War is not what it used to be. Both the implicit trends and explicit strategy has gone from large-army movements – the invasion of Iraq may be the last large-scale invasion we will see for quite a while – to smaller-unit conflict management and “surgical” actions, such as the raid on Osama bin Laden. This is partially a result of technological evolution (advanced weapons demand much training, making conscripted soldiers, who become civilians just as they have learned how to operate them), partially a change in warfare – more and more conflicts are asymmetric, with urban or rural guerillas facing a traditional military force, hiding among the civilians and forcing the regular army to either be ruthless or to win hearts and minds.
In both cases, war is expensive for the decision-makers. Today’s young men do not have four brothers and face a career of back-breaking work on the family farm or in a factory or mine – prospects that might make a military career, however the peril, look interesting. With less than two children per woman being the average in European countries, parents (and to a certain extent society, through education) have way to much invested in each individual to squander them on unnecessary and unimportant actions.
This might change: New weapons such as remote-controlled and even automatic drones with pilots sitting halfway around the world, out of harms way, means that the price for war (both in money and lives, of soldiers as well as innocent bystanders) has been significantly reduced. So far, this form of remote warfare has been an American forte, but the weapons are becoming available for smaller countries, first in NATO, then in other countries. I predict that Norway, for one, will scale back its very expensive and politically complicated purchase of advanced, manned F-35 fighters and instead see if more of their needs can be met with the cheaper drones – a disruptive innovation in more than one sense.
This evolution is slightly worrying, for a number of reasons: First, the lower cost of war may make military solutions more tempting to politicians – bloodless or not. Second (and in the longer term more scary) automated weapons can, like all automatic systems, malfunction in unpredictable ways and you can even envision them turning against you, as has happened with anti-aircraft missiles. You really don’t want rogue drones with malicious intent out there, whether it is inserted by hackers or come about through unintended systems interactions. Third, the low price and standard components of the weapon systems may mean that they, in time, will be available not just to large nations, but also to the guerillas and terrorists they were invented to confront. Imagine a home-made drone with cheap technology as the new Kalashnikov – solid, simple and able to make up in numbers what it lacks in sophistication.
I don’t know if remote weapons need a solid infrastructure of communications technology, in particular networks (satellites, cellphone networks, wi-fi) or if they can be controlled with direct radio transmission. There is quite a lot of data that needs to go across, in close to real time – but given the falling cost and increasing range of of digital wireless communication, it is not too hard to imagine that these weapons could be cheap, perhaps even built from standard parts by insurgents themselves, both for spying and for weapons delivery.
Small and cheap has a tendency to carry the day, and enemies learn from each other. Let’s just hope that Steven Pinker is right – and avoid thinking too much on the suppressive possibilities of autonomous weapon systems.