Dr. P.W. Singer, one of the world’s leading experts on 21st century warfare, spoke at the Kimmel Center on Monday for Weidner University’s Philadelphia Speakers Series. As a renowned authority on the future of national defense, Singer took the stage not to discuss or explain the future of modern warfare, but to school the audience with one of the most direct and informative lectures I’ve been fortunate enough to attend.
Not your grandfather’s warfare
As a child of the 80s, I’ve been waiting for hoverboards to hit the market for the majority of my life. Little did I know it was the self-aware technologies of the Terminator movies that were actually closer to reality than I’d ever imagined.
Modern warfare has been a field of dreams for generations now. Things that were once just an idea in the minds of science fiction writers have been actualized and put into use on battlefields across the world. It’s nothing new, but if you seem to think that robots are taking over the world, you’re not entirely wrong.
New and ever-improving technologies are doing for the country’s defense what iPods did for the music industry. They have revolutionized not just the capabilities but the tactics and thus the ethical expectations and dilemmas that come with an entirely new way to engage in battle.
On Wednesday, Leon Panetta opened up thousands of frontline positions to enlisted women in America’s armed forces. But the front line today is a very different place from what it has been.
The days of combat in open fields, where one side meets the other and thousands engage in hand-to-hand combat, is long gone. It happens in cities where there’s no firm front line. Smaller operations are being orchestrated from thousands of miles away. Drone pilots can wage attacks from their bases in America’s southwest — and be home in time for supper, talking with their children about their day at school.
Covert weapons that were once just science fiction are now just another tool in the cache of America’s defense strategists. The improvements that have happened in the past generation are remarkable. Singing Hallmark greeting cards hold more computing power than the entire U.S. military had a generation ago. Operational technology like predator drones are literally the first generation, like the Model-T was to the American automobile.
Who’s writing the rules?
And with great power comes great responsibility. Training, organizing, ethics in cyberspace, threat-hyping: These are things we need to consider.
As the battle moves from ground forces to cyber threats, do the rules of war still apply? Knowing what is legal is currently a very grey area. The rules have yet to be written. And Singer is calling on the Obama administration to help lay the foundation — set the ground rules, if you will.
The rules of war for the 21st century have yet to be defined. Just as the president announced during his inauguration that “a decade of war is now ending,” America carried out a drone strike in Yemen. And America’s not the only country with these types of automated capabilities. There are 76 others operating robotics programs, and no one has a rule book.
The next generation drone is autonomous. The next generation of military planes is designed to take off and land on their own, moving towards remote command. Computer programmers will soon take the place of the aviators who are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of operations.
The sheer number of automated missions taking place will increase the lure of allowing artificial intelligence to take over. But while Singer and other military strategists still value the human element, the weakest link in technology is the human.
Today one of the biggest threats to American security is waged online in what Singer called death by 1,000 cuts. And while cyber warfare isn’t an “armed” conflict, it is one of our most poignant national security concerns. He said that people need to be smarter with their computers and learn basic cyber-hygiene.
You wouldn’t pick something out of the trash and eat it would you? Then why open up random files that you happen upon? As technology develops, our views and understandings of how to safely operate within the new, still undefined rules must improve as well.
And for that, for better or for worse, we are looking to the next generation of Americans who have taken the lead and will set the tone for the future of national defense. Oversharing has become the norm — the solution to the problem. And as our loss of privacy is accepted, it’s how we react that will define our future.