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Posted on Jan 21, 2009 in Stuff We Like

Author POV – Wired for War

By P.W. Singer

The four-star general proudly recounts how he had spent “two hours watching footage” beamed to his office. Sitting behind a live feed of video from a Predator drone, he saw the two insurgent leaders sneak into a compound of houses. Then, he waited as other insurgents entered and exited the compound, openly carrying weapons. He was now personally certain: Not only was the compound a legitimate target, but any civilians in the houses had to know that it was being used for war, what with all the armed men moving about. So, having personally checked out the situation, the general tells how he gave the order to strike. But, his role in the operation didn’t end there; he explains how he even decided what size bomb his pilots should drop.

Something big is going on in the history of war. The U.S. military went into Iraq with just a handful of drones in the air and zero unmanned systems on the ground, none of them armed. Today, there are over 5,300 drones in the U.S. inventory and another roughly 12,000 on the ground, with the latest models armed with a lethal armory of missiles, rockets, and machine guns. And these are just the first generation, the Model T Fords compared to what is already in the prototype stage.


For my book Wired for War, I spent the last several years trying to capture just what is going on in this historic revolution we are now experiencing, as robots begin to move into the fighting of our human wars. The book features stories and anecdotes of everyone from robotic scientists and the science-fiction writers who inspire them to 19-year-old drone pilots and the Iraqi insurgents they are fighting. But when I present the findings to U.S. military audiences, it is the above vignette, and the questions it raises about the future of generalship, that prompt the most reaction.

In his masterful history of men at war, The Face of Battle (Viking Press, 1976, p. 114), John Keegan wrote, “The personal bond between leader and follower lies at the root of all explanations of what does and does not happen in battle.” In Keegan’s view, the exemplar of this was Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, who inspired his “band of brothers” by fighting in their midst.

But with the rise of each new communications technology, these connections between the soldiers in the field and those giving them battle orders began to be distanced. Generals were no longer at the same front lines as their men but began to operate from command posts, which moved further back with each new technologic advance. And yet, describes analyst Chris Grey, the very same technologies also pushed a trend “towards centralization of command, and thus towards micromanagement.”

For instance, when telegraphs were introduced during the Crimean War (1853–56), generals sipping tea back in England quickly figured out that they could now send in their daily plans to those at the frontlines in Russia. And so they did. With the radio, this went even further. Hitler, for instance, was notorious for issuing highly detailed orders to individual units fighting on the Eastern Front, cutting out the German army’s entire command staff from the process of leading its troops in war.

But with our new technologies, we are seeing this trend taken to its extreme, or perhaps its logical conclusion. Our digitized Global Command and Control System (GCCS) tracks every movement on a computer map, down to the individual weapon. But with robotics, and, most importantly, the live video of battle that various unmanned systems beam back, commanders are enabled as never before. They are physically off the battlefield like those in Crimea, but able to take action in it like Henry the V. They not only are able to transmit orders in real-time to the lowest level troops or systems in the field, but they also have simultaneous real-time visibility into it. Moreover, even a general at the very front could never before “see” exactly what a soldier saw in the bulls-eye of his rifle sights, nor could he do anything about it. With a robotic system like a Predator drone, that commander can see the exact same thing that the operator sees, at the exact same time, and even take over the decision to shoot or not.

Over the last few years, many analysts have discussed what Marine General Charles Krulak called the rise of the “strategic corporal.” This concept meant to describe how technology was putting far more destructive power (and thus influence over strategic outcomes) into the hands of younger, more junior troops. A 20-year-old corporal could now call in air strikes that a 40-year-old colonel used to decide in the past. But with these new technologies, we are also seeing the emergence of its doppelganger, what I call the “tactical general.” While they are becoming more distanced from the battlefield, generals of the 21st century are becoming more and more involved in the real-time fighting of war.

That incident with the general watching the Predator footage is far from the only one I came across in the course of my research. For instance, one battalion commander in Iraq told of how he had 12 stars worth of generals (a 4-star general, two 3-star lieutenant generals, and a 2-star major general) tell him where to position his units during a battle. Another time, an Army Special Operations Forces captain recounted how on one mission he even had a brigadier general (so, four layers of command up) radio him while his team was in the midst of hunting down an insurgent who had escaped during a raid. The general, watching live Predator drone video back at the command center in Baghdad, called in orders for the captain on where to deploy not merely his unit, but his individual soldiers.

So our new technologies are giving an entirely new, and perhaps even literal, meaning to the idea of “Armchair Generals.” But it also prompts a serious and important question that I had a fun time wrestling with in my book: Is this trend a positive or negative one to the fighting and winning of our wars? Moreover, what can and should be done about it? Leave your comments below.

P.W. Singer is Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. He has worked in the Pentagon, as well as consulted for the CIA, Congress, and the State Department. He is the author of two previous books, Corporate Warriors and Children at War, which were groundbreaking works on the issues of private military firms and child soldiers. His new book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century will be available from Penguin Books January 26, 2009. For further information, please go to P.W. Singer Books. Read the review on



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