, what does it mean to go to war, increasingly with soldiers whose hardware is made in China, and software is written in India? But just as software has gone open source, so has warfare. Unlike an aircraft carrier, or an atomic bomb, you don't need a massive manufacturing system to build robotics, a lot of it is off the shelf, and some it is even do-it-yourself.

What one Predator drone pilot described of his experience fighting in the Iraq war while never leaving Nevada: ?You?re going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants. Then you get in the car and you drive home, and within 20 minutes you?re sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of contemporary terrorism is the growth in suicide bombing over the last few years, particularly emanating from the Middle East. Here, too, children are present. Radical Islamic groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas have recruited children as young as 13 to be suicide bombers. In Morocco, a pair of 13 year old twin sisters, who had been recruited by al Qaeda linked groups, were caught in summer 2003. They were in the process of trying to suicide bomb a Western business and local government building.

The kind of things that we used to only talk about at science fiction conventions like Comicon, have to be talked about in the halls of power, in places like the Pentagon. A robots revolution is upon us. Now I need to be clear here. I'm not talking about a revolution where you have to worry about the governor of California showing up at your door a la the Terminator. When historians look at this period they're going to conclude that we're at a different type of revolution, a revolution in war, like the invention of the atomic bomb. But it may be even bigger than that, because our unmanned systems don't just affect the "how" of war fighting, they affect the "who" of fighting at its most fundamental level. That is, every previous revolution in war be it the machine gun, be in the atomic bomb was about a system that either shot faster, went further, had a bigger boom, that's certainly the case with robotics. But they also change the experience of the warrior, and even the very identity of the warrior.

The utilization of the Predator operations is allowing us to accomplish certain goals there without troops on the grounds.

What seems most likely in this scenario--at least in the near term--is this continuation of teams of robots and humans working together, each doing what they're good at...Maybe the human as the quarterback and the robots as the players with the humans calling out plays, making decisions, and the robots carrying them out. However, just like on a football field, things change. The wide receivers can alter the play, and that seems to be where we're headed.

Preparation and Intelligence. Rather than wishing the problem away, official policies and effective solutions should be developed to counter the dilemmas that child soldiers raise. Better to deal with them in training, rather than making ad-hoc calls in the midst of crisis. At the same time, intelligence apparatus must become attuned to the threat and ramifications of the child soldier. This is not only important in forecasting broad political and military events, but knowledge of the makeup of the adversary is also a critical factor in determining the best response. Intelligence should be sensitive to two aspects in particular: what method of recruitment the opposition utilizes and the average child soldier's period of service. Those using abduction techniques or with recent cadres will be more prone to dissolving under shock than those with voluntary recruits or children who have been in service for many years.

The Leader is the Linchpin. When forced into close engagement, forces should prioritize the targeting and elimination of any adult leaders if at all possible. Experience has shown that their hold over the unit is often the center of gravity and units will dissolve if the adult leader is taken out of a position of control. As forces seek to mop-up resistance, they should focus their pursuit on the adult leaders that escape. Failure to do so allows their likely reconstitution of forces and return to conflict, as has become a recurrent theme in child soldier-fueled conflicts like Northern Uganda or Liberia.

There might have been an expectation of more pushback from senior generals for highlighting how disconnected things had become between the technology troops were using on the ground and those making decisions. But for the most part I have gotten very good feedback. Indeed, we've gotten formal plaudits (which are now on the WiredforWar website) from folks like Gen Schwartz, chief of staff of Air Force, and General Mattis, the Marine now in charge of Joint Forces command. Also got very nice letters from General Petraeus and Admiral Staviridis. My sense is that senior leadership really does want to get this right, but is overwhelmed by the scope and pace of everything going on, and so was fairly welcoming to my findings.

When it comes to the issue of war, we're exceptionally uncomfortable looking forward, mainly because so many people have gotten it so wrong. People in policymaker positions, policy adviser positions, and the people making the decisions are woefully ignorant in what's happening in technology not only five years from now, not only now, but where we were five years ago. You have people describing robotics as "mere science fiction" when we're talking about having already 12,000 (robots) on the ground, 7,000 in the air. During this book tour, I was in this meeting with a very senior Pentagon adviser, top of the field, very big name. He said, "Yeah this technology stuff is so amazing. I bet one day we'll have this technology where like one day the Internet will be able to look like a video game, and it will be three-dimensional, I'll bet."

Protect Our Own. A force must also look to the health of its own personnel. Forces must be ready to deal with the psycho-social repercussions of engagements with child soldier forces, for this is an added way that the use of child soldiers puts professional forces at a disadvantage. Units may require special post-conflict treatment and even individual counseling; otherwise, the consequence of being forced to kill children may ultimately undermine unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.

The military is a primary buyer right now and it's using them (robots) for a limited set of applications. And yes, in each area we prove they can be utilized you'll see a massive expansion. That's all correct, but then I think it's even beyond what he was saying. No one sitting back with a computer in 1980 said, "Oh, yes, these things are going to have a ripple effect on our society and politics such that there's going to be a political debate about privacy in an online world, and mothers in Peoria are going to be concerned about child predators on this thing called Facebook." It'll be the same way with the impact on war and in robotics; a ripple effect in areas we're not even aware of yet.

This ability to watch more but experience less, creates a wrinkle in the public's relationship with war. I think about this with a sports parallel. It's like the difference between watching an NBA game, a professional basketball game, on TV, Where the Athletes are tiny figures on the screen. And being at that basketball game in person, and realizing what someone seven feet really does look like. But we have to remember, these are just the clips, these are just the ESPN sports center version of the game. They lose the context, they lose the strategy, they lose the humanity, war just becomes slam dunks, and smart bombs.

When we think of warfare, children rarely come to mind. But while warfare has long been the domain of adults, juveniles have been present in armies in a number of instances in the past. For example, young pages armed the knights of the Middle Ages and drummer boys marched before Napoleonic armies. Child soldiers even fought in our own civil war, most notably when a unit of 247 Virginia Military Institute cadets fought with the Confederate Army in the battle of New Market (1864). More recently, U.S. forces fought against small numbers of underage Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) in the closing weeks of World War II.

Q: How will robot warfare change our international laws of war? If an autonomous robot mistakenly takes out 20 little girls playing soccer in the street and people are outraged, is the programmer going to get the blame? The manufacturer? The commander who sent in the robot fleet? SINGER: That's the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas that come with this 21st-century technology. It's also the kind of question that you might have once only asked at Comic-Con and now it's a very real live question at the Pentagon.

The military is very smartly free-riding off of the video game industry, off the designs in terms of the human interface, using the Xbox controllers, PlayStation controllers. The Microsofts and Sonys of the world have spent millions designing the system that fits perfectly in your hand. Why not use it? They're also free-riding off this entire generation that's come in already trained in the use of these systems. There's another aspect though, which is the mentality people bring to bear when using these systems. It really struck me when one of the people involved in Predator operations described what it was like to take out an enemy from afar, what it was like to kill. He said, "It's like a video game." That's a very odd reference, but also a telling reference for this experience of killing and how it's changing in our generation.

This is one of my great worries of the consequences of what has happened in the five years since 9-11. The U.S. clearly has a problem that many great powers face of being globally unpopular, but in the Muslim world, it is a far different and deeper issue at hand. The U.S. is not simply seen as being mean-spirited or unfair, but now nearly 90% of publics in Muslim states view the U.S. as the primary security threat to their country. Around 60% said weakening the Muslim world was a primary objective of the United States. While we don't like to admit it, this trend is being mirrored to an extent in the U.S. While Americans have long had concerns with radical groups within Islam (crystallizing with the Iranian Hostage crisis), the number of Americans who have a negative view of the entire religion of Islam itself has grown each year since the 9-11 attacks, to now making up almost half the body politic. Even the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, where American troops stopped ethnic cleansing just a decade ago, describes current relations with the United States as "worse than they have ever been before."

Whenever professional forces face child soldiers, an added dilemma is raised by the fact that they are lethal combatants yet remain victims who have been illegally recruited, deliberately persuaded, or even abducted into military service. Experience has shown that engagements with child soldiers can be incredibly demoralizing for professional troops and also harm unit cohesion. For example, there was little dilemma or controversy over Allied actions against the Hitler Jugend troops in 1945. Yet, the experience was so unsettling to those U.S. Army forces that had to fight the units, that troop morale was brought to some of the lowest points of the entire war, even with victory being in sight. Likewise, British forces operating in West Africa faced deep problems of clinical depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among individual soldiers that had faced child soldiers. At the same time, fighting child soldiers presents a public affairs nightmare, which adversaries may seek to utilize. A primary worry for militaries facing child soldiers is that a traditional measure of success in defeating their opponent may end up undermining their domestic support, as well as sway international opinion. Thus, military forces must prepare themselves for a dilemma that is as thorny as they come. To put it simply, troops will be put into a situation where they face real and serious threats from opponents whom they generally would prefer not to do harm. While they may be youngsters, when combined with the increasing simplicity and lethality of modern small arms, child soldiers often bring to bear a great deal of military threat. Therefore, mission commanders must prepare forces for the tough decisions that they will face, in order to avoid any confusion over ROE or the micro-second hesitations, because of shock at the makeup of their foe or uncertainty on what to do, that can prove lethal.

Recognize the Threat. A dark, but important, realization for forces in contemporary warfare is that a bullet from a fourteen year-old's gun can kill just as well as one from a forty year-old's. Therefore, whenever forces deploy into an area known to have child soldiers present, they must take added cautions to counter and keep the threat at a distance. All children are not threats and certainly should not be targeted as such, but force protection measures must include the possibility -or even likelihood- of child soldiers and child terrorists. This includes changing practices of letting children mingle among pickets and putting children through the same inspection and scrutiny as adults at checkpoints.

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Singer, fully Peter Warren Singer
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American Political Scientist, International Relations Scholar, Specialist on 21st century warfare, Author, Founding Director of the Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World in the Saban Center at Brookings, Founding Organizer of the U.S.-Islamic World Forum