Robots and the Rise of “Tactical Generals”

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

March 9, 2009

An amazing revolution is taking place in the history of war, and even perhaps of humanity. The U.S. military went into Iraq in 2003 with zero unmanned systems on the ground and just a handful of drones in the air, none of them armed.

Today, there are more than 5,300 drones in the U.S. inventory and another roughly 12,000 on the ground. And these are just the first generation, the Model T Fords compared with the smarter, more autonomous and more lethal machines already in the prototype stage. And we won’t be the only ones using them. Forty-two other countries have military robotics programs, as well as a host of non-state actors.

But like any major change in war, the robots revolution is not turning out to be the frictionless triumph of technology as some would describe it. Unmanned systems are raising all sorts of questions in politics, ethics, law and other fields, and we are just starting to be aware of them. But these questions are rippling into all aspects of the military endeavor, well before we get to a world of machines making decisions on their own.

Take the role of command. At the unit level, a colonel talked about how the new complications of commanding a team fighting remotely with unmanned systems proved even tougher than when he commanded a deployed unit. Indeed, the fact that the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are among drone pilots “at war” over Iraq, but simultaneously “at home” in Nevada, points to a new wrinkle in the 5,000-year-old human experience of war.

It even affects the strategic level of leadership. Many have discussed the idea of “strategic corporals,” younger and younger troops who are being given greater and greater power and responsibility. But the rise of robots has created an opposite phenomenon – a dirty little secret that people in the service are somewhat afraid to talk about for risk of their own careers. I call it the rise of the “tactical generals.”

Our technologies are making it very easy for leaders at the highest level of command not only to peer into, but even to take control of, the lowest level operations. One four-star general, for example, talked about how he once spent a full two hours watching drone footage of an enemy target and then personally decided what size bomb to drop on it. Similarly, a Special Operations Forces captain talked about a one-star, watching a raid on a terrorist hideout via a Predator, radioing in to tell him where to move not merely his unit in the midst of battle, but where to position his individual troops.

These improved connections certainly help commanders become better informed and take personal responsibility for the situation. Indeed, who knows commander’s intent better than the commander themselves? But the line between timely intervention and micromanagement is a fine one. For instance, the four-star general can do the job of the captains, but those captains can’t do the same on the kind of big strategic issues that only a four-star general has the authority and experience to handle.

Even more, we have to ponder the long-term consequences. What happens when the young officers now being cut out of the chain, or micromanaged, advance up the ranks, just now without the experience of making the tough calls?

This leadership issue is not just one for the troops. Civilian leaders also are being tempted to intervene, as they have a new ability to watch and decide what’s going on in wars. Citing President Lyndon Johnson’s frequent attempts to influence the broader bombing campaign in Vietnam, a former service secretary worried that ultimately, “It’ll be like taking LBJ all the way down into the foxhole.”

We have to start wrestling with all the tough questions that are beginning to flow out from a world in which science fiction-like capabilities are being used in our very real and very human world. Fortunately, in looking at future challenges, the lessons of the past remain solid guideposts.

For example, on the issue of leadership, Gen. George Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army during World War II, remains an apt model even for 21st-century leaders. New inventions like the radio and Teletype gave him what seemed at the time a nearly science fiction-like ability to instruct his officers from afar.

Marshall’s approach, however, was to set the broad goals and agenda, have smart staff officers write up the details of the plan – and ensure that everything remained simple enough that a lieutenant in the field could understand and carry out everything on his own. Just as the bedrock values of good politics, ethics and law remain the same, regardless of the technology or century, so does good leadership.