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Book Cover – Wired for War

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

by P. W. Singer
London: Penguin Books, 2009
512 Pages, $20.69 HC
ISBN: 978 1594 201 981

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Reviewed by Scott Nicholas Romaniuk

If ever a single and concise literary work was able to achieve a productive exploration of technology, politics, economics, law, and war, P. W. Singer’s Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century not only does so, it stands as the most current and compelling centerpiece of the current academic discourse that will surely be instrumental in propelling the concept of robotic warfare toward paradigmatic status.

In the last several years, a newer and fitter form of warfare and approach to orchestrating combat has emerged, promising to forever alter the fundamental principles of armed conflict and the composition of modern militaries. That is, the digital age in combination with the need and desire to remove, or at least distance, the human component from battle, has led to the production and deployment of more than 12,000 robotic systems fighting alongside their human counterparts in Iraq alone. The result is, as Singer states, one in which “… unmanned planes, robot guns and AI battle managers are turning [the] experience of war into something else altogether.”

This book serves as a critical ontological tool in several fields of scholarly analysis, casting analytic light upon the contentious ground that the very practice of war is regulated so artificially as to ascribe allegedly and profoundly immoral and unethical advantages to those conducting it.  Thus, “the revolution in robotics,” opines Singer, “is forcing us to reexamine what is possible, probable, and proper in war and politics.”  Although this is a determined and praiseworthy endeavor, Singer’s work suffers from certain theoretical and substantive limitations, but not to an extent that its contribution to its fields of discourse might diminish considerably.

Singer brings his experience and expertise to bear on his book’s 22 chapters, the pace and organization of which are all well traced and, developed, and are complementary of one another. As Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, Singer has worked in the Pentagon, and has consulted for the Departments of Defense and State, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Congress.  He has also authored two previous books, Corporate Warriors,and Children at War, and has also written for publications such as The New York Times and Foreign Affairs.

The first nine chapters that comprise Part One immerse the reader within both a general overview of the prolific changes taking place in the fields of warfare in technological terms and the general impact that the robotics age has meant for those who practice war, and those who are the recipients of its violent means and aims. These chapters exemplify the fundamental shift in the manner in which we now view the great-war paradigm, its nuances, and critical effects upon all involved. The initial chapters introduce readers to the four fields of “warbot” application, including those of: land, sea, air, and space. The functionality and effectiveness of the various designs of these systems are described in detail, and, in each case, Singer reveals some of the restraints placed upon their capabilities simply by virtue of their artificial quality. Given their progress, and in spite of the progress that has yet to be made, Singer describes how these machines emerge from the United States (US) Army’s $340 billion Future Combat Systems (FCS) program.

In Part One, Singer also unearths the historicity of the robot (r)evolution, discussing ‘the loop’ that we began to emerge from long before robots made their way onto battlefields. From the Norden bombsight of the Second World War, to the AEGIS computer system introduced in the 1980s, reference is made to the stepping-stones of warbots and technology-informed modes of conflict, defence, and even deterrence, if only conceptually. Emphasis is also placed upon the dangers involved in bringing together advanced weapons capabilities, and the exigency of responding to perceived threats in times of and fields of combat. Singer paints a striking portrait in which the technological aspects of new weaponry have (in the case of AEGIS) stolen our capacity to exercise sound and independent human judgment. The symbiosis expressed between humans and machines in these initial pages brings to the fore the deleterious reality that human roles were and continue to be redefined, and in a relatively alarmist sense, in a manner that has been accepted without thought or due consideration.

Part Two captures the ‘advancement’ of advanced warfare, the potential shortcomings to increased dependence on robots in war, the psychology of warbots, the mutable symbiosis between machines of war and the soldiers whom they fight along side, as well as the implications that robotic warfare brings to the realms of law and human rights.  The opening chapter delves into the elements that are driving the US military toward using more unmanned systems, explaining that, “… even the popularity of the new technology can end up hampering the development of doctrine to guide its uses.”  We are in an age of war, momentarily engaged in several land-based campaigns and numerous operations the world over; so it is difficult for soldiers on active duty to make sense of a lack of overall doctrine in the field as technology systematically changes it on a continual basis behind their backs.

Singer further postulates the difficulty in “… trying to figure how to use a revolutionary new technology” while in the middle of a war (particularly one as seemingly abstruse as the Global War on Terror [GWOT]), and that the lack of peacetime study and experimentation should very much be taken into consideration. Chapter fifteen is of particular significance, given its focus upon the psychology of warbots. It is argued that, “… the human psychology will be a key determinant of robots’ impact on war,” compelling many to wonder what changes will come as a result of removing the human motivation and emotion from conflict, which has usually been the key to victory or defeat. Of not less importance are the implications that robotic warfare has on international legal frameworks and the concept and practice of human rights; however, considerably less attention is paid to these critical issues, even though Singer underscores the impact that the new robotics warfare has upon the pillars of international humanitarian law.

In the final pages, Singer makes loose reference to the legacy that this budding approach to warfare will have in other reaches of human achievement or demise; but he leaves these notions as loose and ambiguous expressions that are somewhat confusing.  Although this book brings together a remarkable range of research, fusing primary and secondary research with the author’s own analysis, its shortcomings might poke and prod at readers’ attention throughout.  Singer’s investigations at select points draw attention to the fact that he is not a historian by trade.  Despite this, however, he makes repeated attempts to casually link the events of recent wars with the future course of human conflict. His analyses lack the necessary empiricism at certain points to depict the essential nature of his arguments and perspectives.

Given the impression elated to readers with respect to the potential of this new form of warfare, Singer’s investigations would have benefited from an assessment of the US’ failings to achieve its objectives in conflict zones where the technological advantage rested decisively with the US and its allies. The factors that empirically show the correlation between victories as a result of technological advantage and defeat in spite of it are absent. Moreover, excessive analogizing and reference to science fiction series might not appeal to all readers, who may be wary of over-sensationalizing on such subject matter. Readers will also notice a lack of surveying of the various types of machines currently employed by the United States – a feature some might expect and be excited over given audiences interest in what is currently ‘out there.’

Despite these observations, Wired for War is as wide-ranging and inclusive as it is interesting. The author skillfully calls attention to some of the more basic concepts related to this field of analysis, but might be seen as undertaking too ambitious a project for a single book. The scope alone, while accommodating a broad spectrum of topics and questions, is the book’s primary trait preventing it from serving-up the necessary in-depth focus that so many of the topics touched upon require and deserve. However, so long as the robotic revolution continues to take place on the battlefields, be it on land, at sea, or in the sky and in space, Singer’s work will find a recognizable place in literary fields for years to come. It lends itself easily, not only to scholars, but also to practitioners and inquisitive minds alike.
Scott Nicholas Romaniuk is a Canadian graduate researcher at the University of Aberdeen, Department of Politics and International Relations, and is affiliated with the University of St. Andrews, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. He has previous service in the Canadian Forces, and he focuses specifically on military and strategic studies, and international security and politics.