The Scouting Report Web Chat: Future U.S. Defense Needs in a High Technology Present

Advancements in technology, new modes of warfare and new actors in conflict are changing our understanding of national security and defense capabilities in the evolving context of the twenty-first century.

 On Wednesday, October 7, Peter W. Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings and author of the book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, and Fred Barbash, senior editor at Politico, answered your questions about defense in a high-tech world, including: current U.S. defense needs; defense energy security; and future priorities such as robotic warfare on the ground, in the air and from space.

The transcript of this chat follows:

12:29 Fred Barbash-Moderator:  Welcome POLITICO and Brookings readers to our regular weekly chat. Thanks for participating.

Peter W. Singer is the director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative and a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at Brookings. Singer’s research focuses on three core issues: the future of war, current U.S. defense needs and future priorities, and the future of the U.S. defense system. Singer lectures frequently to U.S. military audiences and is the author of several books and articles, including Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.

Welcome Peter and thank you. Let’s get started.

12:29 Peter W. Singer:  Great, thank you for having me!

12:29 [Comment From Adrianna] Energy security is obviously one of our nation’s top defense priorities now. Can you explain any plans for the US Defense Department to use less energy or to use more “green” technologies to help reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources?

12:30 Peter W. Singer:  We did a report on this recently. The interesting part of the issue is that the DoD is the nation’s single largest consumer of energy. It is also by the way the single largest consumer of alternative energy. But it’s very spotty. That is, there are a few islands of excellence, like the plans for 8 bases to be converted to full alternative usage, like the new solar farm outside Nellis in Nevada. But these are only a few out of the literally 1,000 bases and facilities that remain relatively inefficient. So we need a strategy for the whole. It needs to be part of the QDR.

12:31 Peter W. Singer: 
The reason is not just the environment in my mind, but national security. As we explore in the report, if we had an energy strategy, not only would we save the DoD significant budget money, but also soldiers’ lives. A disproportionate amount of the convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan are actually fuel convoys. So just a 1% improvement in energy efficiency would mean well over 6,000 less convoy missions for soldiers, one of the most dangerous jobs in the field right now.

12:33 [Comment From Eric] What’s the biggest change in defense strategy that you’ve seen in the past five years?

12:34 Peter W. Singer:  I think the biggest may be the emergence and now seeming dominance of the “COIN mafia.” This term is part jest, but essentially counter-insurgency was once something that got very little thought or training relative to other areas. Now it is at the center of the mix in everything from doctrine to the debate over Afghanistan. A question, though, is whether 1) we have the right balance in our planning now (are we overcompensating on COIN?) and 2) does our concept of insurgencies and what to do about them equate with the current reality of the 21st century. That is, is everything a Malaysia or Vietnam redux, when facing a mix of warlords and drug dealers terrorists and child soldiers? Or is Iraq the same as Afghanistan and does what worked there carry over? These are questions that need fact-based answers, unfortunately not something we often see in the debates.

12:35 [Comment From Jason] How big of a priority are robotics for future US defense plans?

12:36 Peter W. Singer:  A huge part! The US military went into Iraq with just a handful of robotic systems in the air and zero unmanned systems on the ground, none of them armed. Today, there are over 7,000 drones in the US inventory and another roughly 12,000 on the ground. These are just the first generation, the Model T Fords and Wright Flyers compared to what is already in the prototype stage.

12:37 Peter W. Singer:  One-third of the planes that the air force officially plans to buy in the future are to be unmanned. And that is “officially,” I suspect the ratio will grow as the systems gain in capabilities and the constituency for them builds. Indeed, the US Air Force will train more of these Predator and Reaper  system pilots this year than it will fighter or bomber plane pilots. My point here is that the sort of systems, and the capabilities they offer, but also importantly, the questions they are forcing us to ask in defense planning are the sort of thing that was once only fodder for science fiction conventions like ComicCon. Now it all has to be talked about seriously in places like the Pentagon.

12:37 [Comment From Rebecca] You mention that the unmanned drones we’re seeing in the field now are “Ford Model Ts” compared to what’s coming. Can you explain some of the improvements that are being made to these devices?

12:37 Peter W. Singer:  Essentially in 3 vectors:

Size and shape: We are at the “horseless carriage” stage of the revolution. When you don’t have a man inside, you can make them very small (at one lab, I saw an engine for a tiny drone that fit on the tip of a finger)  or very big (there is a new prototype robotic blimp that will carry a radar the size of a football field, which can stay in the air for literally years). The forms also are changing from just mimicking cars or planes into a wild array of possibilities.

12:39 Peter W. Singer:  Function: Just like the first planes in WWII started out for observation and then moved on to doing everything from bombing to fighter planes to cargo planes to air to air refueling, the same is already happening with robotics. A similar array of roles are being explored on the ground. The big debate is going to be what roles are best to keep human and what outsource to robotics.

12:39 Peter W. Singer:  And lastly, Intelligence: You couldn’t say that a B-24 was “smarter” than a B-17. But you can say that about our robotic systems. Remember, one of the laws in action when it comes to technology is Moore’s law, that the computing power that can fit on a chip doubles just under every 2 years or so. This means that in 25 years scientists believe that our computing technology will be, as one put it: “A billion times more powerful than today.” Indeed, if Moore’s Law moves at a slower rate than it has historically, say at, 1/100th the previous rate, our systems at war within 25 years will have computing power a million times as powerful today.

12:40 [Comment From Daniel B. Lippman] Some in the Administration like Vice President Biden are advocating scaling back our mission in Afghanistan and just having Special Forces in the country and using much more Drone missile strikes in Pakistan. But would that work? Wouldn’t it alienate the Pakistani population and further weaken the Pakistani gov’t if we target every bad guy in Pakistan?

12:41 Peter W. Singer:  The challenge in all of this is good intelligence. If we could use this mix of SF and Predator, plus local forces to get this intelligence, then likely yes. But that is something that many people don’t think is possible, they worry that the intelligence will dry up.
12:42 Peter W. Singer:  My problem with much of the debate is that it makes it seem like the choice is either a huge expansion of forces or a complete offshoring. Rather, we should be exploring not how many, but what those additional forces would be doing and how it changes the fight. And in turn, how can you better the performance of the Afghan forces by more advising and embedding, and whether that is possible with the “offshoring” strategy?

12:42 [Comment From Chris] Some of your work focuses on the ethics of using robots in the military. If a military robot were to go haywire and accidently kill civilians, who would be held responsible? Are there any protocols in place for dealing with these scenarios?

12:44 Peter W. Singer:  Somewhat controversially, I have argued that we should just think about the ethical responsibilities not just of the end user, the soldier who sent such a system out, but also the entire chain of causality, even back to the inventors and engineers. To me, Dr Frankenstein shouldn’t get a free pass just because he had a PhD.

12:44 Peter W. Singer:  The problem is that we really aren’t having this conversation fully  in robotics. A young roboticist has no code of ethics to turn to, like someone has in the field of medicine. The field is not consciously pushing a discussion on its social ramifications and responsibilities, like the field of genetics is for instance.

12:45 Peter W. Singer:  And most important is not just thinking about ethics of inventor and who to blame if things go awry, but also to admit that this all does link to war. For those that read the book, they know I have a huge amount of respect for those who do their work proudly, either because they believe in saving US soldiers’ lives, or those who refuse military funding because they don’t believe in seeing their science being used that way. But these are the minority. The vast majority are in the middle trying to have it both ways, taking military money, but not taking responsibility for it. Indeed, most disappointing to me was an email I received after a talk I gave at an engineering school in which a professor chastised me for “troubling his students” by asking them to think about the ethics of their work. Egads!

12:47 [Comment From Joe]  In the past five years, the number of robotic devices has increased dramatically. Can you explain where and how these robots have been the most effective?

12:49 Peter W. Singer:  I think the most effective right now have been in 3 areas:

Counter IED: Where we have used ground robots to help find and defuse roadside bombs, which are the leading cause of casualties among American troops.

ISR: Use of unmanned aerial systems to help find and track enemy targets

Strike: We actually fired well over 1,000 missiles or bombs from systems like the Predator/Reaper. Indeed, the commanders in CENTCOM describe it as their most valuable weapons systems. 

12:49 [Comment From Tara] What’s the coolest robo-warrior you’ve seen so far?

12:50 Peter W. Singer:  I think the coolest was either the tiny system I saw that could fit on your finger, a “bug” with a bug. That is a surveillance device that was size of insect. Or it was Actroid, a humanoid robot from Japan that is modeled after a sexy newscaster there. “She” was incredibly lifelike and can even talk with you in 4 different languages.

12:51 [Comment From Javier (detroit)] With more and more military leaders coming out against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” why has the Obama administration failed to act?

12:54 Peter W. Singer:  Frankly, I think it’s a mix of being 1) overwhelmed by the various burning issues they are struggling to stay on top of, from economy and health care to Afghanistan and G-20, and 2) a hesitation born out of so many of the folks who suffered through this debate in the 90’s with Clinton, returning into government now, and being fearful of having the same experience again. As I have argued:, I think they are incorrect in this assumption, largely because they fail to recognize that the debate and the military have moved on. While there will be some hew and cry, it will be a tempest in a teapot. The reactions will not be the same as the early 90s, as you have a whole new generation of soldiers ,who grew up differently and are focused on the real fight, not the old “culture wars.” It was a commitment Obama made during the campaign that he needs to keep, again as I argue for the benefits it would have to national security.

12:55 [Comment From Bill in Virginia] With our troops being outfitted more and more with high tech gear, is there a danger that some future enemy can just detonate some electromagnetic bomb over the battlefield and wipe our technology out? Then what are we gonna do?

12:59 Peter W. Singer:  You hit on a huge point.  Just as the revolutionary technology of the tank led to antitank weapons, we will see the same reactions here. Some may be high tech, like an EMP or hacking or jamming (which we have to mindful of, given the huge amount of “off the shelf” technologies that we use inside these systems to save money, but also introduce new vulnerabilities that can be exploited). But also remember that just like the IED now, the enemy can also go low tech with effectiveness as well. We are seeing counters to our robots that are as simple as specially designed “tiger traps,” essentially holes they have dug that a robot falls in, just like what the Viet Cong did back in the 1960s. Or, think of the tough dilemmas that a 6 year old armed with a can of spray paint presents to a MAARS (a machine gun armed robot). You either shoot a little kid, or they can defeat your system just by covering over the visual systems.

12:59 [Comment From Mae] What was it like to be on the Jon Stewart show?

1:00 Peter W. Singer:  It was an incredibly scary and fun thrill. I love that show and to be on it was just immense. And, unlike much of news shows today, I and most of my friends actually watch it! So I was pretty nervous before hand, but after my first joke worked, we just got rolling. Jon was actually much the same in the hallway beforehand as on the show. That is, it doesn’t seem to be an “act.” He is just as smart and witty in person. Craig Ferguson was much the same. Just a blast.

1:01 Peter W. Singer:  Amusingly, I also feel like I got more “street cred” in DC from that show than all the books I had written, consulting for Pentagon, role in Obama campaign etc. What does that say about our odd town?

1:01 [Comment From Ronaldino (Brazil)] Is GI Joe a Real American Hero?

1:02 Peter W. Singer:  Not if you are talking about the one in the recent movie. Bad casting decision. If you want someone who acts like a robot, just save the money and get the robot.

1:02 [Comment From Peter]  What technologies are needed to do a better job advising and training Afghan forces, communicating more effectively with the local populace, and executing other “soft power” missions?

1:04 Peter W. Singer:  There is some exciting work going on with AI software to help with realtime translation for troops in the field. There is no way that you can pre-plan for which place you will deploy and have enough folks that speak that language. Who knew 10 years ago we would need so many Dari speakers? As this software gets better it will be a huge help. But again, its not a replacement for someone who actually has studied Afghanistan and understand the culture and local nuances. It is just a supplement.

1:05 Peter W. Singer:  I should add on the prior question, I do think Sienna Miller was a brilliant casting decision. If only Bin Laden started using her tailor….

1:06 [Comment From Joanna] are there other countries whose forces are more technologically advanced than ours?

1:06 Peter W. Singer:  No, we are ahead today, and very well should be, given we spend about half of the world’s defense dollars.

1:08 Peter W. Singer:  But what should worry us is that in war and technology, there is no “permanent first mover advantage.” I am not typing this on a Commodore or IBM computer, even though they were the early movers.  The French and British first used tanks, and then watched the German panzers roll right over them.

1:08 Peter W. Singer:  Today, 43 other countries are working on military robotics of some sort, including Iran, China, Russia, and Pakistan. And we must worry about the trend lines. Where do the state of American manufacturing and, even more, our science and mathematics education has us headed? What does it mean to depend on soldiers with computer chips made in China and the software written in India?

1:10 [Comment From David] Have there been any serious incidents where our military technology has “gone wrong?”

1:10 Peter W. Singer:  Yes, Moore’s law is operative, but so is Murphy’s Law.

We are gaining amazing unmanned capabilities, but also experiencing new human dilemmas. And of course, mistakes still happen. Unlike what the network centric folks and the Rumsfelds thought, the fog of war isn’t being lifted.

1:12 Peter W. Singer:  Some feel these are just easily fixable “oops moments,” as one robot industry executive termed them.

But what makes an “oops moment” with robots and war? Sometimes they are amusing, as when a machine gun armed robot went “squirrely” during a demonstration.  It reportedly started spinning around and pointed its gun at the reviewing stand of VIPs.

Other times it is tragic, as when an anti aircraft system in South Africa had a “software glitch” during a training exercise. It was supposed to shoot  up into the sky, but instead leveled and fired. It shot 9 soldiers, in a real world version of the famous scene from Robocop.

How would you investigate and apportion out accountability in such situations? What system of law would you even turn to for guidance?

1:14 [Comment From Jean-Louis Kaldjob]  I am a computer science major. I am wondering what field of technology do you think is the future of the military?

1:17 Peter W. Singer:  I think the cross between biology, AI/robotics and nanotechnology will be where some of the most fascinating and important (and simultaneously scary) stuff will be happening in the coming years. The firm lines between fields won’t hold up. They are silos that hold our understanding back.

1:17 [Comment From Kate]  What would you say the top defense priority for the US is moving forward?

1:18 Peter W. Singer:  We have to solve our military obesity problem. No, I don’t mean fat troops, but actually the “bigger is better” mentality that we have when it comes to our purchasing/planning. It is driving everything off the rails, from the universal problem of cost overruns to systems we commit to that we don’t want or need.  I worry that it may well be why we are defeated in some future wars. I explore it here further:

1:18 [Comment From Derrick] a lot of Americans are clamoring for less defense spending. What do you say to
these people?

1:21 Peter W. Singer:  We are actually spending an amount relative to GDP that is not immense compared to being in 2 wars right now. Whether you think we should spend more or less, the question I wish we would all wrestle more with is now “How much?” but rather “On what”? That is, what is your overall plan for increasing or decreasing and does it have any strategic logic to it? Or did that person come up with the talking point answer first, but not have any backing to it. That is, are they basing it on analysis or just punditry?

1:21 [Comment From Josh (Geofutures)] What security threat do you think is least on the radar of our military, in terms of preparedness?

1:24 Peter W. Singer:  This is not only a military issue, but I still feel that we are not doing enough on disaster preparation and mitigation back here in the US. How do we prevent and, if not possible, mitigate and recover from a mass disaster, whether it be pandemic or WMD or another super hurricane?   Its the one way we could truly be taken down a peg as a nation, but its still sorely disorganized and underfunded. 9-11 should have been enough, and it wasnt. Then Katrina should have been enough and it wasn’t. What will be?

1:24 [Comment From Carmen (Bethesda)]  If you were a betting man, where is Bin Laden? He cant be in good health, can he?

1:25 Peter W. Singer:  Carmen, You haven’t tricked us. We know that your address is really Langley, VA.

1:25 [Comment From Peter] None of the robotic systems in use today originated with traditional defense contractors (though some have bought UAV companies). Do you see a similar pattern emerging in other areas, where innovation isn’t going to come from traditional players but from commercial companies, start-ups, and even foreign companies?

1:29 Peter W. Singer:  That is something I wrestle with in my book. Can Beltway bandits provide the most innovative solutions? A company like General Atomics that made the Predator took a “Field of Dreams” approach. They said “If we build it, they will come.” They took a risk and won out.

Too many of the big firms (and we should be clear here that one part of the “bigger is better” mentality is that we are going from oligopolies to monopolies in certain defense sectors) take the “Waiting for Godot” model. They wait for what the military customer tell them, and have too long time cycles in delivering on it.  As result, too many are building systems now that made sense in the 90s, but are both outdated technologically and not needed. We face a real challenge in this.

1:31 Peter W. Singer:  Well, we are getting to the closing time. But thank you to all for the great questions! You can check out more of my articles and books at my personal website and more about our program at Brookings that looks at cutting edge defense issues at

Have a great day!

1:31 Fred Barbash:  Thanks so much for your time today, Peter. Very informative.

1:31 Fred Barbash:  Don’t forget to join us next week for another episode of the Scouting Report – same time, same place.