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Military robots are already being used in conflicts around the globe and are affecting both the decision to go to war and the means by which wars are conducted. This book covers the history of military robotics, analyzes their current employment, and examines the ramifications of their future utilization.


• Clearly identifies the links between the technological developments of the most recent innovations and the ethical and legal challenges of the future

• Presents accurate, up-to-date information that is grounded in scholarly research regarding an ever-changing field

• Clarifies the capabilities aspect of military robotics and offers detailed analysis on why limits need to be placed on their development

• Includes tables, charts, and photographs to illustrate the main points of the text

Year:
2018
Publisher:
Praeger
Language:
english
Pages:
259 / 280
ISBN 10:
1440830851
ISBN 13:
9781440830853
Series:
Praeger Security International
File:
PDF, 3.84 MB
Download (pdf, 3.84 MB)

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Outsourcing War to
Machines

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Outsourcing War to
Machines
The Military Robotics Revolution
PAUL J. SPRINGER

Praeger Security International

Copyright © 2018 by Paul J. Springer
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a
retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, except for the inclusion
of brief quotations in a review, without prior permission in writing from the
publisher.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Springer, Paul J., author.
Title: Outsourcing war to machines : the military robotics revolution /
Paul J. Springer.
Description: Santa Barbara : Praeger Security International, [2018] |
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017044702 (print) | LCCN 2017050745 (ebook) |
ISBN 9781440830860 (ebook) | ISBN 9781440830853 (alk. paper)
Subjects: LCSH: Military robots. | Military robots—Moral and ethical
aspects. | Military art and science—Technological innovations—
Moral and ethical aspects.
Classification: LCC UG479 (ebook) | LCC UG479 .S67 2018 (print) |
DDC 355.8—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017044702
ISBN: 978-1-4408-3085-3
EISBN: 978-1-4408-3086-0
21

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19

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17   1

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This book is also available as an eBook.
Praeger
An Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC
ABC-CLIO, LLC
130 Cremona Drive, P.O. Box 1911
Santa Barbara, California 93116–1911
www.abc-clio.com
This book is printed on acid-free paper
Manufactured in the United States of America

Contents

vii

Preface
1

The Revolution Has Arrived

1

2

A Short Guide to Revolutions

23

3

The Long Gray Line

57

4

Automating the Battlefield

79

5

Robot Lawyers

115

6

Morality for Machines?

147

7

The Global Competition

169

8

The Road Map

195

Notes

221

Bibliography

239

Index

253
A photo essay follows page 114.

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Preface

I am a military historian by training and t; rade, who commenced his career
examining the American treatment of enemy prisoners of war. This topic
is very Army-centric and no doubt contributed to my opportunity to teach
history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. I loved my time at
the U.S. Military Academy and worked with outstanding colleagues and
wonderful cadets—but there was a darker side to the position. I taught at
West Point from 2006 to 2009, during the worst of the fighting in Iraq, and
the vast majority of my cadets were deployed to a war zone within a year
of graduating from the academy. Too many of those former cadets did not
come home, a fact that began to weigh very heavily upon me and no doubt
drove me to accept a position at the Air Command and Staff College. This
book emerged, in large part, out of a piece of advice I received from my
dissertation advisor, Professor Brian Linn of Texas A&M University. When
I told him that I was accepting the new position, he opined, “You had better start examining some topics that the Air Force cares about.” As usual,
Brian was 100 percent correct. I began to examine some of the emerging
aspects of 21st-century warfare and publishing about them in parallel
with my forays into 19th-century U.S. Army history.
Military robots are enabling an entirely new form of warfare, one that
will fundamentally alter the dynamics of human conflict. To their proponents, they allow bloodless war, an opportunity to punish the evildoers
of the world without placing one’s own forces at risk. To their opponents,
they are eroding the natural barriers against the commencement of warfare, which naturally includes the risk to one’s own forces. It is my contention that both sides of this argument are correct—military robots do

viii

Preface

allow the conduct of warfare with impunity, from a distance. However,
the very fact that an armed attack becomes so easy makes an armed attack
infinitely more likely. Thus, they serve to reduce some (but certainly not
all) of the consequences of a war and make the decision to go to war carry
far fewer political costs. When the United States decided to engage in a
series of airstrikes against Libya in 1986 (Operation El Dorado Canyon),
President Ronald Reagan and his closest advisors spent weeks discussing the potential ramifications before deciding to conduct a single night
of aerial bombardment against very specific targets. They knew full well
that they were risking the lives of the pilots involved and that they might
be condemned by the international community for what was undoubtedly
an act of war. The last three American presidents (George W. Bush, Barack
Obama, and Donald Trump) have all had at their disposal the ability to
attack against individual targets anywhere in the world through remotely
piloted aircraft. Collectively, they have ordered airstrikes in at least a
dozen countries, none of them an active conflict zone, in pursuit of members of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, including U.S citizens. It is hard to
say how much each president wrestled with the decision to launch strikes
into the sovereign territory of other nations—but it is undeniable that the
means to do so eroded any prohibitions against the activity.
Military robots are here to stay—there is no way to put the genie back
in the bottle, and they are simply too effective as a tool of war to be voluntarily relinquished. However, to date, no nation has fielded a fully
autonomous platform allowed to make lethal decisions without human
intervention in anything but a defensive role. The capability to build such
platforms already exists, and, when they are unleashed upon the battlefield, they will likely to be extremely effective, so much so that other
nations will scramble to produce their own variants. Coupled with the
increased willingness to use force as a tool of diplomacy, such weapons
are likely to trigger a catastrophic conflict that will quickly spread around
the globe, unless preventive measures are taken to avert this development. This work seeks to place the development of such machines into an
historical context and then examine the likely futures if the current path
does not change.
As any author can attest, no book is ever completed in isolation. I have
been fortunate to have the support of family, friends, and colleagues in
this endeavor. In particular, in 2015, I was fortunate to be selected as the
chair of the Department of Research at Air Command and Staff College.
Accepting the position created ridiculous delays in the production of this
manuscript, which tried the patience of my editor, Pat Carlin, to its very
limits. However, the position has been the most rewarding period of a
very happy career, and I owe the fellow members of the department a
very deep vote of gratitude. Professor Kenneth Johnson has served as the
deputy chair for my entire stint at the head of the department, and the two

Preface

ix

of us are of one mind on virtually every major decision. Lieutenant Colonel Steven Quillman has been the voice of reason and restraint, and his
fellow plank-holder, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Clemans, has always found
ways to improve the processes of our organization. Our more recent additions, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Garretson and Major Brent Ziarnick, have
proven to be a formidable team that has managed to rewrite the entire
school curriculum regarding space power. Dr. Lisa Beckenbaugh and
Dr. Jonathan Zartman have each taken a significant aspect of the Air Command and Staff College experience and made it more student friendly and
at the same time more challenging for our graduates. It is to this group of
colleagues and scholars, who I hold in the highest esteem and cherish both
individually and collectively, that I dedicate this work.

Political map of the Middle East (CIA World Factbook)

Political map of Asia (CIA World Factbook)

This page intentionally left blank

CHAPTER 1

The Revolution Has Arrived

Be not deceived. Revolutions do not go backward.
—Abraham Lincoln, 1856

On July 24, 2017, a terrorist bomber detonated a motorbike-driven rickshaw packed with explosives in a busy market in Lahore, Pakistan, killing
26 people. Pakistani police forces were the primary target of the bombing
and comprised 9 of the dead, but a further 17 bystanders were killed in the
blast. The incident was well reported around the world, with international
leaders expressing sorrow at the attack.1 Shortly after the incident, Tehriki-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) took credit for the attack, which they considered
another blow in their insurgency against the Pakistani government. In
particular, the TTP has been frustrated by the Pakistani government’s willingness to ignore U.S. airstrikes in Pakistani territory, including one that
killed the founder of the group, Baitalluh Mehsud, in 2009.2 Mehsud, who
had quickly become the most dangerous man in Pakistan, was hunted by
armed drones for months before being struck by a missile while lounging
on a rooftop in South Waziristan, surrounded by his family. In previous
attempts to kill Mehsud, armed drones had fired dozens of missiles, killing at least 100 people, including 70 in a single strike on a funeral for one
of Mehsud’s lieutenants.3 When Mehsud died, President Barack Obama
crowed about the achievement in a live radio broadcast, happily acknowledging that the United States had launched the missile strike.4
Four months earlier, a suicide bomber infiltrated an ammunition storage
depot in Balakleya, Ukraine, and detonated a thermite grenade in a stack
of ammunition crates. The resulting chain reaction of explosions required
the evacuation of 20,000 citizens and devastated a significant portion of
the city. The attack destroyed military ordnance worth approximately
US$1 billion, with untold property damages in the surrounding area. Yet,
it received almost no press coverage, perhaps in part because of the low
number of casualties—to date, a single death has been attributed to the

2

Outsourcing War to Machines

attack. No group has formally taken responsibility for the attack—but
it demonstrated a new form of attack that has been used to devastating
effect in the past two years: suicide drones. Small, remotely guided flying
robots have been able to sneak past defenses designed to protect against
aerial attacks, ground assaults, and human infiltration to deliver their
small but deadly packages. Thermite is a mixture of aluminum powder
and iron oxide, which burns at approximately 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit
when ignited. This allows a single canister, weighing less than 2 pounds,
to cut through a half-inch thick slab of steel—and to burn anything contained inside. On at least four occasions, Ukrainian ammunition dumps
have been attacked by the same method, with devastating results.
The attacks were almost certainly carried out by Russian operatives,
given the state of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. What made the
attacks particularly noteworthy, beyond the sheer scale of the destruction they caused, was the underlying method being used. In each case,
the explosives were carried into the targeted facilities by a small, commercially available unmanned aircraft. A quad-copter, similar to the hottest holiday gift of 2016, was slightly modified so that its remote operator
could place its deadly cargo and trigger it (an action that destroyed the
drone in each case). The aircrafts’ operators needed only to fly over the
fencing of the compounds and locate a stack of ammunition crates, an
action taking only a few seconds, to inflict catastrophic damage upon the
Ukrainian military, far beyond what has been witnessed in the Predator
and Reaper strikes usually associated with attacks by drones.5 The attacks
demonstrated that even small payloads, delivered to the right location,
can have enormous strategic effects, a form of attack that David Hambling
has dubbed “bringing the detonator” and relying upon the local environment for the bulk of the destruction.6
A NEW FORM OF CONFLICT FOR A NEW CENTURY
For almost the entire twenty-first century, the United States has been
involved in an international conflict with terrorist organizations, particularly al Qaeda and the Islamic State, but also affiliated (and nonaffiliated)
groups sprinkled around the globe. For most young American citizens,
particularly those approaching military age, conflict has become the new
norm—the United States has literally been at war for as long as they can
remember. Because the war is as much a fight against ideology and specific activities as it is a struggle with enemy organizations, it presents special challenges to civil and military leaders charged with bringing it to a
successful conclusion. Many have turned to advanced technology to create an asymmetrical advantage, in the hopes that using high-performance
machines might offset the challenges of attacking a system of beliefs that
have diffused throughout the world.

The Revolution Has Arrived

3

Military robots have become a part of international conflict in the
twenty-first century. While the technology is still evolving, there is little
chance that it will disappear, because it has simply proven too useful to be
abandoned. As Mark Bowden notes,
The drone is effective. Its extraordinary precision makes it an advance in humanitarian warfare. In theory, when used with principled restraint, it is the perfect
counterterrorism weapon. It targets indiscriminate killers with exquisite discrimination. But because its aim can never be perfect, can only be as good as the intelligence that guides it, sometimes it kills the wrong people—and even when it
doesn’t, its cold efficiency is literally inhuman.7

Of course, there are downsides to the use of advanced technology. One
unnamed intelligence official put it quite succinctly, stating,
“But there are two big ways we can make mistakes,” he added. “One is to forget
that sometimes a light footprint can cost you more in the long run than going into
a place with a much more decisive force—that was the lesson of Afghanistan. And
the second is to fall in love with a whiz-bang new technology, because it’s easy to
justify relying on it more and more. And that’s when a tactical weapon can begin
defining your strategy.”8

Thus far, there have been enormous successes in the War on Terror, and
there have been abject failures. The use of military robotics has contributed to both.9
PURPOSES AND AVOIDANCES
This book seeks to provide context to the rise and deployment of military robotics. It raises issues with the legality and morality of using these
advanced systems and critiques the ways in which they have been used
in recent conflicts. This book is not an attempt to reverse the path of the
development of military robotics—such an outcome is almost impossible
to imagine and is well beyond the capabilities of the author. However, it
points out that on a number of occasions, short-term political gains were
sought at the cost of magnifying long-term dangers, and at times there
seems to have been almost no thought given to the precedents set by the
United States in its War on Terror. As James Sullins notes, “It is probably impossible to contemplate the alternative anymore, but we should
have avoided arming robots in the first place.”10 What has been done
cannot be reversed—but the worst potential consequences might still
be avoided with the application of significant forethought and strategic
planning.
This work is primarily centered around the behavior of the U.S. government in its current conflicts. This is in large part because the United States

4

Outsourcing War to Machines

is driving much of the technological change—and has become the earliest and most prolific user of military robotic systems in the twenty-first
century. Although there are discussions of other nations and their behaviors in this new realm of conflict, most nations are watching the American
experience before determining their own paths. Thus, the precedents set
by the United States in its War on Terror are likely to have a much longer
and deeper effect than many U.S. decision makers seem to recognize. Or,
as Richard Falk puts things, “The embrace of state terror to fight against
non-state actors makes war into a species of terror and tends toward making limits on force seem arbitrary, if not absurd.”11 To Falk, the primary
weapon of the War on Terror is not the weaponized drone, per se, but
the willingness to fly such weapons over enormous swaths of territory
around the world as a means to keep millions of foreign citizens permanently cowed.
In the pursuit of context, Chapter 2 discusses revolutions in military
affairs (RMA), which are essentially fundamental transformations of the
modes and methods of human conflict. It puts forth the argument that
military robotics, particularly those with autonomous power to make
lethal decisions, are a transformative technology that will permanently
alter human warfare if they are built and deployed in significant numbers. Chapter 3 provides an overview of the development of robotics,
from the earliest attempts at remote-controlled weaponry to the decision
in 2001 to attach missiles to a Predator aircraft previously dedicated to
unarmed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. Chapter 4 discusses the decision to place military robots into active service
in the War on Terror and outlines the major milestones in the twentyfirst century that included such platforms. It is not a comprehensive
examination of every type of military robot currently in service (such
a discussion could fill volumes) but rather a discussion of the most
prominent models that have had the most significant effects thus far.
Chapter 5 analyzes the development of the laws of armed conflict and
how the utilization of military robotic systems might require changes
to them. It also examines how the availability of military robots is altering American governmental behavior, especially with regard to the
use of force and the protections from government violence previously
considered inalienable for U.S. citizens. Chapter 6 discusses the ethics
of warfare, including their development and categorization and how
robots might be influencing the morality of conflict. It uses a number of
short case studies to illustrate the key principles of morality and then
demonstrates how robots might either enhance or destroy the concept
of a just war. Chapter 7 examines a number of conflict zones throughout the world where military robotics are having definite effects on the
behavior of governments and where the boundaries of human-machine
conflict might be pushed ever further than by the events of the War on

The Revolution Has Arrived

5

Terror. Chapter 8 discusses a series of potential future scenarios involving military robotics and is as close as this volume gets to any attempts
at prognostication.
DEFINITIONS
A few key terms require specific definitions, which will be germane to
the remainder of this work. Although these definitions are not perfect,
they are functional—they do not markedly differ from the definitions
used by other authors, engineers, or government entities. That said, these
definitions certainly do not match the common usages in English for the
same concepts, particularly by laypersons. Journalists, especially, have a
pronounced (and unfortunate) habit of using terms that are convenient,
if imprecise, and of using words with radically different implications as
if they were interchangeable. While the current work will seek to avoid
such errors, they will be unavoidable within direct quotations from time
to time. The reader is encouraged to fix the following concepts firmly in
mind, if only to avoid falling into the trap of clouded thinking that so
many armchair strategists are already in when discussing the current and
future aspects of military robotics.
A “robot” is a machine that is capable of sensing its environment, at
least in some fashion, and choosing its behavior based upon that sensory
input. That behavior must include some form of action in the physical
world; thus, a computer program cannot in and of itself be considered
a robot.12 That does not imply that a robot has an unlimited number of
options or that it needs to perceive the world in the same fashion as its
human creators—such a perception is currently impossible and would be
inadvisable under almost any circumstances. Just as replicating human
sensory inputs renders an enormous engineering problem, it also creates
a set of unnecessary restrictions. Humans, for example, cannot perceive in
the infrared or ultraviolet portions of the light spectrum, but machines can
be built with such capabilities. Humans struggle to differentiate aromas,
particularly when they are blended, whereas machines can be imbued
with the ability to separate and analyze multiple odors or chemical signatures. The key considerations for using the term “robot” are the sensory functions and the autonomous selection of behavior from multiple
options. Examples of common robots include industrial manufacturing
systems, which might be required to change their behaviors depending
upon the task at hand or to stop performing a task if the safety of a human
operator might be placed at risk.
A “robotic system” is a machine that incorporates some, but not all, of
the conditions necessary for use of the term “robot.” Most often, this term
is accurately used to refer to remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), which may
have limited autonomous functions. For example, the RQ-4 Global Hawk

6

Outsourcing War to Machines

is an enormous, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. It is not remotely
flown in the sense of more familiar RPVs, as it performs the vast majority
of its flight activities without human input. However, it does not decide
for itself whether or not to engage in a mission, and it flies only where it
is ordered to go. In order to remain aloft, the Global Hawk must sense
its environment, which includes changes in altitude, airspeed, weather
conditions, and the presence of other aircraft in its vicinity. However, it
also has a sensor suite that is subject to human controls—in essence, the
Global Hawk airframe primarily exists as a platform to deliver its sensory
equipment to the airspace above or near a reconnaissance target, and the
Global Hawk does not rely upon that sensory data to perform its own
functions.
A drone is a machine that follows a set of instructions without any
degree of autonomy—it simply does what it has been programmed to do,
regardless of environmental factors. This is by far the most misused of
military robotic terms in the twenty-first century, and it is primarily inappropriately applied to remotely piloted aircraft being used for airstrikes
in the War on Terror. The term “drone ” more accurately refers to target
platforms that fly preprogrammed routes for gunnery practice or reconnaissance aircraft that simply fly a planned route without a human pilot in
control, even from a distance. The term most certainly should not be used
to refer to combat platforms like the MQ-1 Predator or its larger cousin,
the MQ-9 Reaper, both of which are under the positive control of a human
operator and which cannot utilize any lethal weapons without a deliberate act by the operator. Calling such a machine a drone grammatically
absolves the operator of any actions that might result from its utilization,
as if lethal airstrikes simply “happened.” A cruise missile might be considered a drone, although as Timothy Sundvall notes, “The line between
cruise missile and UAV is beginning to be blurred by technology.”13 Richard M. Clark argues that cruise missiles do not rise to the level of the term
“drone,” in large part because they are only used a single time, making
them only a very advanced projectile.14
A machine’s “autonomy” refers to the level of decision making that it
may undertake without human intervention. Kenzo Nonami, Farid Kendoul, Satorshi Suzuki, Wei Wang, and Daisuke Nakazawa collaborated
to create a classification system for autonomous machines, in which they
broke down the distinct levels of autonomy into 10 classes:
1. Remotely guided: certainly achieved by the Pioneer in 1986, arguably by earlier systems
2. Real-time health/diagnosis: the RQ-1 Predator began reporting system selfchecks to human operators in 1995
3. Adapt to failures and flight conditions: the RQ-4 Global Hawk corrects its
flight path based upon environmental conditions, without human input, and
has done so since 1998

The Revolution Has Arrived

7

4. Onboard route replan: experimental systems are now rerouting themselves
upon encountering obstacles or unexpected conditions
5. Group coordination: rudimentary swarming behavior
6. Group tactical replan: with or without a more advanced “controlling” system
7. Group tactical goals: determining tactical behavior to obtain operational
objectives
8. Distributed control: cloud-based computing systems and advanced swarm
behavior
9. Group strategic goals: providing desired political outcomes and allowing
machines to pursue them
10. Fully autonomous swarms: complete self-controlled systems

These classifications are not ironclad—and many systems in development
seem to fit into more than one category. However, by creating this hierarchy of semiautonomy, leading to the fully autonomous final stage, these
researchers provide a very handy way to conceptualize the increasing
sophistication of military robotics.15
The development of limited autonomy in machines has already occurred,
but no completely autonomous machines have yet been designed, much
less built. Linguists might parse the notion of limited autonomy—if
one’s freedom is curtailed, can one truly be considered free? Their objections aside, the concept of limited autonomy is a useful notion in the real
world—and one that applies to humans as much as it might to robots.
There are inherent limits upon human behavior, some of them created
by external constraints and some of them due to internal mechanisms.
External constraints are things beyond the control of the actor—and might
include such issues as fiscal realities, physical limitations, or legal ramifications of certain actions. No matter how much I might desire to quit my
profession and spend my entire life being pampered on a private yacht
sailing around the world, I do not have the tens of millions of dollars that
would be required for such a lifestyle. This imposes an external fiscal limit
upon my ability to engage in a certain action. Perhaps I could steal the
money necessary to fund such a life, although doing so would almost certainly result in law enforcement moves to halt my activities and to make
certain that I never had the opportunity to set foot upon a yacht for years,
if not the rest of my life. All of these constraints prohibit a certain activity that I might otherwise entertain. Internal limits also prevent me from
such an act—even if I had the capability to steal millions of dollars and get
away with the crime, my moral compass will not allow me to steal. My
work ethic will not allow me to simply waste my life, and the resources
that would be involved, roaming the oceans of the world, contributing
nothing to society. These internal mechanisms govern my behavior just
as surely as any external limits, even though they are theoretically under
my control.

8

Outsourcing War to Machines

Robots are also governed by external and internal limits. The external
factors include issues such as the construction of the robot itself as well
as its placement and function. For example, the RQ-1 Predator aircraft is
a relatively lightweight airframe. This means it can fly using a far lighter
engine and hence requires less fuel for each mile traveled, but it also
means that the aircraft does not function well in certain weather environments and has an extremely limited payload. If the designers wanted a
larger payload, they had the ability to redesign the airframe for a more
rugged utility, even if it remains essentially the same size. The redesigned
version, the RQ-9 Reaper, can carry a much larger amount of hardware
and fly slightly faster, but it does so at the cost of a heavier engine and
hence a shorter range. Robots can use only the tools that they are given—
an industrial paint robot in an automobile factory will never be expected
to fly over hostile airspace and fire missiles at terrorists—just as a Predator is unlikely to put a metallic gloss coat on a new Hyundai. Unlike
humans’ physical form, created through thousands of generations of evolution, these robots’ physical limitations are deliberately designed and are
anything but accidental. Thus, the external limits placed upon robots are
known at the outset and not subject to substantial changes without a significant amount of effort on the part of the designers.
Robots’ internal limits, on the other hand, are largely derived from the
programming instructions provided and can at least theoretically be modified relatively easily, in the form of software updates. Any computer user
knows how quickly a programming update can change the function of
a machine—and at the same time knows how vulnerable programming
code can be to errors. Microsoft Corporation, makers of the most ubiquitous software in use on the planet, is forced to continually release updates
of its products to end users. Often, these updates are designed to either
fix how the program functions in relation to other software or close loopholes in the code by which the users’ computer might be vulnerable to
cyberattack. Users who fail to update their computer software on a regular
basis become increasingly vulnerable to malicious code that can attack
and compromise their computers.16
Currently, armed military robots can be classified into three primary
categories, commonly shorthanded as “man-in-the-loop,” “man-on-theloop,” and “man-out-of-the-loop.” The first category applies to robotic
systems that are controlled by a human operator and in particular that
cannot engage in lethal behavior, such as firing a weapon, without a positive command from the human operator. The most prominent examples
are the Predator and Reaper aircraft, which are under the positive control
of a human pilot located in a remote control station. Man-on-the-loop systems have a substantial amount of autonomous function—for example,
the RQ-4 Global Hawk autonomously handles most of the tasks associated with takeoffs, flight, and landings, but a human operator is capable of
assuming control if necessary. Man-out-of-the-loop systems are allowed

The Revolution Has Arrived

9

to handle their own responsibilities without human permissions or intervention—the most well-known example for American audiences is likely
the Patriot missile battery, which can be placed in full autonomy mode.
In that mode, the battery is capable of tracking a target and opening fire,
subject to predefined parameters, without seeking human permission. In
general, the currently deployed systems with this level of autonomy are in
air defense and point defense situations, where human reaction times are
simply too slow to allow effective utilization of the weapon.
A “cyborg” is a cybernetic organism. Essentially, it is an organic life form
that has integrated some aspect of electronic technology to enhance its
own capabilities. The term tends to evoke visions of science fiction films,
yet it is a term that can be accurately applied to an increasing number
of humans. In many ways, cyborgs have become so commonplace as to
remain unnoticed, as their cybernetic implants tend to be a means of compensating for an organic failure or weakness, rather than any attempt to
create inhuman powers. When Dr. William DeVries implanted the world’s
first artificial heart, on December 2, 1982, he turned Barney B. Clark into
a cyborg. Without the artificial heart, Clark would have died due to acute
cardiac failure coupled with the lack of a donor match. Although the
implant extended his life only by 112 days, Clark lived those remaining
days as a cyborg. One of the most prominent cyborgs in Western society is
radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh. In 2001, he was diagnosed with autoimmune inner-ear disease, a condition that would render him completely
deaf and thus unable to continue his hugely successful broadcast career.
Instead, doctors performed a cochlear implant, compensating for his
body’s inability to hear and allowing him to remain a prominent figure in
talk radio. Pleased with the results, he underwent a second procedure to
restore hearing in his other ear, in 2014.17
An individual utilizing a prosthetic limb is not considered a cyborg,
unless that limb is directly tied into the individual’s remaining organic tissue and responds to nerve impulses. Such prosthetics were unimaginable
even 30 years ago but are now being used to restore function to wounded
military veterans on a regular basis and are beginning to penetrate the
civilian market. The public has become both more aware of amputees
and more accepting of the use of prosthetics. One need only witness
the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team or the Wounded Warrior
Amputee Football Team compete (and win) against able-bodied teams to
understand the amazing progress that has occurred.18
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND THE NATURE
OF COGNITION
What is the nature of thought, and how might it apply to the pursuit
of artificial intelligence (AI)? Human thought is one of the most challenging concepts of modern science—and defining it has been the province

10

Outsourcing War to Machines

of philosophers, mathematicians, physicians, biologists, and computer
scientists for centuries. While we have learned a great deal about the biochemical processes associated with the human brain, we still do not have
a unanimously accepted model of how thinking works in humans, much
less a meaningful way to replicate it in machines. Perhaps our greatest
mistake has been the attempt to duplicate organic processes in an inorganic environment. Machines designed to focus upon a particular aspect
of thinking, such as arithmetic calculations or pattern recognition, have
proven far more capable than humans in these hyper-specialized functions. Thus far, the most useful “thinking” machines have been those
dedicated to very specific tasks, at which computers can excel. Because
computers do not get tired of repetitive tasks, bored with inactivity, or too
exhausted to concentrate, they offer unique possibilities with regard to
functions that have traditionally remained human responsibilities. However, turning many military operations over to machines carries its own
risk, as the conclusions drawn by computers regarding the same input
available to humans may differ markedly from those of humans. Further,
because computers have a much wider variety of potential sensory inputs,
and because they are typically much better at reconciling conflicting information from varied sensors, they may act far more decisively than their
human counterparts, even in situations when decisive action may not be
warranted.
Early modern philosophers contemplating the nature of cognition developed a wide variety of explanations for human thought and how individual ideas might be stored within the mind. Thomas Hobbes considered
“thinking” to be a form of mental discourse—and he made no differentiation between the process of thinking and the act of writing. To Hobbes,
the most rational form of thinking followed methodical rules, which led to
predictable patterns and reasoned conclusions. Rene Descartes divorced
thought, which he considered inherently symbolic, from the objective
world. In this regard, he essentially created the modern concept of the
mind. Descartes believed the mind was entirely separate from the physical world, and thus reason should be considered entirely divorced from
physical laws. David Hume attempted to discern the laws of the mind,
applying scientific processes to the notion of mental mechanics. To Hume,
thoughts were akin to movements of matter within the brain—an idea that
offered the possibility of sharing thoughts directly if the said matter could
be isolated and transferred to another individual. Each of these classical
philosophers not only expanded the human conception of intelligence but
also offered guidance for the development of artificial forms of thinking.
For pioneers of AI, it was the Hobbesian notion of methodical patterns
that drove the concept of programming. Descartes’s conception of symbolism rather than literalism within the mind advanced the AI concept
of internal programming languages that need not conform to the rules of

The Revolution Has Arrived

11

written language—and in fact, if they are to maintain an ironclad Hobbesian methodical approach and should not incorporate any of the idiosyncrasies of human languages. Hume’s conception of thoughts literally moving
through the mind became the concept of data transfers—and also the possibility of copying data for replication in other machine environments.
In the twentieth century, scientists began to actively pursue the concept
of AI. In the early 1960s, computer and robotics pioneer Marvin Minsky
founded the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His former colleague and close friend John McCarthy
founded the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, developing a new
key locus for AI research on the West Coast. Both sites remain groundbreaking robotic research locations that have made enormous contributions to the development of AI. Hundreds of other academic institutions,
private corporations, and government entities have also moved into the
field of robotics development in the ensuing five decades.
Predictions regarding the future of AI have ranged from the absurdly
optimistic to the hopelessly pessimistic. In 1989, Paul Lehner proclaimed,
“My first prediction is that most of the national defense applications of AI
presently being pursued will not succeed in the near-term development of
operationally useful systems, despite the fact that many of the programs
have the specific objective of developing operationally functional systems
in the near future.”19 Two years later, the AI systems controlling Patriot
missile batteries proved quite successful in military operations, though
not as infallible as some media reports suggested at the time. In 1993, Vernor Vinge opined, “[W]ithin thirty years, we will have the technological
means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will
be ended.”20 One of the most prominent, and optimistic, futurists is Ray
Kurzweil, who in 2003 claimed that “it is hard to think of any problem that
a superintelligence could not either solve or help us solve.”21 Of course, if
the problem proves to be a hostile artificial superintelligence, harnessing
that capability might prove difficult. Even Kurzweil believes that controlling such a development might prove impossible, or, as he states the matter, “Once strong AI is achieved, it will immediately become a runaway
phenomenon of rapidly escalating superintelligence.”22 He considers
this to be a positive development in human history but seems unwilling or unable to consider the potential negative ramifications of such an
achievement.
None of these predictions has proven correct, but then again, none
of them was completely wrong, either. Lehner’s prediction that there
would be no operationally useful systems was obviously quickly proved
­incorrect—and yet, there are few operational autonomous systems nearly
three decades after his prediction. Vinge’s idea of superintelligence was
wrong, if one requires that the AI in question be capable of every form
of cognition practiced by humans. If one allows for limited applications,

12

Outsourcing War to Machines

though, there are many aspects of information processing that are far
more effective using computers. It is harder to assess Kurzweil’s predictions, in large part because they have yet to occur, but they are unlikely
to be hyper-accurate as well. By definition, predictions of the future are
fickle (and if Greek mythology is correct, getting the right answer won’t
guarantee anybody will listen). This book does not pretend to have the
answers, but it does help to address the questions of how we got to where
we are in terms of military robotics, where we are likely headed, and what
might occur in the future.
There is an old joke in the historical profession, which is an apt metaphor for the majority of this book. Like most historians’ jokes, it follows a
tried and true pattern:
Q: “How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?”
A: “When Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879. . .”

This book, like most works produced by historians, seeks to place the
events it describes into historical context. In part, this is a function of the
training of the discipline. In part, it is because too many other works examining military robotics have utterly failed in this regard, leading the reader
to assume that military robots simply appeared in the skies over Afghanistan one day, raining down missiles upon terrorists’ heads. The truth, as
usual, is quite a bit more nuanced and will require more examination.
THE ANTECEDENTS OF THE WAR ON TERROR
When al Qaeda operatives hijacked four airliners and turned them into
suicidal missiles, a large share of the U.S. population had never heard of
the terror organization. The U.S. State Department had placed al Qaeda
on its list of foreign terror organizations in 1999, and the CIA stepped
up efforts to find and neutralize its reclusive leader.23 The Department
of Defense had stepped up protective measures for troops operating in
the Middle East due to recent overseas attacks. Average Americans, on
the other hand, paid the group little or no mind, despite a series of earlier attacks on U.S. citizens and American interests. Ultimately, it was this
conflict that created the conditions necessary to rush military robotics to
the battlefield, with little consideration for the long-term consequences
of such a decision. However, as is so often the case, there is a much more
complicated backstory to the conflict with al Qaeda.
In 1993, a truck bomb detonated in the underground garage of the
World Trade Center complex and came disturbingly close to penetrating
the “bathtub” of the structure. Such a penetration would have allowed
the waters of the Hudson River to rush in, an event that could only end
in catastrophe for the buildings and their inhabitants. Contemporary

The Revolution Has Arrived

13

investigators posited that such a breach might have resulted in the deaths
of up to 50,000 people. Unlike the September 11 attacks, there would have
been no opportunity for an evacuation, as all the routes of egress would be
submerged almost immediately, and the buildings’ collapse would have
followed shortly thereafter. The mastermind of the 1993 attack, Ramzi
Yousef, was captured in 1995 in Pakistan and is currently serving a life
sentence in the supermax prison located at Florence, Colorado, after being
convicted of plotting both the World Trade Center attack and the Bojinka
plot of 1995. His Pakistani uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, took note
of the failing aspects of the 1993 and 1995 plans and within a few years
commenced the operational planning for the 2001 attacks that destroyed
the complex.
Although the FBI was quickly able to determine responsibility for the
attack, it had no way of knowing the scale of the rising threat presented by
al Qaeda, a shadowy terror group formed by mujahedeen veterans from
the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation. The group’s founder, Osama
bin Laden, was a wealthy scion from one of the largest construction companies in Saudi Arabia. He offered the services of his organization to the
Saudi government in August 1990, as an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait put hostile troops on the Saudi border. The Saudi leadership rebuffed bin Laden
and chose to request assistance from the United States, inviting Americanled coalition troops to establish bases along the border. The Desert Storm
campaign of 1991 that ousted the Iraqis from Kuwait was launched from
those bases and conducted without assistance from bin Laden’s nascent
organization. The choice of Western rather than local assistance infuriated
bin Laden, who swore to rid the Muslim Holy Land of corrupting Western
influence.
Over time, al Qaeda’s goals morphed and grew, to the point that by
2001, the organization was determined to ignite a regional insurgency
against all of the temporal governments of the Arab world. Ultimately, bin
Laden hoped to bring about a pan-regional caliphate, uniting the world’s
Sunni Muslims into a single empire. If realized, such a state would stretch
from Morocco to Indonesia, encompassing a billion adherents. It would
be a world power impossible to ignore, with economic and population
resources to challenge any other nation. To rule such a diverse polity, bin
Laden expected to establish a theocracy ordained by Allah, which would
blend political and religious leadership under a single figure. Naturally,
sharia law would reign, in accordance with bin Laden’s own Wahhabist
views of Sunni Islam.
A savvy student of history and politics, bin Laden understood that
fear of a common enemy has served as a key unifying force for the major
empires of the world. To create such a common enemy, he needed to not
only attack the West but also provoke it into a massive overreaction. Such
a response might serve to galvanize and unite the disparate peoples of the

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Outsourcing War to Machines

Sunni faith, particularly if their own governments were seen to side with
the Western aggressors. In 1996, he served a formal notice of his intent to
declare war upon the West and proclaimed it the duty of every faithful
Muslim to resist the corrupting influence of Western ideology. In his declaration, bin Laden directly addressed U.S. secretary of defense William J.
Perry and claimed justification for any acts of terrorism in the service of
the greater good:
I say to you William (Defense Secretary) that: These youths love death as you love
life. They inherit dignity, pride, courage, generosity, truthfulness and sacrifice from
father to father. They are most delivering and steadfast at war. They inherit these
values from their ancestors (even from the time of the Jaheliyyah, before Islam).
These values were approved and completed by the arriving Islam as stated by the
messenger of Allah (Allah’s Blessings and Salutations may be on him): “I have
been send to perfecting the good values” (Saheeh Al-Jame’ As-Sagheer).
Those youths know that their rewards in fighting you, the USA, is double than
their rewards in fighting some one else not from the people of the book. They have
no intention except to enter paradise by killing you. An infidel, and enemy of God
like you, cannot be in the same hell with his righteous executioner.
Terrorising you, while you are carrying arms on our land, is a legitimate and
morally demanded duty. It is a legitimate right well known to all humans and
other creatures. Your example and our example is like a snake which entered into
a house of a man and got killed by him. The coward is the one who lets you walk,
while carrying arms, freely on his land and provides you with peace and security.
The youths hold you responsible for all of the killings and evictions of the Muslims and the violation of the sanctities, carried out by your Zionist brothers in
Lebanon; you openly supplied them with arms and finance. More than 600,000
Iraqi children have died due to lack of food and medicine and as a result of the
unjustifiable aggression (sanction) imposed on Iraq and its nation. The children of
Iraq are our children. You, the USA, together with the Saudi regime are responsible
for the shedding of the blood of these innocent children. Due to all of that, whatever treaty you have with our country is now null and void.24

Although the CIA was aware of bin Laden’s existence, analysts did not
appear to feel very threatened by his intentions. A 1996 CIA profile of bin
Laden characterized him as a financier of terrorism rather than as a charismatic mastermind representing a threat to the entire West.25
Two years later, bin Laden joined in a communiqué signed by the World
Islamic Front declaring a “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.” Once again,
the prevailing theme was opposition to Western dominance in Middle
Eastern affairs. It is noteworthy that the declaration included Jews, and
by extension the nation of Israel, which al Qaeda had previously largely
ignored. This was almost certainly done to coopt the allegiance of Palestinian resistance organizations, who had access to thousands of trained
fighters, advanced weaponry, and substantial financial reserves. Under
this new declaration of jihad, the authors laid out a series of grievances

The Revolution Has Arrived

15

and then called for all able-bodied Muslims to participate in the conflict to
the extent of their abilities.
No one argues today about three facts that are known to everyone; we will list
them, in order to remind everyone:
First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of
Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its
bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring
Muslim peoples.
If some people have in the past argued about the fact of the occupation, all the
people of the Peninsula have now acknowledged it. The best proof of this is the
Americans’ continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using the Peninsula as
a staging post, even though all its rulers are against their territories being used to
that end, but they are helpless.
Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the
crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which
has exceeded 1 million . . . despite all this, the Americans are once against trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the
protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and
devastation.
So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and to humiliate their
Muslim neighbors. Third, if the Americans’ aims behind these wars are religious
and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention
from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of
this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and
their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia,
Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to
guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation
of the Peninsula.
All these crimes and sins committed by the Americans are a clear declaration
of war on God, his messenger, and Muslims. . . . On that basis, and in compliance
with God’s order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an
individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca]
from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam,
defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words
of Almighty God, “and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,”
and “fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail
justice and faith in God.”
We—with God’s help—call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes
to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their
money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s
supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that
they may learn a lesson.26

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Outsourcing War to Machines

Also in 1998, al Qaeda operatives detonated two truck bombs at U.S.
embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania. Over 200 victims perished in the attacks, the vast majority of them local African citizens
working at or near the embassies. Less than two years later, a small boat
loaded with explosives detonated next to the USS Cole while the American
destroyer was at anchor in Aden, Yemen. Seventeen U.S. sailors died in
the attack, which narrowly failed to sink the ship. Each of these attacks
provoked a U.S. retaliation in the form of cruise missile strikes against
al Qaeda training camps, but neither did much to influence the U.S. citizenry regarding the threat of terrorism in general or al Qaeda in particular.
American military interest remained fixated upon the Balkans, in particular over the question of Serbian incursions into Kosovo. U.S. Air Force
units continued to enforce no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq.
Little effort was expended upon countering the rise of al Qaeda or training
forces in the tenets of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations.
When President George W. Bush entered office in 2001, he did so under
the cloud of a contested election that had to be decided in the U.S. Supreme
Court. His administration focused little attention upon al Qaeda or other
terror organizations, and efforts by President Clinton’s top counterterrorism expert, Richard Clarke, had little effect upon the new national security
team. On August 6, 2001, the president’s daily brief from the CIA focused
upon the threat presented by bin Laden and his organization. In particular, the later-declassified brief noted that al Qaeda showed an unusually
high capacity for complicated operations and long-term planning. It also
summarized the previous mass-casualty attacks carried out by al Qaeda
and suggested that bin Laden had taken a particularly strong interest in
the possibility of hijacking commercial aircraft.27 Bin Laden’s desire to
attack the United States in a spectacular fashion might have been selfevident to the intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as to the
military, but the manner of such an attack remained unforeseen until it
was too late.
It took most Americans completely by surprise to watch in real time as
fires raged at the World Trade Center in New York. Hundreds of millions
of people around the world watched in horror as first one tower and then
the second collapsed into a mountain of rubble, entombing nearly 3,000
victims in the process. By the evening of September 11, it was clear that
the United States had been the victim of the deadliest terror attack in history and that a new form of conflict had begun. President George W. Bush
addressed the nation in the aftermath of the attack, stating:
Today our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in
a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes or in
their offices: secretaries, business men and women, military and Federal workers,
moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended
by evil, despicable acts of terror . . .

The Revolution Has Arrived

17

Today our Nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. And we responded
with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for
strangers who came to give blood and help in any way they could . . .
The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. I’ve directed
the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find
those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between
the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.28

This initial response was designed to calm the nation and demonstrate
resolve in the face of terror. It is interesting that it made no mention of
activating military forces or launching international campaigns, beyond
the naked threat against any nation that might harbor al Qaeda.
If bin Laden thought the United States would pull back from the Middle East in response to the September 11 attacks, he was sorely mistaken.
On the other hand, if his goal was to chip away at the economic foundations of U.S. power, the attacks succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. In
exchange for an investment of approximately US$500,000, al Qaeda triggered American involvement in two wars, the creation of an enormous
security apparatus, and a social division within American society that
questioned whether fundamental citizens’ rights were being sacrificed in
the name of pursuing an unobtainable goal of perfect security. The costs
of all of the subsequent U.S. military activities and security upgrades have
probably run to at least US$5 trillion and will likely continue to drive the
U.S. government deeper into debt.29
In the days that immediately followed the attacks, Bush and his closest
advisors were largely devoted to formulating a military response and to
designing a campaign to destroy Osama bin Laden’s terror network, headquartered in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban government.
Bob Woodward reports that one of the most significant aspects of the response
was the massive increase in lethal authorizations for the CIA, noting,
Late in the afternoon at the White House, the president was presented with two documents to sign. One was a Memorandum of Notification modifying the finding that
President Ronald Reagan had signed on May 12, 1986. The memorandum authorized all the steps proposed by Tenet at Camp David. The CIA was now empowered
to disrupt the al Qaeda network and other global terrorist networks on a worldwide
scale, using lethal covert action to keep the role of the United States hidden. The
finding also authorized the CIA to operate freely and fully in Afghanistan with its
own paramilitary teams, case officers, and the newly armed Predator drone.30

During a September 20 speech to Congress, the tenor of Bush’s remarks
became far more belligerent and left no doubt that the United States was
girding itself for war:
On September 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years, they have been wars

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Outsourcing War to Machines

on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war, but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans
have known surprise attacks but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this
was brought upon us in a single day, and night fell on a different world, a world
where freedom itself is under attack.
Americans have many questions tonight. Americans are asking, who attacked
our country? The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely
affiliated terrorist organizations known as Al Qaida. They are some of the murderers indicted for bombing American Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and responsible for bombing the U.S.S. Cole. Al Qaida is to terror what the Mafia is to crime.
But its goal is not making money. Its goal is remaking the world and imposing its
radical beliefs on people everywhere . . .
Tonight, the United States of America makes the following demands on the
Taliban: Deliver to United States authorities all the leaders of Al Qaida who hide
in your land. Release all foreign nationals, including American citizens, you have
unjustly imprisoned. Protect foreign journalists, diplomats, and aid workers in
your country. Close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp
in Afghanistan, and hand over every terrorist and every person in their support
structure to appropriate authorities. Give the United States full access to terrorist
training camps, so we can make sure they are no longer operating. These demands
are not open to negotiation or discussion. The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate . . .
We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before.
They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the
will to power, they follow in the path of fascism and Nazism and totalitarianism.
And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends, in history’s unmarked
grave of discarded lies . . .
Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered a great loss. And in our grief
and anger, we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at
war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the
great hope of every time, now depends on us. Our Nation—this generation—will
lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the
world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire; we will not
falter; and we will not fail.31

This second speech has a much more warlike character throughout its
entire text. It made clear the president’s position, that the United States
would undertake any military action necessary to destroy al Qaeda, as
well as any government standing in the way. Little did Bush know the
enormous magnitude of the war that would follow and the fundamental
changes in military technology, doctrine, and tactics that would emerge as
a result of the fight at hand.
Predictably, the U.S. government, prodded by the public, had to pursue
the capture or killing of bin Laden and his top lieutenants. They simply
could not be allowed to launch an attack that killed thousands of American civilians without massive retaliation from the largest military power

The Revolution Has Arrived

19

on the planet. It was no secret that the leaders of al Qaeda had accepted
refuge from the Taliban government of Afghanistan. President Bush had
clearly presented an ultimatum to the Taliban in his September 20 speech
to Congress, when he stated:
And tonight, the United States of America makes the following demands
on the Taliban: Deliver to United States authorities all the leaders of Al
Qaida who hide in your land. Release all foreign nationals, including
American citizens, you have unjustly imprisoned. Protect foreign journalists, diplomats, and aid workers in your country. Close immediately and
permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, and hand over
every terrorist and every person in their support structure to appropriate
authorities. Give the United States full access to terrorist training camps,
so we can make sure they are no longer operating. These demands are not
open to negotiation or discussion. The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share their fate.32At
the same time, he asked the assistance of the rest of the world but also
warned them of the dangers of supporting al Qaeda:
This is not, however, just America’s fight, and what is at stake is not just America’s
freedom. This is the world’s fight. This is civilization’s fight. This is the fight of all
who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.
We ask every nation to join us. We will ask, and we will need, the help of police
forces, intelligence services, and banking systems around the world. The United
States is grateful that many nations and many international organizations have
already responded, with sympathy and with support, nations from Latin America,
to Asia, to Africa, to Europe, to the Islamic world. Perhaps the NATO Charter
reflects best the attitude of the world: An attack on one is an attack on all.
The civilized world is rallying to America’s side. They understand that if this
terror goes unpunished, their own cities, their own citizens may be next. Terror,
unanswered, can not only bring down buildings, it can threaten the stability of
legitimate governments. And you know what? We’re not going to allow it.
Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes.
Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other
we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one
against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or rest.
And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every
nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are
with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support
terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.33 [emphasis added]

In this fashion, he sought to portray the coming conflict as one of good versus evil. This position played into the narrative being spread by bin Laden
and other Islamic fundamentalists, who wished to convey the notion that
the United States had set out not just to attack al Qaeda but to destroy

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Outsourcing War to Machines

Islam itself. The common enemy had been created and was now clearly
planning to invade a Muslim country on a mission of revenge, regardless
of the costs or consequences.
In this speech, President Bush also began preparing the American public for the long-term costs associated with conducting a war on al Qaeda.
Future terror strikes on American soil were entirely likely, and the conflict certainly would not be wrapped up in a matter of a few days. Unlike
his predecessor, Bush was not content to fire a handful of cruise missiles
or launch a series of airstrikes. Having suffered the loss of thousands of
citizens, the United States was about to embark upon a crusade against
the very concept of terrorism, and no nation would be permitted to
remain neutral in the coming fight. Over the following decades, the newly
declared War on Terror came to challenge the world’s understanding of
acceptable legal and moral practices in warfare, the technology best associated with modern conflicts, and even the concept of geographic boundaries traditionally placed upon warfare. Bush fully intended to pursue al
Qaeda and its leaders to the ends of the earth, using any and all means at
his disposal to destroy the terror organization.
RMAs have occurred on several occasions in human history, and they
have tended to significantly upset the global power structure. As they permeate to new regions, they gradually become the new norm for human
conflict—and areas or populations that refuse to adopt the new innovations tend to be victimized by those that accept it at the first opportunity.
The primary contention of this work is that military robotics constitute
just such a revolution and that those nations and populations actively
pursuing them should be aware of the dangerous potential that they represent, rather than blindly driving forward in the quest for a deadly new
technology. Of course, I am not the first author to contend that military
robotics represent an RMA, nor am I the most alarmist when discussing
their potential. Richard Falk argues “Weaponized drones are probably the
most troublesome weapon added to the arsenal of war making since the
atomic bomb, and from the perspective of world order, may turn out to be
even more dangerous in its implications.34 Grégoire Chamayou argues
that military robotics are making wars more likely, in part because the
wars of the future, at least for the nations equipped with such technology,
might be fought with little or no losses in human personnel. According to
Chamayou,
Using new means, the drone procures for its operators an even greater sense of
invulnerability. Today as yesterday, the radical imbalance in exposure to death
leads to a redefinition of relations of hostility and of the very sense of what is
called “waging war.” Warfare, by distancing itself totally from the model of handto-hand combat, becomes something quite different, a “state of violence” of a
different kind. It degenerates into slaughter or hunting. One no longer fights the
enemy, one eliminates him, as one shoots rabbits.35

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21

Chamayou’s point is well taken, in that the traditional conceptions of war
put at least some risk upon both sides and that without such a risk, perhaps the term “war” might be misapplied to the violence being conducted.
However, not every scholar sees it in the same fashion—and some envision a conflict in which the human casualties of conflict might be reduced
almost to zero. Barbara Ehrenreich, perhaps best known for her study of
the origins of World War I, can hardly be called a warmonger—and yet,
she sees the development of military robotics as a potential panacea, at
least under certain circumstances, arguing:
An alternative approach is to eliminate or drastically reduce the military’s dependence upon human beings of any kind. This would have been an almost unthinkable proposition a few decades ago, but technologies employed in Iraq and
Afghanistan have steadily stripped away the human role in war. Drones, directed
from sites up to 7,500 miles away in the western United States, are replacing
manned aircraft. Video cameras, borne by drones, substitute for human scouts or
information gathered by pilots. Robots disarm roadside bombs. When American
forces invaded Iraq in 2003, no robots accompanied them; by 2008, there were
12,000 participating in the war. Only a handful of drones were used in the initial
invasion; today, the U.S. military has an inventory of more than 7,000, ranging
from the familiar Predator to tiny Ravens and Wasps used to transmit video images
of events on the ground. Far stronger fighting machines are in the works, like
swarms of lethal “cyborg insects” that could potentially replace human infantry.36

The truth, as is so often the case, falls somewhere between the extremes.
Currently, military robots have been in wide-scale usage by the United
States for less than two decades and by other nations for even less time.
They represent an enormous potential, both for good and for evil, and the
development of the technology itself is only one aspect of how they will
influence the wars of the future. Military robots are likely here to stay,
as they are simply too useful to be discarded, but there is still time to set
some definite limits upon their employment.

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CHAPTER 2

A Short Guide to Revolutions

[S]ince the discovery of gunpowder has changed the art of war, the whole
system has, in consequence, been changed. Strength of body, the first quality
among the heroes of antiquity, is at presence of no significance. Strategem
vanquishes strength, and art overcomes courage. The understanding of the
general has more influence on the fortunate or unfortunate consequences of
the campaign than the prowess of the combatants. Prudence prepares and
traces the route that valor must pursue; boldness directs the execution, and
ability, not good fortune, wins the applause of the well informed.
—Frederick the Great, 1759

Military forces are inherently learning organizations, which are capable of
rapid adaptation to changes in technology, doctrine, environmental conditions, and the behavior of enemies. They often constitute the first-adopters
of new technological innovations, and in fact, most first-rate military organizations seek to produce technological changes that will supply an inherent advantage over potential competitors on the battlefield. In this regard,
the field of military robotics, and the effect that it is having upon military
forces around the globe, is no different from other revolutionary technological changes that have forever altered the nature of human conflict.
Although the technology available at any given time in history has always
been in flux, the changes in the modern era have come at an exponentially
increasing rate, driven by both the raw number of individuals participating in research operations and the equally rapid rise in artificial computational power. Innovation in military robotics has a certain element that has
not been present in previous military technological developments, in that
the technology in question, robots, might actually serve to create more
advanced versions of itself and might also be able to inherently improve
itself through the incorporation of learning and modeling behaviors. To
truly understand the unique nature of the rise of military robotics, though,
it is necessary to examine the nature of advances in military technology
throughout history.

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Outsourcing War to Machines

REVOLUTIONS IN MILITARY AFFAIRS
In 1984, Soviet military theorist Nikolai Vasilyevich Ogarkov posited
the notion of a revolution in military affairs (RMA), in particular, referring to the need for the Soviet Union to radically alter its approach to
conflict if it hoped to remain in peer competition with the United States.
While he might not have been the first person to suggest that certain technologies permanently altered the conduct of warfare, he at least deserves
credit for coining the term that has become almost synonymous with radical technological shifts. Ogarkov pointed to a number of key examples
of innovations that forced every major military on earth to either adapt
to the new paradigm or fall victim to others who had embraced the new
system of war.1 Other writers built upon his broad concept and have proposed dozens of innovations as examples of an RMA. For some authors,
the threshold for “transformation” has proven relatively low, while others
reserve the term “RMA” to refer to only a few specific changes in human
conflict. Regardless of the number of ideas that might be considered to
qualify, an RMA is, briefly stated, a fundamental transformation in the
means or methods of conducting warfare that conveys a massive advantage to adopters when engaged in conflict with non-adopters and which
eventually establishes a new norm for the profession of arms. RMAs are
not limited to technological changes, although many of the most commonly accepted changes had a major technological component. Examples include the adoption of gunpowder firearms, nuclear weaponry, or
networked and computerized communications systems. However, the
development of mass conscript armies, the industrialized production of
munitions, or the use of combined forces of different types of specialized
units (infantry, cavalry, and artillery, for instance) can also be considered
RMAs with an equally important effect.
RMAs do not occur in a vacuum, nor are they instantaneous. The effects
of a new idea might be immediately evident, particularly if it results in a
decisive battlefield victory, but it also might take decades for the new concept to spread throughout the military profession. However, regardless of
the speed of adoption, once an RMA has occurred, any military forces that
stubbornly refuse to conform to the new concept or that prove incapable
of such adaptation have tended to find themselves on the losing end of
conflicts. Such advantages have often been the means by which empires
rise and fall—a single key military innovation can have a cascading effect
allowing the conquest of nearby rivals, increasing the power base of an
aggressor state, and allowing further acquisitions of territory. To stop such
a movement often requires peer competitors to adopt the same innovations, proving the adage “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Another way
to state the same concept, one with much more frightening ramifications,
is more commonly used in reference to the spread of religions by military
conquest. It is simple: convert or die.

A Short Guide to Revolutions

25

Fundamental changes in the nature of warfare are not a common occurrence, and, as the succeeding pages will demonstrate, it is possible for the
art of war to appear stagnant for decades or even centuries. To the practitioners of war, that is usually not the case—they continue to innovate in
every battle and campaign, sure in the knowledge that what worked today
might never work again and that to become predictable is to court defeat.
Not surprisingly, most changes in warfare are by definition e­ volutionary—
gradual adjustments in strategy, doctrine, or technology in the hope of
gaining an advantage and preserving it as long as possible. Thus, in the
centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the knights of Europe gradually donned heavier armor, experimented with new weaponry, and tested
new tactics in the almost-continual warfare that defined the era.
Trying to recount every RMA throughout human history is beyond the
scope of this investigation, but there are a few that can serve as useful
examples for illustrating how a fundamental change in the dominant form
of warfare can have enormous effects. Not only do the adopters of a new
RMA enjoy a significant advantage over those who have failed to adopt
the new idea, they also have the opportunity to press that advantage
for long-lasting political and demographic changes. States that embrace
RMAs faster than their competitors create opportunities to overturn the
status quo and potentially become a dominant regional or global power.
The very desire to maintain the status quo should serve as a motivating
factor for dominant states to seek out and embrace revolutionary ideas
or technological changes—and yet, because those states maintain power
under existing conditions, they also have a competing desire to avoid
introducing any destabilizing factors that might threaten their own power
base. Thus, it is essentially in the interest of dominant powers to remain
aware of any potential RMAs and to either prevent their development by
competitors or adopt the new concepts faster before they become an existential threat in the hands of the enemy. History is replete with examples
of hegemonic powers that dismissed an RMA until it was too late to react
to the new paradigm. Those hegemons that have maintained their dominance over long periods of time have typically been the same ones that
have not categorically refused to consider changing their primary methods of applying military force in military conflicts.
“REVOLUTION”
The term “revolution” has been applied in many contexts, with both a
positive and negative connotation. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines
a revolution as “a sudden, radical, or complete change.” In warfare, the
modifier “revolutionary” has very specific implications. In general, revolutionary wars are a subset of civil wars. They may be waged by one portion of a nation attempting to break free of a central government, as was
the case with both the American War of Revolution and the U.S. Civil War.

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In those types of conflicts, the breakaway groups tend to view themselves
as patriots freeing their territory from an abusive or oppressing foreigner,
even if there is a long-shared heritage between the governors and the governed. Colonies casting off the imperial yoke often refer to the revolutionary aspects of their efforts to obtain independence, even if they manage to
do so through political or diplomatic means. Revolutionary warfare can
also be used to describe a conflict in which one segment of the population
wishes to destroy or supplant the existing government with a radically
different form of governance. Examples of this style of warfare include the
French and Russian Revolutions, both of which removed by force a monarchy in favor of a more republican style of government. The French effort
lumbered through a number of revolutionary governments, each replacing
its predecessor in a bloody wave of violence, before being effectively terminated through the coronation of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte a mere
15 years after the revolution began. He, in turn, held sole power for less
than 10 years before a coalition of external military forces, each under a
monarchical government, removed him and restored the Bourbon family
to power. The Russian Revolution removed the tsars, to be sure, but proved
no more successful than the French experiment, as the short-lived Russian government run by Alexander Karensky quickly lost any semblance
of control. A bloody civil war between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks
solidified the establishment of a new communist government under Vladimir Lenin. For any American readers feeling smug about the U.S. experience, it would be wise to examine the number of internal revolts against
the new republic in the aftermath of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.2 Likewise, it
must be noted that the revolutionary U.S. government fared no better than
its European counterparts and proved completely incapable of defending
its own territory. Not until after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution
and the election of George Washington as a reasonably powerful executive
did the federal government show even a semblance of successful function.
A revolution can also be used to signify fundamental changes in other
elements of human society. For example, the Industrial Revolution, which
commenced in Britain in the late 18th century, completely altered the
methods of production around the globe—and any nation that refused to
accept the new systems of manufacturing could expect to be economically
bypassed by all competitors who did. Over time, most nations adopted
the tenets of the industrial process or at least did not attempt to compete
in manufacturing by more traditional means. Nations with better access
to the key resources for industrialization naturally had certain advantages, as did those geographically well situated to exploit access to large
consumer markets. Yet, even some nations with few industrial resources,
such as Japan, have built themselves into industrial powerhouses through
the sheer determination to do so. Not coincidentally, many of the same
early adopters of industrialization have proven most open to utilizing the

A Short Guide to Revolutions

27

advantages of robotic developments in their manufacturing centers, demonstrating a continuing willingness to advance their industrial economies
and maintain their economic primacy in the world.
Many have dubbed the creation of the Internet and the massive increase
in the number of communications avenues an “information revolution.”
This fundamental shift in the means of transmitting data has had farreaching, and often unexpected, social and political effects. It has made
controlling information far more difficult for repressive governments, as
was demonstrated by the use of social media to coordinate 2012’s Arab
Spring. It has also created an amazing opportunity for intelligence agencies, which have wholeheartedly embraced using computer networks as a
means to penetrate classified, sensitive programs. Not only do cyber networks provide the skilled attacker access to key data, they also enable its
exfiltration, dissemination, and re-encryption.
Most RMAs occur over a period of years or even decades, which can
make pinpointing the exact moment of change almost impossible. Yet, for
all of their apparent gradual change, there have always been winners and
losers as a result of every RMA, and differentiating between the two is
usually quite simple. Often, the winners are those who survive the transformation and use it to further their own interests and position within the
international arena. The losers are fortunate if they manage to avoid annihilation; preserving their previous standing has always proven impossible
except when they had recognized the RMA and enthusiastically adapted
to the changed nature of conflict. Regaining past glory is exceedingly rare
in international relations—once an empire has collapsed, the remnants of
it may remain, but they are unlikely to achieve a status on par with the
original imperial position.
Change is difficult for states and embracing a fundamental transformation even more so. When it comes to RMAs, it has proven far easier
for weaker states to accept the need to change their approach to warfare,
if only to have a better chance at survival. Tim Harford makes the case
that success always comes after failure, because only by learning from
mistakes can an organization truly open itself to the need for change
and undertake the necessary actions to support it. In particular, he sees
adaptation to changing circumstances as the most important attribute of
a leader.3 Although he focused more upon businesses than nation-states,
and his concept should not be considered an absolute requirement, in the
case of RMAs, early adopters have often sought to obtain an advantage
over stronger rivals by testing a new technology, doctrine, or strategy.
Harford summarizes his primary concept in what he calls the “Palchinsky
Principles,” namely, to try new things, to do so on a scale small enough to
survive potential failure, and to learn from mistakes.4
Gaining a short-term advantage means little if one cannot translate
it into a lasting position of strength. Weak states are often weak due to

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Outsourcing War to Machines

factors beyond their immediate control, such as a lack of defensible borders, a dearth of natural resources, or an inability to participate in useful trade of goods and ideas with neighbors. While such a state might
manage to embrace change in warfare, it will have a very limited period
to take advantage of any innovation before its more powerful neighbors
adapt to the new concept, either by countering it or by adopting it for
themselves. As an RMA permeates a region and expands, its competitive
advantage dissipates and is useful only against an opponent who has not
embraced the new concept. At that point, a new equilibrium develops,
which remains the norm until another disruptive innovation comes along
to once again threaten the balance of power.
To a certain extent, the more disparate the technological development
levels between two combatants, the more obvious the improvements from
an innovation will appear. When matchlock muskets first appeared on
the battlefields of Europe, they were a significant improvement over earlier musket designs but not so much that they conveyed an overwhelming advantage over those who continued to use the earlier designs. When
those same matchlock musketeers first took the field against African,
Asian, or American warriors armed with hand weapons, they provided a
devastating advantage that could not be easily overcome even by an enormous numerical advantage. European colonial powers swept around the
globe in large part due to their superior armaments, and even relatively
weak European states like Portugal and the Netherlands were able to construct enormous empires because they possessed much greater military
capabilities. Once again, though, being first to the game proved insufficient to guarantee a lasting advantage over more powerful rivals. Despite
moving much later into colonialism, the British and French parlayed their
advantages in Europe into the two largest colonial empires, gradually
eclipsing their earlier competitors.
A prominent and undeniable example of an RMA in action is the easiest
way to illustrate the concept. When gunpowder weapons became prevalent in Europe, the new technology offered a significant advantage for early
adopters, who could use its explosive power to batter down fortifications
from afar. However, even gunpowder could not offset the population differential between Switzerland and France—even if the Alpine kingdom
had adopted firearms first, it had little hope of conquering its much larger
neighbor, and any attempt to do so would require sending a small expeditionary army beyond the defensible Swiss borders on a mission to attack
the most powerful state in Europe. There is simply no conceivable way for
such an action to result in anything but defeat. Had firearms allowed the
Swiss to destroy a French army, French commanders would likely seek
to avoid battle while also working to capture or counter the new technology. French armies with pre-gunpowder weapons would still represent a
threat to the Swiss, if only through their massive numerical superiority.

A Short Guide to Revolutions

29

In the 21st century, the speed of RMAs seems to be increasing, perhaps
in part due to the exponential growth of the speed and capacity of information systems. Although computers might not constitute an RMA in and
of themselves, their existence undeniably enables other RMAs to occur. In
large part, this is due to the compression effect created by massive information storage and transferal capabilities. No longer would it be necessary to gather the finest minds in physics at a single location in the New
Mexico desert to pursue a Manhattan Project, although there still might
be secondary benefits to that approach. Scientific collaboration is now
possible from anywhere in the world, and the development of encryption
systems mitigates most, though not all, of the security-related fears that
permeate the national defense establishment. Likewise, because the entire
world can see the effects of technological developments as they are being
fielded, there is certainly a better option to copy systems and behaviors
than simply waiting until they are applied against your own nation.
There is a long history of human societies establishing boundaries
upon military innovations and operational employment of new technology. Some of the historical limits were established through formal legal
mechanisms, while others were devised through common cultural understandings and informal agreements or on the basis of sustained moral
arguments. Still others were essentially created through a mutual fear of
retaliation, particularly if both sides possessed, or could quickly obtain,
a dangerous new form of weaponry. Some limits have pertained to specific technological advances, such as the attempt to limit the proliferation
of nuclear weapons, while others have referred to behaviors rather than
the tools used. In this category, prohibitions upon targeting civilians or
executing prisoners of war serve as applicable examples.
THE EARLIEST RMAS
There is a case to be made that the earliest and greatest change in the
nature of human fighting occurred long before the development of a
written language to record the event and probably even before anything
approximating human speech existed to describe the event. The existence
of conflict among humans is undeniable, though, and has long been perceived as a uniquely human attribute.5 That happened whenever a primitive human first picked up a rock, or a stick, or some other primitive tool
readily at hand and used it to attack another human. The advantages of
such a simple weapon were too great to ignore, and long before humans
organized into societies capable of conducting anything that might be considered warfare, they had learned to custom-design weaponry using the
materials readily at hand. Fire-hardened spears were soon augmented by
flint rocks knapped into razor-sharp points. Rawhide, sticks, and smooth
rocks made for extremely accurate slings. Atlatls greatly augmented the

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Outsourcing War to Machines

range of early missile weapons, as did simple bows and arrows. In short,
one of the earliest forms of human technological development came in the
creation of rudimentary weapons, which served as tools for hunting and
also as a means of fighting other humans.
Ancient eras of human civilization are often described in terms of technological prowess, and in particular, the key resource used in tool construction, including weapons. Thus, stone-age cultures gave way to those
using copper, which could be formed into a form of armor and much
sharper weapons. Bronze toolmaking supplanted the use of copper, as
bronze tools held their edges much better and created far more durable
weapons and armor. In turn, societies that developed ironworking could
overwhelm bronze-using civilizations in short order, and those that converted to steel had a marked advantage over those still languishing in the
Iron Age. These advances did not happen in an instant; the knowledge of
how to work different materials required generations of experimentation
before it permeated a given society. However, once a new technique was
proven superior to the existing state of the art, it became a closely guarded
state secret. A major technological advantage also created an opportunity
for outward expansion and domination of nearby rivals, one which lasted,
however, only until all of the powers in the region had adopted the new
innovation.6
THE PHALANX: A REVOLUTIONARY FORMATION
To truly see the effect of changing military innovations, one needs only
examine how ancient empires formed, often on the basis of a single revolutionary idea. Thus, for example, Greek city-states of the classical period,
whose armies relied upon relatively simple long spears, handheld shields,
chariots, and body armor, managed to spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin and as far west as Sicily and Carthage. The fact that Greek
hoplites carried such weapons did not revolutionize warfare, although
their weaponry and other tools of war were as advanced as anything in
the immediate vicinity. Rather, their strength came from the methods they
used when deploying their technology, including the tactical decision to
operate in a formation called the phalanx and the social decision to rely
upon the concept of citizen-soldiers. The phalanx allowed the Greeks to
move across the battlefield in a formation that maximized the protection
of each member, in part by requiring soldiers to protect one another with
their overlapping shields. From behind this wall of protection, Greek
troops could thrust their spears against the enemy. The phalanx was not
particularly nimble, but it did present a seemingly unstoppable force that
destroyed any units foolish enough to stand against it. Even against much
larger enemy forces, the phalanx presented a significant tactical obstacle,
so long as its flanks could be kept secure. The vaunted 300 Spartans used

A Short Guide to Revolutions

31

a phalanx formation (and approximately 8,000 auxiliaries from other
Greek city-states) to hold off an enormous Persian force at Thermopylae
in 480 BCE.
The phalanx had a signal weakness, as is often the case with seemingly
invincible formations. It moved slowly and almost always in a straight
line. If it could be approached from the flanks, it could be broken. Likewise, troops operating in the phalanx had little chance of chasing down an
enemy that sought to avoid battle; thus, it could be employed only against
an enemy willing to meet on a battlefield. Soldiers in the phalanx had little
chance of successfully attacking a fortified position, such as a walled city,
although they might successfully carry out a siege by surrounding and
starving the enemy out. They could possibly take the city by storm, but
doing so tended to be costly in blood and treasure and certainly did not
occur within the tactical formation in question.
The phalanx proved so effective that it became the dominant form of
infantry combat formation for centuries, with only minor modifications. It
had a significant advantage in that the function of each member within the
unit was relatively simple, meaning it did not require the fulltime training and dedication that would be afforded to professional troops. This
allowed Greek city-states to mobilize a large percentage of their adult
males when required by crisis, without the added expense of supporting a standing army. Only one major city-state, Sparta, deviated from the
Greek norm of the citizen-soldier. Unlike its rivals, Sparta had conquered
and absorbed a nearby city-state, Messenia, and used the production of
its conquered vassals to offset the costs of a professional fighting force
(which was largely necessitated due to the threat of a revolt from those
same vassals). Spartans devoted an inordinate amount of time and effort
to perfecting their martial skills and in time became the warrior elite of the
region. Yet, even Spartans, for all their prowess, could not devise a means
to overcome the phalanx beyond forming their own, similar formations
and facing the enemy in close combat. Further, Spartans hesitated to campaign far afield from their homes, as they continually feared a slave revolt
if they marched too many troops away for a long campaign.
The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) demonstrates all of the advantages (and the few disadvantages) of the phalanx system. When Athens
and Sparta came to blows over hegemony in the region, it pitted a naval
power (Athens) against a land power (Sparta). Athenian troops could
not defeat their rivals on the battlefield—but soon realized they did not
need to do so in order to win the war. Instead, the Athenians built enormous walls to protect their city and its port, Piraeus, as well as the connecting road between the two. The Athenian navy kept the city supplied
and ensured that any Spartan siege efforts would not only be in vain but
would also expose their own city to a seaborne assault. Not until the Athenians engaged in a ruinously expensive attempt to conquer Syracuse did

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the Spartans have much opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat, but even
that humiliating failure did not induce Athens to surrender. Eventually,
the Spartans allied themselves with ancient foe, Persia, which supplied
a large enough navy to offset the Athenian advantages at sea, gradually
leading to the fall of Athens. For all its power in the open field, the phalanx simply had no capacity to breach a strong fortification, and its slow
movements ensured that any enemy that chose to flee would have little
difficulty escaping. Thus, an outmatched enemy could choose to fight or
flee, and the phalanx would essentially have to accept that decision.7
The phalanx was a perfect representation of the democratic ideal held
by many of the Greek city-states. Within its ranks, each member was
essentially equal, and the entire body of the formation could function only
if its component parts acted in concert. Any member who failed to perform his assigned role created a gap within the formation, one that could
be exploited by an enemy. In much the same fashion, the political power of
an individual city-state required its members to present a unified position
once the internal debates had concluded. There was simply no tolerance
for a divided polity in time of war—either the entire society mobilized to
support a conflict or it could expect to fall to the enemy with all of the dire
consequences that were likely to follow.8
Another interesting facet of the phalanx was how easily new members
could be added to the formation. There was no requirement for years of
training, or even for complex tactical decision making for the vast majority
of its members. Participants within the phalanx had a very well-defined
role that depended entirely upon their position within the formation.
Those in the front ranks had the most important defensive function, as
their large shields served to protect the entire unit from direct-fire projectiles. Each member’s shield coverage overlapped the body of the man to
his left, and each member was protected in turn by the man to his right.
Only the ends of the line had a different situation; otherwise, everyone in
the line served in essentially the same fashion. Those behind the front rank
thrust their spears forward over the men in front of them, seeking vulnerable points in the defenses of any enemy in range. The back ranks also
bolstered those before them by placing their shields on the backs of the
rank immediately before them and pushing. In effect, the phalanx became
a grinding, almost unstoppable wall of flesh and metal, pushing back
or rolling over the enemy. Those who fell before it were simply crushed
under its weight, pressed down into the earth before being stabbed by one
of the follow-on ranks.9
So, what were the battlefield vulnerabilities of the phalanx? For a time,
it seemed almost invincible, particularly when matched against an enemy
employing a different formation. On numerous occasions, Greek phalanxes triumphed over much larger but more chaotic formations, as at the
Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, when approximately 10,000 Greek hoplites

A Short Guide to Revolutions

33

decisively defeated a Persian army of at least 25,000. Yet, the phalanx had
an inherent weaknesses. Its slow speed and dense formation made it an
ideal target for even the most rudimentary of siege weapons. While a hoplite’s shield might serve to stop ordinary arrows fired by archers, it could
do little to stop larger missiles hurled by even crude engines. The phalanx
also struggled when faced by heavy shock cavalry, such as that employed
by Philip of Macedon. Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, proved even
more adept at using heavy cavalry to break up enemy formations, which
then left them open to attack from his own infantry.10
The Roman Empire was built in large part through the creation of a
massive, extremely capable military force. Its infantry units resembled
phalanxes on the surface, in that they operated in linear formations that
relied upon unit cohesion as a key determinant in a battle’s outcome.
Each Roman soldier carried a long semicylindrical shield, the scutum,
that offered protection almost from head to toe. However, rather than
using a long, heavy spear for attacking, Roman troops relied primarily
upon pilae and short swords. Pilae were javelins with long iron blades.
They could be flung up to 50 meters, putting enemy forces in significant
danger before they could come close with Roman units. Each pilum was
designed to bend at its neck upon striking a solid object, whether it was
an enemy shield or the ground. Thus, it could not simply be picked up
and flung back at the Roman forces, and if it lodged in a shield, it became
exceedingly difficult to remove, particularly under battle conditions.11
An enemy without a shield fell qu