Our New Robot Overlords


In the last years of the Clinton administration, the CIA was grappling with a seemingly intractable problem. There was a terrorist hiding out in Afghanistan. A religious fanatic by the name of Osama bin Laden, he’d secured a name for himself by pulling together a franchise of terrorist organisations under one ‘brand’, known as Al-Qaeda. 

Bin Laden had approved and organised a number of attacks against symbols of American influence abroad, bombing the USS Cole and the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. President Bill Clinton wanted this man neutralised. Having discounted a raid by US commandos over the risk of civilian casualties, and attempted cruise missile strikes on his hideout in the past to no effect, they settled on an apparently radical solution.

Former counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke records in his memoir that the idea was his, although no one will know for sure until the memos are declassified, and even then uncertainty is likely to remain. In short, they would use a drone. Remotely operated, equipped with a camera and able to stream video footage back to the United States, the plan was for it to eventually have what Clarke referred to in his book as a ‘see it/shoot it capability’. 

And so the militarised drone was born. Or at least in the iteration we’re familiar with today – much of the research and development that culminated in the Predator Drone actually began in the 1980s as part of the effort to find Americans held hostage in Lebanon by Hezbollah, a phenomenon covered in detail by the research of Dr Chris Fuller of the University of Southampton. But that’s another story.

The point is, America wished to implement part of its foreign policy through the medium of a remotely controlled Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The Predator wasn’t used to kill Osama bin Laden. It fell between the cracks of the transition from the Clinton to the George W. Bush Administration, the incoming President not seeing counterterrorism as a priority. But the genie was well and truly out of the bottle.

From a practically unknown weapon in the arsenal of the US security establishment, the drone soon became prevalent on the battlefields of the 21st century.  A book by political scientist Peter W. Singer, ‘Wired for War’, published in 2010, recorded that there were half a dozen types of drones used by the US military. They range from the Raven, designed to show what’s on the other side of the street, to the Predator and its successors, to the Global Hawk – a semi-autonomous reconnaissance drone that flies at 65,000 feet and can map out an area of 3,000 square miles in detail.

The use of this technology is no longer confined to the United States. As of 2019, some 95 countries worldwide possessed and used military drones, a number that will only increase. The capability to conduct lethal operations at no human cost to your own side is proliferating. And that has profound implications for the way international affairs are conducted. If the threshold for military action is only money (and drones are significantly cheaper than advanced fighter jets), then war, typically and thankfully the last resort in years gone by, may become a default response.

The situation is also changing on land and at sea. In the UK, the Royal Navy mounted what it calls ‘Exercise Unmanned Warrior’ in 2018. Despite the rather strange title, the trumpeting of 50+ unmanned systems being trialed in the exercise should give us pause for thought. In the meantime, the British Army has been the subject of speculation. In 2018, the Army undertook its own version of ‘Unmanned Warrior’ – Exercise Autonomous Warrior’ – with official sources giving a figure of more than 70 different types being tested.  Robots have been deployed on the ground by US forces in Iraq, conducting bomb disposal and reconnaissance.  President Trump revealed in 2019 that a robot was on standby to search the tunnels beneath the hideout of then-leader of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, when US special forces kicked in his door.

So, like it or not, the way wars are fought is changing. It is set to become less expensive, easier to conduct, and less lethal to a state wishing to attack. However, things have been travelling in this direction for a while.

But there is an iceberg on the horizon. The demand for robots to compete in a high-tempo combat in the event of a conflict between major powers, probably in engagements against other robots, leads to a need for a more and more rapid decision-making loop. And there’s nothing faster than a computer. So, it follows that robots will become increasingly autonomous to the point of being independent thinkers, displacing slow, expensive, and politically precious humans.

Not only is this shift apparently inevitable, it is already underway. Last year’s defence spending announcement pledged to create a centre for artificial intelligence. 2020 also saw the first tests of a ‘loyal wingman’ drone. These are autonomous UAVs designed to provide support to fighter jets, working in concert with a human counterpart.  Capable of autonomous flight, including complex and strenuous manoeuvres without direct control, it is a key step on the path to independent robots fighting (and killing) by themselves. And although at the moment they are armed only with electrical warfare equipment, this could easily be changed to a more lethal payload.

So where does this leave us? Well, contrary to the imaginings of science fiction writers, a world of lethal automatons is not in the distant future. Indeed, their forebears are already here.

‘Wired for War’ and Dr Chris Fuller’s book ‘See It/Shoot it’ on the origins and expansion of US drone use are available from the University Library.


Political Editor for the Wessex Scene 2020-2021. Interested in politics, foreign affairs, and just about anything within those to be honest.

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