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Surprising Science

The Rise of the Tactical General

Peter W. Singer explains how the robotics revolution will allow generals the ability to micromanage even low-level operations.

An amazing revolution is taking place in the history of war, and even perhaps of humanity. The U.S. military went into Iraq with zero unmanned systems on the ground and just a handful of drones in the air, none of them armed. Today, there are more than 7,000 drones in the U.S. inventory and roughly 12,000 robots on the ground. And these are just the first generation, the Model T Fords compared with the smarter, more autonomous and more lethal machines already in the prototype stage. And we won’t be the only ones using them. Forty-two other countries have military robotics programs, as well as a host of nonstate actors.

But like any major change in war, the robot revolution is not turning out to be the frictionless triumph of technology that some would describe it. Unmanned systems are raising all sorts of questions about not only what is possible but also what is proper in politics, ethics, law and other fields. And these questions are rippling through all aspects of the military endeavor, well before we get to any world of machines making decisions on their own.

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