What does it mean to try to plan for wars two decades in the future?
This was a daunting task that faced the crafters of the defence white paper, which lays out a vision of an Australian military “Force 2030”. As an American reading from afar, I find myself in great agreement with its perspective of a dynamic world that features a diverse array of both real and potential threats. It also carries a striking underlying message of an emerging geopolitical reality, that Asia is becoming a more dangerous neighbourhood, one in which America and Australia may well be leaning on each other more than ever.
Trying to figure out the political and economic trends that will shape this world of tomorrow makes defence policy planning difficult enough. But one of the challenges in security studies, and one that the white paper also suffers from, is the blinkers we often put on when it comes to technological trends.
An amazing revolution is ongoing around us, especially in war. The US military went into Iraq in 2003 with a handful of unmanned planes. There are now more than 7000 robotic drones in its inventory. In 2003, the invasion force had no ground robotics. Today there are roughly 12,000 on the ground. And the latest models of our robots give new meaning to the technology industry term “killer application”, as they now come with a lethal armoury of missiles, rockets, and machine-guns.
Robots and war sounds like “mere science fiction”, as one analyst put it to me. But that is the same way people once looked at the tank and the atomic bomb, and the raw numbers show that it is the reality we face already. Peering forward, one US Air Force lieutenant-general forecast that given the growth trends, we would soon be talking about using tens of thousands of robots in our not-so-distant conflicts. But in 2030, it won’t be tens of thousands of today’s robots, but tens of thousands of tomorrow’s robots, with far different capabilities. The Predator drones and Packbots (a ground robot made by iRobot, the same company that makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner) we already use today are just the first generation. They are the Wright brothers’ Flyer and Model T Ford compared to what is already in the prototype stage.
Remember, one of the rules when it comes to technology is Moore’s law, that the computing power that can fit on a microchip doubles just under every two years. If this trend holds true, as it has for the past several decades, Australia’s Force 2030 will be operating in a world in which our information technology will be a billion times more powerful than today. Notably, this isn’t an amorphous “billion”, as Dr Evil would pontificate in the movie Austin Powers, but literally taking the power of our current computers multiplying it by 1,000,000,000. But imagine if that law doesn’t hold true, and Moore’s Law works out at only a hundredth of its past pace. Then the computers that power robots in the era of Force 2030 will only be a mere 1,000,000 times more powerful.
This revolution is by no means an American-only affair. There are 43 countries working on military robotics today, from Britain and Japan to China, India, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. And yes, Australia is entering the robotics revolution as well, from the Brisbane airport breaking ground on a robotic drone facility to the UAV Challenge — Outback Rescue, in which robots built by Australian high school and college students will compete to find a lost bush walker in the vast outback.
Yet, it is interesting that in a white paper that plans a force out to the year 2030, this amazing revolution of unmanned systems gets short shrift. Other than a discussion of buying a mere seven high-altitude drones, to supplement the manned maritime patrol aircraft, (essentially talking about Australia one day buying the capabilities of the US Air Force’s Global Hawk type drone, a remarkable system, but one which is already almost 10 years old), this revolution isn’t mentioned. For example, there is no discussion of mixing into the force the current or next generation of drones used in reconnaissance and air strike missions (like the Predator class), which generals in Afghanistan and Iraq describe as their most valuable of all weapons used today, and which are already at the prototype stage for stealthy, longer-range versions. By comparison, the centerpiece of the plan in the air is the commitment to buy 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. This is a worthy manned plane, but one that was conceived in the 1980s, is still not ready for deployment, with Australia not to receive the last planned lot of until the mid-2020s.
I am no Pollyanna on robotics. Indeed, my new book is as much about how our new machines offer incredible, near science fiction-like capabilities, but they also bring in terrible new quandaries. They can strike further and faster at less risk, but in doing so, they also threaten to make war more likely (something we may be seeing now with the drone strikes into Pakistan) and diffuse accountability.
Rather my essential point is this: in planning for the future, we should not ignore the technological trends that are already in action. If we were back in 1909, planning for Force 1930, it would be a shame only to talk about the horse cavalry, and not take notice also of the machine-gun or aeroplane.