On Robots and the Guns of August


What better time than the centennial of the outbreak of World War I to consider the strategic risk of robotic innovation and its application to modern warfare? Others have already explored today’s dynamic geostrategic environment and its parallels to that which preceded the carnage of August 1914 (recent articles by Frank Hoffman and Graham Allison are but a few good examples).  It is perhaps also worth our time to consider some of the operational-strategic similarities between 1914 Eurasia and today’s Asia-Pacific security environment, including the proper role of unmanned systems in the modern scenario. This article will explore the strategic aspects of unmanned systems and caution against investments and operational plans that incentivize early action with unmanned systems in the event of crisis.  Specifically, in the unlikely event of conflict between the U.S. and China the operational incentive appears to lie in acting quickly in order to rapidly break enemy “kill chains,” seize the initiative, and preserve friendly combat networks.

Designing unmanned systems to perform this function creates a false incentive by promising an upper hand at the outset of the conflict, without the risk to American service members that would have previously been required.  In an era of increasingly diffuse and ill-defined national interests, the requirement to commit American lives to initiate conflict is a necessary political obstacle on the road to war.  Unmanned systems designed with first-strike intent contribute to a quick-and-easy war mentality.  In other words: a conscious decision to risk an American life should be integral to any defense construct or strategy.  And false operational incentives, such as the promise that rapid mobilization would achieve quick victory in 1914 Europe, have often led to strategic disaster.

What can the onset of war in Europe a century ago teach us about the operational-tactical benefits of unmanned innovations in warfare and the potential strategic risks? First, military planners should better consider strategic risks when developing operations and contingency plans that incorporate robotic systems. Second, defense decision-makers should use a keener appreciation of strategic context in developing the requirements and capabilities of future robotic systems. And most importantly, civilian leaders should be more aware of and soberly consider the follow-on effects of “low cost” involvement when approaching decisions to employ unmanned systems at the outset of a crisis.  These three components can mitigate strategic blindness in applying unmanned systems to modern security problems.  More importantly, they can limit the potential for unmanned systems to become the catalyst for the sort of devastating major power conflict seen one hundred years ago.

The security environment in today’s Asia-Pacific bears a number of similarities to 1914 Eurasia – and in some ways, it is even more precarious. Today, anti-access networks and their counters have incentivized early action in the event of conflict, as was the case in Europe just prior to World War I.  Prompt elimination of critical C4ISR nodes appear to have captivated planners on both sides of today’s anti-access networks, creating eerie parallels to the rigid mobilization schedule of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan or French élan and Plan 17.  Even more frightening, in the present day, the anti-access and counter-anti-access demands for ”blinding strikes” at the outbreak of conflict make the 14-day mobilization deadline of World War I belligerents seem like an eternity.  And if military planners choose unmanned systems as the vehicle for these strikes – lowering the cost of the first move – the buffer against major power war is further reduced.

In the modern scenario, the opportunities for diplomatic pause are reduced to a few phone calls before the cyber and kinetic “balloon goes up” in the name of seizing the initiative and meeting the planning sequence.

This highly scripted, fast moving scenario should give us pause before we get too enthusiastic about a heavily unmanned future force. Both military planners and requirements officers ought not build a future force structure that might entice future civilian leaders to begin a military campaign in which they can – at least initially – put very few humans at risk.  When the incentive already exists to strike promptly, the removal of a human body and soul from the political decision calculus is potentially catastrophic.  It removes a significant and necessary impediment.  If the national interests at stake aren’t weighty enough to risk human life in executing early counter-anti-access strikes, perhaps leaders should pause – because later phases of the conflict will most certainly involve risks to many more American lives. The focus of unmanned investment shouldn’t be in capabilities needed to operate independently at the outset or initiation of conflict. Rather, it should be on deterrence, defense, and intelligence collection.

Conflict deterrence is a significant, if not predominant, consideration for the military, and unmanned systems have a significant role to play in this regard.  A robust unmanned combat network – supported from a stand off distance by manned weapons and ground stations – can convince a prospective adversary that his cost of entry to a conflict is high relative to that of U.S. forces.  Put another way, the fact that U.S. personnel losses are minimized reduces the adversary’s chances of forcing quick capitulation to his desired ends.  One could even presume that the adversary will still invoke a negative international response while simultaneously failing to impose his military and political will – certainly not a recipe for success in armed conflict.

Additionally, a robust unmanned defensive capability reduces U.S. personnel exposure to direct aggression, diminishing the likelihood of a Pearl Harbor effect (or more appropriately for this WWI analogy, the international outrage that followed the German pillage of Louvain).  While a direct attack on American interests will certainly invoke public outrage and an emotional desire to respond, a minimal human exposure to the consequences of the ensuing war might allow national leaders sufficient political breathing room to limit American war aims.   Alternatively, high casualties at the outset are likely to lead to expanded and far more costly aims such as the total defeat and unconditional surrender of the belligerents, as sought in both World Wars.  Clearly, the deterrent and defensive potential of future systems is sufficient reason to continue development and fielding of unmanned technologies.  But caution is warranted. A strategically blind approach to unmanned systems, which departs from this defensive-deterrent paradigm in favor of the quick offensive, carries significant strategic risk.

This thought exercise suggests that unmanned capabilities ought be designed and utilized primarily for deterrent-defensive endeavors.  It’s beyond the scope of this article to prescribe the specific technical differences between a system designed for purely offensive ‘first strike’ purposes and one capable of producing significant deterrent value.  In fact, many systems designed for defensive, deterrent or intelligence gathering purposes may very well have utility and appeal in the offensive.  What’s important, however, is that defense decision-makers and national leaders understand the nature of the box that may be opened when deciding to remove the human factor and using unmanned robots to grease the tracks that carry the nation to war.  As the advocates for unmolested mobilization in August 1914 learned, the consequences can be significant.


Johnny Walker is an active duty submarine officer most recently assigned as Operations, Plans and Strategy liaison with Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs.  The views expressed here are his alone.