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Pakistan, Afghanistan and Battlestar Galactica: An exclusive interview with P.W. Singer on the future of war

Posted by: Shanna Carpenter

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On Friday, March 27, just as a surge of new deployments was being announced for Afghanistan, the TED Blog talked with military analyst P.W. Singer. Posted today, his TEDTalk discusses the use of robots in modern combat zones.

In this interview, he applies his intensive knowledge of robotics and war to the situations the U.S. military faces in months ahead. Singer clarifies the questions we should all be asking, as these weapons of the future find their place in our conflicts at present. Interestingly, many are questions that science fiction has been addressing for some time.

Here’s an excerpt:

“When new technologies are developed, we can’t know the broader ripple effect that they will have. When the Internet first appeared, we couldn’t know that this thing was going to cause mothers in Pennsylvania to worry about predators in Seattle that might prey on their children. Now we know that the Internet can allow an extremist Mullah in Pakistan to inspire a young man in Birmingham, England, to blow himself up.”

For the full interview, read after the jump >>
Are you excited to see your TEDTalk online?

I am indeed. When you’re on stage you don’t know how it went or how it looked. So I’m excited to find out what I looked like.

Today we see that Obama plans to strengthen the campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Do you see an expanded role for unmanned drones?

That’s a very good question. This gives you an idea of the speed of impact and how robotics are starting to have an influence on our own politics and the decisions we make. They seem to lower the perceived cost of war. This is an illustration of that.

These strikes have risen in their frequency recently. We’ve done well over 50 of these strikes. We’ve already had the equivalent of the Kosovo war in intensity, but the attention given to this in the media and Congress is negligible because we’re using unmanned systems. There’s a seductive aspect here, and we’re seeing grand possibilities.

Would you say that the strategy of using unmanned drones against insurgents is effective?

Incredibly effective. Of the top 20 al Qaeda leaders, 11 have been killed by drones. If you had sent in boots on the ground, there would have been American casualties and civilian casualties.

It’s hard to equate death with success, but you have to remember you’re getting very bad people, dangerous people — many of the people who directly planned the 9/11 attacks.

Now, in all of this we have to remember that there is a blowback effect. At TED, I talked about how the world perceives us — the impact of robots on the war of ideas. We have to remember that use of robots affects how we are perceived in places like Pakistan and Lebanon.

While I was interviewing people for my book Wired for War, a Lebanese news editor expressed to me that he thought the Americans didn’t fight like men because we use these unmanned drones. It’s the same thing in Pakistan. In fact, one of the biggest pop songs in the country is about America’s honorless war that treats Pakistanis like insects to be squashed. The leading newspaper has indicated America as enemy number one.

I had a conversation with a person from our Special Ops who talked to the tribal leaders in Pakistan. In a meeting, he served American cookies to one of these leaders — turns out this guy had never had cookies before! He loved them. But this tribal leader also said America was working with the devil, that we were using black magic. Of course someone who hasn’t even been exposed to cookies is going to think an unmanned flying drone is black magic!

As someone who worked with President Obama during his campaign, what do you think of the current strategy?

Well, this is very timely, as they’re announcing the rollout of the new strategy today. Some elements of the strategy are very critical. Now, there’s a lot of talk of this surge in Afghanistan, but I don’t know that we should be using this phrase “surge.” It’s not a deployment of troops that is the end-all solution. It’s the other surges that are really needed. It’s the 4,000 to work with Afghans on army and police training that are critical. It’s the help to build schools and improve education that is critical.

Some units are also more critical than others. For example, Task Force Odin is a cross between intelligence analysts and drones. This unit focuses on mapping out and then breaking the bomb-makers’ network. They’re trying to figure out who’s who and how these people are connected. So there’s a drone watching and tracking the bomb-maker, and rather than take him out immediately, it follows him to the safehouse. And that’s what they take out. In one year, this unit was able to stop upwards of 2,400 bomb-makers. When you talk about where you need the surge in Iraq, this is one of those units. That unit is also being used in Afghanistan.

When we create these strategies, we also have remember that what happens in Pakistan reverberates in Afghanistan and vice versa. We can’t work in isolation, and we can’t make short-sighted bargains. It’s just bad for the U.S. and it’s bad for Afghans too.

What would be the best strategy for the use of unmanned systems in these areas?

You need to have a doctrine or a plan for how you think this war works. The problem is, when it comes to unmanned systems, it’s not, “Let’s think about how to use this for a better way.” It’s only, “Give me more.” When I wrote Wired for War, the most recent number of drones in the U.S. military was near 5,000 and now it’s over 7,000.

We don’t yet have a different doctrine; we need a debate about direction. We know it’s not whether you have the most units in a region, but about how you use them. Just look at the British in World War I.

Also, it’s not just the physical occupation, but how things play out in the war of ideas afterwards. Imagine the news story in this scenario — one, there’s a targeted hit, you’ve got guys on scene, and they take the media on a tour. You can see the building filled with machine guns, and the makings of suicide bombs. You’ll show the school nearby that’s safe, that didn’t get hit. If you don’t have your guys on the ground, then it becomes, “Look at what they did. They blew up the school. They’re cowards. They’re not here to defend themselves.” Controlling the ground may matter to how you get your story out.

We are using 21st-century technology with 20th-century policies. We’re using them against adversaries that know the laws of war and take advantage of them. They put themselves in hospitals and schools, drive ambulances, surround themselves with women and kids.

We have also developed a policy where if we kill innocent people, we will pay the victim’s family compensation. This is great, except sometimes people claim it when it doesn’t occur. Tribal leaders will put in freshly dug graves before anyone arrives on the scene in order to claim compensation. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not saying that civilian casualties don’t happen. But military surveillance in this area could be of great benefit.

How exactly do you think the military should implement these types of strategies now that drone use is increasing?

You mean, what do we do about it? That’s hard to answer. This is a revolution. This is a new technology that is rewriting the rules of the game.

We need to ask these questions of not only what is possible but also of what is proper. What is right or wrong? And this does not need to be talked about solely with the military. These are issues for everyone.

Robotics are now where computers were in the 1980s, on the cusp of a revolution. We’ve stopped calling them computers now, but they’re everywhere. They’re in our pockets — in our cellphones. They’re in our kitchens — in our microwaves. The same thing is happening with robotics. The new Volvo has robotic applications, but in the advertising it’s called something else because robotics still sounds scary.

When new technologies are developed, we can’t know the broader ripple effect that they will have. When the Internet first appeared, we couldn’t know that this thing was going to cause mothers in Pennsylvania to worry about predators in Seattle that might prey on their children. Now we know that the Internet can allow an extremist Mullah in Pakistan to inspire a young man in Birmingham, England, to blow himself up.

As a great thinker, and I say that with some measure of irony, Donald Rumsfeld once said, “There are the known knowns, there are known unknowns and there are the unknown unknowns.” There are things that we know we don’t know, there are other things for which we don’t have the answers yet, but some questions are unanswerable. What I can say is that this technology holds great changes for war.

We also need to be honest about how much technology revolves around war. At TED, there’s all this excitement around technology. Now, when I spoke, just before I was on stage someone showed a clip of Big Dog and said, “Isn’t this exciting? Isn’t this awesome? It’s the equivalent of a robotic Turing test! Isn’t this wonderful?” I’m the guy who goes, “That’s really awesome — but you left out one important thing. This was funded by and built for the Pentagon. They wanted a better weapon. That’s the reality.”

Now that we’re talking a bit about morality, robots and war, I wonder if you could comment on a show that’s been tackling those issues for some time — Battlestar Galactica

Don’t tell me the ending! I haven’t watched the last episode yet, so whatever you ask me, just don’t tell me the ending! The one time my TiVo messes up …

OK, you do watch it! I won’t tell you the ending, I promise. I actually wondered if you could comment on the cast’s recent appearance at the U.N. and how shows like this are bringing serious issues to a younger generation.

There are two things I want to say here. First, in the book, I have a whole section on the impact of science fiction. It’s important that people realize that this is not just popular culture, but there is a productive aspect — an ability to give an understanding of how the world works. For this section, I went around interviewing sci-fi icons.

Battlestar Galactica can pose questions in a way that the media is unwilling to. It had a whole season surrounding many of the issues we were facing in Iraq, and the discussion was more intriguing and more compelling than anything else you were seeing, even on cable news. It’s also got a lot wider fanbase than geeks at Comic-Con. I met professors at the Naval War College that loved it.

In fact, science fiction has a wider fanbase than you might think. Donna Shirley is a NASA scientist who left them to become the director of the Sci Fi Museums. Sci-fi has an important function. It isn’t just about how to build the bomb, it’s about if you get the bomb, you also get Dr. Strangelove.

Also, there is no one science fiction. For example, Western science fiction versus Asian science fiction. In Western sci-fi the robot is always a servant that rises up to destroy its master. In Asian sci-fi, the robot is not the evil villain, but is nearly always the good guy that helps humans. And in Asia there’s more acceptability for robotics in the home, and less fear in general surrounding robots.

The second point I want to make is about kids today, since you brought up this younger generation. I’m actually writing a new book, called The Millennial World. This new generation, the millennials, is coming to the forefront and I want to tell their story. We’re learning neat things about how they operate in the workplace. You know, even the U.S. military is having huge issues with members of this new generation and blogging.

And. we’re very quick to say, “Oh they’re the Facebook generation, the soccer trophy generation — you know, everyone gets a trophy, everyone wins. They’re spoilt.” But it’s very classic to look down on the new generations, to look down at the kids.

However, what’s interesting is that they have the highest ever level of interest in public service. The Baby Boomers have given themselves the idea that they went out to save the world, but the fact is that it was only a small percentage of that generation that was actually doing anything. The millennials show much higher rates of involvement in public service. They also have much more positive attitudes toward different races, ethnicities, cultures and religions. There are now 3,000 high schools in the United States with GLBT chapters. One of the conclusions here is that this is a generation with high demands, but also with a high payoff. It’s going to be interesting.