Monday, November 3, 2008

A 21st Century Military

One of weird things that happens to you as you age is that stuff that people used to talk about as science fiction starts becoming real life. My best example of this is flat screen high definition TVs. As a young journalist in the 80s I was told by Japanese industrialists that these would start appearing in the 2000s. I put this in my list of silly predictions. But lo! Here we are in the 2000s with Harvey Norman selling these very things for a couple of grand.

As a kid I was raised on Star Trek, Dr Who and Gerry Anderson's puppets. Then came Star Wars and all its derivatives. Among the science fiction weapons we children talked about were:phasers, battle lasers, rail-guns; robots; super fast submarines etc. Now as an adult I am seeing more of these things in prototype and on the way to becoming reality.

Take a look at this lot:

Raytheon's Active Denial System ADS is a beam weapon that stimulates pain receptors. The small ones work to 500m. The big ones to a couple of kilometres. Police and Military can buy them.Do nations open for extraordinary rendition get one free with every four or more prisoners?

Boeings Advanced Tactical Laser is a beam weapon that fires a 10cm radius megawatt laser to a range of 10km. Its marketing benefit is that it limits collateral damage. Its less advertisedbenefit is that when Abdul's brain is melted and the vultures have slurped it up there won't be any 5.56mm holes to suggest who might be responsible. Currently its mounted on an AC-130but the plan is to put it on an MV-22 Osprey.

US Navy Railgun is an electro-magnetic gun that accelerates a projectile to 5.8km/s muzzle velocity. The weapon is intended to be ready for 2020-2025 and able to fire 10 projectiles a minute to 200 nautical miles with a circular error probability of 5 metres.

The DARPA Grand Challenge has been demonstrating that autonomous land vehicles are now entirely feasible. The first stage under consideration is unarmed autonomous scout robots. next stage - armed patrol however is already underway with the SWORD robots in Iraq

There are already large numbers of unmanned aerial vehicles in operation around the world. The best known is the Predator which is armed with Hellfire missiles controlled remotely when on attack runs. However Boeing and others are already working on autonomous fighters and bombers able to take advantage of higher levels of agility and less risk to highly trainedpilots.

And finally we have "Stingray" (the kids show) made real with this bizarre solicitation from DARPA for a submarine aircraft. Admittedly unlike the others this is just a feasibility study not a prototype.

This is not to mention Dean Kamen's robotic arm, mind control of electronic devices via interfaces embedded in people's brains, Alan Gibb's amphibious military vehicles, etc.

If we start putting all of this together for a putative 2030 military environment and we start to see disturbing trends towards technologies which allow push-button warriors to send robotic pain inflictors out to quell riots or zap snipers from on high. In short military power stops relying on the willingness of ordinary men and women to fight and more on the willingness of technicians to service instruments of oppression.

God forbit that there should be any global contest between superpowers but were such a calamity to occur the mind boggles what would happen if World War Two's pace of development were applied to weaponry. One suspects that Terminator style bots could be running around as early as 2039.

My question then is what does this mean politically? Not only to the world but also to a small nation in one of its more forgotten corners? Is democracy destined to become a three century flash in the pan between Knights and Robots? What is the military's role in this?

For increasingly the line between war and peace is blurring. Today the world's biggest war machine is facing its toughest test against an enemy which has already destroyed two superpowers (Britain and Russia) - afghanistan. It is a war fought - just as Vietnam was fought - where combatants don't helpfully declare their allegiances. But as technology is refined to fight this war this technology also has obvious application as an instrument of domestic oppression.

My theory is that the military must have a greater constitutional stake in democracy because ultimately the military is most likely to be the ultimate enemy of democracy. Soldiers must believe that their role is to defend the liberty of their fellow countrymen and women, not to constrain it. While we rely on ordinary men and women to bear arms democracy is relatively safe for there is nothing more equal than the vulnerability of the human body to a bullet. But when one side has robots and the other humans that inequality becomes a source of potential temptation for those in power.