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Published: 1 June 2009
Air & Space Power Journal - Summer 2009

Tactical Generals

Leaders, Technology, and the Perils
of Battlefield Micromanagement*

Dr. P. W. Singer

Editorial Abstract: In 1999 Gen Charles Krulak coined the term “strategic corporal” (i.e., a junior member trained and empowered to make time-critical decisions in response to the dynamic ground fight). In this article, the author examines a similar phenomenon occurring among senior officers, observing that modern technology allows generals to personally engage on the tactical level from remote locations. How the military manages this phenomenon will become a core leadership question in the years ahead.

The four-star general proudly recounts how he spent “two hours watching footage” beamed to his headquarters. Sitting behind a live video feed from a Predator unmanned aircraft system (UAS), he saw two insurgent leaders sneak into a compound of houses. He waited as other insurgents entered and exited the compound, openly carrying weapons. Now, he was certain. The compound was a legitimate target, and any civilians in the houses had to know that it was being used for war, what with all the armed men moving about. Having personally checked the situation, he gave the order to strike. But his role in the operation didn’t end there; the general proudly tells how he even decided what size bomb his pilots should drop on the compound.1

The Rise of the Tactical General

In The Face of Battle, his masterful history of men at war, John Keegan writes how “the personal bond between leader and follower lies at the root of all explanations of what does and does not happen in battle.”2 In Keegan’s view, the exemplar of this relationship was Henry V, who inspired his “band of brothers” by fighting in their midst during the Battle of Agincourt.

With the rise of each new generation of communications technology, these connections between soldiers in the field and those who give them orders grew distanced. Generals no longer needed to be on the front lines with their men but operated from command posts that moved further to the rear with each new technological advance. Yet, the very same technologies also pushed a trend “towards centralization of command, and thus towards micromanagement.”3

For instance, when telegraphs were introduced during the Crimean War (1853–56), generals sipping tea back in England quickly figured out that they could send daily plans to the front lines in Russia. So they did. With the radio, this went even further. Adolf Hitler 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 leading its troops in war. Even the US military has suffered from this problem. During the rescue attempt of the American cargo ship Mayaguez in 1975, the commander on the scene received so much advice and orders from leaders back in Washington that he eventually “just turned the radios off.”4

These leaders of the past, though, never had access to systems like today’s Global Command and Control System (GCCS). As one report describes, “GCCS—known as ‘Geeks’ to soldiers in the field—is the military’s HAL 9000. It’s an umbrella system that tracks every friendly tank, plane, ship, and soldier in the world in real time, plotting their positions as they move on a digital map. It can also show enemy locations gleaned from intelligence.”5

This tracking system is reinforced by video feeds from various unmanned systems blanketing the battlefield. The growth in America’s use of robotic systems has taken place so fast that many people seem not to realize how big it has gotten. US forces initially went into Iraq with only a handful of unmanned systems in the inventory; indeed, just one UAS supported all of V Corps. By the end of 2008, however, there were 5,331 UASs in the total US inventory.6 In Iraq, some 700 drones supported that same V Corps just a few years later, while the sum total of Army and Air Force UASs was logging almost 600,000 annual flight hours.7

Rapid growth in ground robotics has occurred as well. Zero unmanned ground vehicles took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq; a year later, 150 were in use. By 2008 the inventory in Iraq had approached the 12,000 mark, with the first generation of armed ground robots arriving that same year.8 And the technological development is moving so fast that all of these systems are outdated the very moment they hit the marketplace and battlespace. These are just the Model T Fords and Wright Flyers compared to what is already in the prototype stage.

With these trends in play, warfare is undergoing a shift that may well parallel that which occurred in World War I. Amazing new technologies, almost science-fiction-like in their capabilities, are being introduced. (Indeed, the number of unmanned ground systems now in Iraq roughly parallels the number of tanks used in 1918.) Yet, as in World War I and the ensuing interwar years, the new technologies are not “lifting the fog of war” or ending friction, as some of the acolytes of network-centric warfare would have it. Rather, in everything from doctrine to the laws of war, they are presenting more questions than we can answer.

Issues of command leadership offer just one example of the ripple effect now under way. The combination of networked connections and unmanned systems enables modern commanders as never before, linking them closer to the battlefield from greater distances and changing the separation of space. But the separation of time has changed as well. Commanders can transmit orders in real time to the lowest-level troops or systems in the field, and they have simultaneous real-time visibility into it. Previously, generals may have been distanced, but they could never “see” what soldiers saw in the crosshairs of their rifle sights—or do anything about it. With a robotic system such as a Predator UAS or Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System (a ground robot, the size of a lawn mower, armed with a machine gun), commanders can see the same footage that the operator sees, at the same time, and even take over the decision to shoot or not.

Many people, especially the network-centric acolytes who surrounded former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, thought this linking together of every soldier and system into a vast information-technology network would decentralize operations, enable greater initiative among the lower-level units in war, and allow frictionless operations that lifted the fog of war.9 So far, actual experience with unmanned systems is proving to be the opposite. New technologies have certainly enabled a powerful revolution to occur in our capabilities, creating a strange new world where science fiction is fast becoming battlefield reality. But although commanders are empowered as never before, the new technologies have also enabled the old trends of command interference, even taking them to new extremes of micromanagement. Too frequently, generals at a distance use technology to insert themselves into matters formerly handled by those on the scene and at ranks several layers of command below them. “?‘It’s like crack [cocaine] for generals,’ says Chuck Kamps, a professor of joint warfare at the Air Command and Staff College. ‘It gives them an unprecedented ability to meddle in mission commanders’ jobs.”10

Over the last few years, many analysts have discussed what Marine Corps general Charles Krulak described as the rise of the “strategic corporal”—how technology has put far more destructive power (and thus influence over strategic outcomes) into the hands of younger, more junior troops. A 20-year-old corporal can now call in air strikes directed by a 40-year-old colonel in the past. But these new technologies have quietly produced its inverse, what I call the “tactical general.” Technology may have helped move senior leaders off the actual battlefield, but now it allows them to become more involved in the real-time fighting of war. What to do about this phenomenon will pose a core leadership question in the years ahead.

To Intervene or
Not to Intervene

The four-star general who told how he spent two hours watching Predator footage recounted the story proudly and unprompted. He did so while trying to make a point about how he intended to assume personal leadership of operations for which he was responsible.

That a general, who can now see what is unfolding on the ground, would want to shape it directly makes perfect sense. Who better knows “commander’s intent” than the commander himself? All sorts of battles have been lost when subordinates in the field misinterpreted or wrongly implemented a general’s commands. A general who stays on top of an ongoing situation can also rapidly adjust to any changes that happen in the midst of battle, rather than proceed with old plans that have been overcome by events.

Unfortunately, the line between timely supervision and micromanagement is a fine one and may be quickly fading with unmanned systems. More and more frequently, generals insert themselves into situations inappropriately, and their command leadership role becomes command interference.

Examples run rampant. One battalion commander in Iraq told how he had 12 stars’ worth of generals (a four-star general, two three-star lieutenant generals, and a two-star major general) tell him where to position his units during a battle. A captain in special operations forces recounted how a brigadier general (four layers of command up) had radioed him while his team was hunting down an Iraqi insurgent who had escaped during a raid. Watching live Predator video back at the command center in Baghdad, the general had orders for the captain on where to deploy not only his unit but also his individual soldiers!11 Another interviewee described how officers hundreds of miles away would tell him which roads his vehicle should take during raids in Afghanistan.12

As retired Air Force lieutenant colonel Dan Kuehl points out, the fact that a general now can use a “5,000-mile-long screwdriver” doesn’t mean he should.13 Besides the frustrations that such micromanagement brings subordinates, there is also the question of the appropriate division of labor in command. To the general who described spending two hours watching Predator footage, this was time well spent. As the ultimate commander, he would be held accountable if the strike went awry and collateral damage ensued. So, if the technology allowed, he believed that he should make sure the operation went exactly the way he wanted.

But this comes at a cost. While this general was doing a job normally entrusted to junior officers, who was doing his job? New technologies allow him and other senior flags to make tactical decisions as never before. But the captains, majors, colonels, and so forth, whom they cut out of the chain, cannot, in turn, assume responsibility for the strategic and policy questions that the generals would have wrestled with instead.

Such generals seem more attracted to micro­management in the kinetic realm. I liken it to the “Super Bowl” effect. That is, they have spent their entire professional lives preparing for battle and usually look back on their days at field level as the best part of their careers. So these generals don’t want to miss out on “the big game” simply because they have advanced past it in their careers.

The challenge is that tactical generals often overestimate how much they really know about what happens on the ground. New technologies may give them an unprecedented view of the battlefield and the ability to reach into it as never before, but this view remains limited. For example, during Operation Anaconda in 2002, when the 10th Mountain Division took on Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the Shah-i-Khot valley in Afghanistan, generals back in the United States could watch a battle play out live, beamed back to them by a Predator UAS that flew above the fight. The danger, explains Maj Louis Bello, the fire-support coordinator for the division, is that the video tends to “seduce” commanders, leading them to focus on what the UAS beamed back, as if it told the whole story. “You get too focused on what you can see, and neglect what you can’t see,” Bello said. “And a lot of the time, what’s happening elsewhere is more important.”14

Jumping in and out of tactical issues, rather than working them day to day, senior officers also don’t have the local context (nor are they usually trained for analysis). Moreover, they sometimes interpose their assumptions onto what they do see. During Anaconda, for example, American commanders viewed live video of al-Qaeda fighters moving across a mountain. Despite the footage staring them in the face, the commanders still thought they must be seeing Americans since they expected to see them there, based on their original plans.15

Older generations’ lack of familiarity with cutting-edge technology can also heighten misunderstanding from afar. During the 2003 Iraq invasion, for example, overall commander Gen Tommy Franks reportedly became quite possessed with the “Blue Force Tracker” map, a massive electronic display that showed the exact locations and status of every US unit, as well as Iraqi units facing them. The appearance of so much information, however, proved deceiving. At one stage early in the fight, seeing that the tracking map showed no Iraqi units nearby, Franks concluded that several units in the Army’s V Corps were idle, neither moving nor fighting. He reportedly flew off the handle and tracked down his land-forces commander, who then, in his words, was made to eat “a sh[-?-] sandwich.”16

There was only one problem: the audience back at US Central Command saw the battles unfolding at the wrong scale. The blue icons, representing American units, may have looked alone on the large-scale map but were actually locked into one of the toughest battles of the entire invasion, fighting against a swarm of Saddam Fedayeen teams. These small insurgent units had sufficient size to give the US invasion force fits but not enough to merit their own logos on the high-tech map viewed by generals far from the battle.

Most of all, officers in the field lament what they call the “Mother, may I?” syndrome that comes with the greater use of these technologies.17 Rather than rely on the judgment of highly trained officers, generals increasingly want to inspect the situation for themselves. This is fine if the enemy plays along and gives the general several hours to watch the video and decide which bomb to use. But sometimes matters aren’t decided on a general’s schedule. An Air Force officer in the Middle East described his ultimate frustration, noting a time when even though he had information that could have saved lives, “it sat in someone’s e-mail queue for six hours.”18

Generals on Lake Wobegone

Ultimately, these problems combine to add another new problem. Or, rather, they create a new wrinkle on a venerable truism of war. As Napoléon once said, “One bad general is better than two good ones.”19

A pyramid represents the traditional concept of a military operation, with the strategic commander on top, the operational commanders beneath, and the tactical commanders occupying the bottom layer. Aided by the new technologies, strategic and operational commanders who usurp authority from tactical commanders are erasing this structure from above. The pyramid also finds itself endangered from the sides. As one UAS squadron officer explains, the simultaneous location of reachback operations in multiple spaces presents a major challenge to their command and control.20 Although UASs fly over Iraq, they launch out of a base in the Persian Gulf and are flown by operators sitting back in Nevada. At each of those locales, “each commander thinks he’s in control of you.”21 Even worse, everyone clamors for these high-demand assets.

This situation results in “power struggles galore,” tells the squadron commander. Because operations are located around the world, it is not always clear whose orders take priority. Instead, units get “pulled in many directions because you are in virtual space. Am I at Nellis, or am I at CENTAF [US Central Command Air Forces, the air command in the Middle East]?”22

Moreover, by giving everybody in the command structure access to the Internet, the ability to watch what goes on and weigh in on what units should do is not limited to a unit’s physical location (Nevada) or virtual location (the Middle East). During the Shah-i-Khot battle, for instance, the Predators beamed video of the fighting to bases and offices all over the world. Army major general Franklin Hagenbeck, commander of US ground forces during the battle, recalls how “disruptive” this was since officers in places ranging from Tampa to the Pentagon now felt “they were in a position to get involved in the battle.” While his team tried to fight the battle in Afghanistan, “people on other staffs at higher levels would call all the way down to my staff and get information and make suggestions.” In the midst of battle, some officers back in the United States even called in asking for information that they could plug into their own generals’ morning briefing, pestering soldiers in combat “for details that they presumed their bosses would want to know.”23

Each of these tasking orders is tough to ignore. Not only do they originate from senior leaders, who can make or break careers, but also they tend to come in on a “priority basis.” Generals around the world tend to use a logic that humorist Garrison Keillor cites in Lake Wobegon Days. Every single one of them considers his or her missions and orders “of above average” importance. But not everyone can be above average. This “flattening of the chain of command,” summed up retired lieutenant general William Odom, causes “constipated communication channels” and “diarrhea of the email” that distracts troops from the mission at hand.24

At its worst, this pattern leads to the battlefield version of too many cooks spoiling the meal. A Marine officer recalls that during an operation in Afghanistan, he received wildly diverging orders from three different senior commanders. One told him to seize a town 50 miles away. Another said to seize just the roadway outside the town. The third ordered him not to “do anything beyond patrol five miles around the base.”25

In this case, the officer ultimately chose to seize the town. A veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, he felt confident enough to take the career risk of going with his gut on selecting the right order to follow. But the rise of virtual command from afar threatens to hollow out the experience of those who will move into these command roles in the future. Explains one former Predator squadron commander, “You may have some general officer sitting behind four Toshiba big screens [TVs] with greater knowledge of the battlefield from the distance. And maybe it works the first time when they intervene and save the day. But my worry is what happens with the next generation. What happens when that lieutenant, who learns thinking the guys in the back are smarter, becomes a colonel or a general. He’ll be making the decisions, but not have any experience.”26

Where this trend will end, no one is certain yet. Some worry that the ability to reach into the battlefield could even prove tempting to those outside the military. Retired marine Bing West expects that “in the near future . . . a president will say, ‘Why do we need these 20 links in the chain of command?’?” Enhanced connections could certainly help the commander in chief become better informed about the true situation on the ground but could prove catastrophic if civilian leaders are tempted to intervene, as West puts it, “trying to play soldier.”27 Referring to how Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson often tried to influence air operations in Vietnam, former secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne similarly warned that “it’ll be like taking LBJ all the way down into the foxhole.”28

Digitally Leading

So how must commanders—and even more, the training and development programs that create our cadre of leaders—respond to this new phenomenon that enables them in power and reach but also can enable their worst instincts? Clearly, twenty-first-century generals need to bring certain skills to increasingly unmanned wars in order to be successful. New technologies are creating an environment “where the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war can at times be so compressed as to appear virtually as a single function.”29 The downside of this “compression” of the battlefield is that it tempts officers to micromanage (the “tactical general” problem). However, officers who have what Carl von Clausewitz called the “eye of command,” who can find the right balance, will achieve what retired lieutenant general Richard A. Chilcoat once described as “simultaneous awareness.”30 This is the “sweet spot” of future generalship. It involves having a good sense of what is going on at all levels of war and making the appropriate decisions at the right levels.

Developing this skill will not be easy. All the information collected, all the real-time requests, and all the general “diarrhea of the email” threaten to flood officers with data. Much like their corporate counterparts (often thought of as drones in their office cubicles), twenty-first-century generals fighting with drones will also have to cultivate the ability to manage their in-boxes.

Our professional-development system must put more focus on cultivating an ethic of “enlightened control.” Generals literally will have the entire battle at their fingertips. With the new networks and technologies, they can watch nearly every action and make every minute decision. But they still do not have an infinite amount of time. At some point, the leader has to turn matters over to subordinates. Generals who can figure out when to intervene, when to delegate, and when to empower junior troops to act with initiative will enjoy much more success than those who don’t trust their force to do anything without them. Striking this balance will become the essence of strategic leadership.

Leaders must also focus on developing the mental flexibility needed to guide a “learning organization” that adapts to changing circumstances in something beyond just a top-down manner.31 Senior leaders not only must have open minds themselves but also willingly empower subordinates to wrestle with new concepts and technologies that they don’t even understand. As one colonel writes, “I speculate that the digital general some 35 years from now might not just communicate differently but will actually think differently from his or her predecessors, because conceptual behavior itself is evolving during the Information Age” (emphasis in original).32

Although a general may no longer have to be as fit a fighter as the troops, the way Henry V or Gustavus Adolphus was considered among the best warriors in his army, new technologies do impose certain physical requirements that commanders must cultivate in wartime. For one thing, generals should develop skills at using computers, e-mail, and other information technologies (beyond the ability to make a PowerPoint presentation)—something that once seemed an almost abhorrent concept to leaders. General Chilcoat once predicted, “To the strategic commander of the Information Age, the laptop computer, or its successor, will be a natural extension of his mind, as familiar as the telephone, map, and binoculars.”33Events in Iraq have borne out his lessons.

Likewise, the fact that generals may not need the kind of physical fitness to wield a sword or match their troops in push-up contests does not signal the return of 300-pound-plus generals like nineteenth century commander Winfield Scott. Rather, stamina—not strength—now matters. Command has always been taxing, but it is now becoming a round-the-clock job, no matter the commander’s physical location. Thus, generals now need the physical and psychological endurance of a young medical student on call in the emergency room.

Some of these changes might seem immense, but they will not supplant many of the qualities that made great generals in the past. For example, the idea of enlightened control (i.e., giving just enough guidance to officers closer to the scene, so that they can best decide what to do) is nothing new. The great Prussian generals of the nineteenth century called this Führen durch Auftrag (leading by task) as opposed to Führen durch Befehl (leading by orders). Their ideal was that the best general gave his officers the objective and then left it to them to figure out how best to achieve it. The most famous instance occurred before the 1864 Prussian invasion of the Danish province of Schleswig. The commanding general so trusted his officers that, supposedly, he only ordered that he wanted to sleep in the enemy’s capital within the week.

Although this may be a bit too succinct for modern war, the example set by World War II’s General of the Army George C. Marshall remains an apt model for twenty-first-century leaders. New inventions like the radio and teletype may have given him the ability to instruct from afar, but Marshall chose to set the broad goals and agenda. He had smart staff officers write up details of the plan but ensured that everything remained simple enough that a lieutenant in the field could understand and implement everything.34Similarly, Marine general James Mattis’s guidance to his troops before the 2003 invasion of Iraq was just as brief, understandable, and worthy as a guide: “Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.”35

General 2.0

But the questions of leadership don’t just stop at the issue of how much leash commanders give their subordinates. Every decision in a military operation, be it the corporal in the field deciding whether to pull the trigger or Gen Dwight Eisenhower deciding whether to give the “go” for the D-day invasion, can be broken down into four basic parts, known in the military as the observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop. One gathers information, figures out the situation, issues orders, and takes action. Then, the whole cycle begins again.

But technology has shrunk the time inside this decision cycle. Because massive amounts of data come in faster, decisions have to be made quicker. This, for example, led to our turning over the defense against mortars and rockets at major bases in Iraq to the Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) automated gun system. Humans just couldn’t fit into the shorter OODA loop needed to shoot down incoming shells and rockets.

Shortening of time in the decision cycle is not just for the trigger-pullers. The shrinking OODA loop is working its way up the chain to the generals’ level. Marine general James Cartwright, former commander of US Strategic Command, predicted that “the decision cycle of the future is not going to be minutes. . . . The decision cycle of the future is going to be microseconds.”36

Thus, many people think that one last, fundamental change may occur in the role of commanders at war. If the first step of technology’s effect on command and control is to force officers to learn how to lead troops fighting from afar, and if the second is to require generals to figure out when to intervene directly in the battle or not, then the final may be figuring out just what command roles to leave to humans, and which to hand over to machines.

The world is already awash with all sorts of computer systems that we use to sift through information and decide matters on our behalf. Artificial intelligence (AI) in e-mail programs filters out junk mail, and AI systems trade billions of dollars on the stock market, deciding when to buy and sell based only on algorithms.

The same sort of “expert systems” is gradually being introduced into the military. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, created Integrated Battle Command, a system that gives military officers what it calls “decision aids”—AI that allows a commander to visualize and evaluate plans, as well as predict the impact of a variety of effects.37 The system can help a command team building an operational plan to assess the various interactions that will take place in it. The system sees how changing certain parameters might play out in direct and indirect ways so complex that a human would find them difficult to calculate. The next phase in the project involves building an AI that plans an entire military campaign.

Real-Time Adversarial Intelligence and Decision Making, the military-intelligence-officer version of this system, is an AI that scans a data­base of previous enemy actions within an area of operations to “provide the commander with an estimate of his opponent’s strategic objectives.”38 Similarly, “battle management” systems exist that not only provide advice to human commanders on actions an enemy might take, but also suggest potential countermoves, even drawing up the deployment and logistical plans for units to redeploy, as well as creating the orders an officer would have to issue.39 The Israeli military is fielding a “virtual battle management” AI whose primary job entails supporting mission commanders but can also take over in extreme situations (e.g., when the number of incoming targets overwhelms the human).40

Developers behind such programs argue that the advantage of using computers instead of humans is not only their greater speed and processing power, but also the absence of human flaws—they lack our so-called “cognitive biases.”41 Because searching though reams of data and then processing it takes too much time, human commanders without such aids must filter which data they want to look at and which to ignore. This inevitably leads them to skip information they don’t have time to cover. Humans also tend to give more weight in their decisions to the information that they see first, even if it is not representative of the whole. This produces something called a “satisficing” result—a satisfactory, though not the optimal, answer. One Air Force officer planning air strikes in the Middle East, for example, describes how each morning he received a “three-inch-deep” folder of printouts with that night’s intelligence data, which he could only skim quickly before he had to start assigning missions. “A lot of data is falling on the floor.”42

Emotions also can shape decisions, even the most major command decisions in war. Recent neurological findings indicate that emotions drive our thought processes, including leaders’ political decisions, to a greater extent than previously recognized.43 That is, our idealized concept of how decisions are made in war and politics—rationally weighing the evidence to decide how and when to act—does not tell the full story of how human leaders’ brains actually work.

Studies have shown how two underrated factors frequently shape strategic choices in war.44 The first—powerful emotional experiences that leaders had in the past—often steered their decisions, sometimes decades afterwards, including even decisions on whether to go to war. The second factor concerns how body chemistry affects one’s state of mind. People with high levels of testosterone, for instance, are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior and risk taking; Gen George Custer and Gen George Patton seem classic examples. By contrast, those with low levels of serotonin are more prone to depression and mood swings, typical of both Hitler and Pres. Abraham Lincoln.45 As these examples show, emotions can shape a leader’s decisions both for better or worse, so to pull emotions out of the equation could yield widely divergent results.

Setting aside the worry that such artificial decision systems are what enable robots’ takeover of the world in sci-fi movies like The Terminator, machine intelligence may not be the perfect match for the realm of war for the very reason that it remains a human realm, even with machines fighting in it. “The history of human conflicts is littered with examples of how military forces achieved results that no algorithm would have predicted,” according to an Air Force general.46 And he is right. Command may seem just like a game of chess to some, but war doesn’t have a finite set of possible actions and a quantifiable logic of zeros and ones. Instead, “in war, as in life, spontaneity still prevails over programming.”47

Even so, the Pentagon’s work on such programs continues. Few see robot generals anytime soon, but many do think that the most likely result for future command and control in the decades ahead is a parallel to the Department of Defense’s “war fighter’s associate” concept, which is becoming a part of the Army’s Future Combat Systems plans. The latter call for US units to have mixed teams of soldiers and robots fighting together in the field. We may soon have to wrestle with a situation in which their future commanders back at the base may have a staff that mixes advice from human officers and AI as well. Retired colonel James Lasswell of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab thinks that the various technological decision aids will likely evolve into an AI “alter ego” for the commander. A sort of artificial aide-de camp to future generals, this technology would “automatically send and collate information for him to have at his beck and call.”48 As with the issue of tactical generals, even though this outcome may enable leaders, it also opens up a whole new array of questions that once seemed science fiction but may well lie in our not-too-distant future.

Robot Conclusions

When exploring the future role of machines in war, people often want to focus on the obvious issues of whether a robot should be armed or how much autonomy should be given to keep the “man in the loop.” But it is a far more complex world that we are entering.

By providing generals insight into the front lines—something they have lacked since the age of gunpowder and telegraphs—new technologies like unmanned systems are lifting many of the burdens of command. But in giving newfound reach and visibility to the commander, they also add many new challenges. Most importantly, these technologies present a serious test for simultaneously managing an amazing array of possibilities and information while resisting the temptation to micromanage subordinates.

But the trend doesn’t stop there. Human commanders and their staffs may even one day face a challenge to their own role as the pace and complexity of war continue to grow.

In short, where the ever-expanding role of machines in war will one day take us is a question that used to only be suitable for ­science-fiction conventions. Today’s technologies, however, are bringing this question to our real-world battlefields.

*This article is derived from the author’s latest book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin, 2009). For further information, see http://wiredforwar.pwsinger.com.

[Feedback? Email the Editor ]


1. General officer, interview by the author, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, 17 December 2007. (All anonymous interviews were conducted in confidentiality, and the names of the interviewees are withheld by mutual agreement.)

2. John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Viking Press, 1976), 114.

3. Chris Hables Gray, Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 274.

4. Ibid., 63.

5. Joshua Davis, “If We Run Out of Batteries, This War Is Screwed,” Wired Magazine, issue 11.06 (June 2003), http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.06/battlefield .html. HAL 9000 was the computer in Arthur C. Clarke’s book 2001: A Space Odyssey.

6. Tom Vanden Brook, “Report: Insurgents Benefit from Drone Shortage,” USA Today, 25 March 2008, http://www .usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2008-03-24-UAV_N.htm.

7. Lolita C. Baldor, “Military Use of Unmanned Aircraft Soars,” USA Today, 1 January 2008, http://www.usatoday .com/news/military/2008-01-01-unmanned-killers_N.htm.

8. Robert S. Boyd, “They’re Very Expensive, but They Save Lives: U.S. Enlisting Smart Robots for War’s Dirty, Deadly Jobs,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 February 2006, E02.

9. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, interview by Richard Dixon, WAPI-AM Radio, Birmingham, AL, 28 September 2004; Stephen J. Cimbala, “Transformation in Concept and Policy,” Joint Force Quarterly, no. 38 (2005): 28–33, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/jfq_pubs/0838 .pdf; Network Centric Warfare: Department of Defense Report to Congress (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, Command and Control Research Program, 27 July 2001), http://www.dodccrp.org/files/ncw_report/report/ncw _cover.html; and Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka, “Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings 124, no. 1 (1998): 28.

10. Quoted in Noah Shachtman, “Attack of the Drones,” Wired Magazine, issue 13.06 (June 2005), http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.06/drones.html.

11. Andrew Exum, interview by the author, Washington, DC, 28 April 2008.

12. United States Marine Corps officer, interview by the author, Washington, DC, 16 January 2007.

13. Quoted in Barry Rosenberg, “Technology and Leadership,” Armed Forces Journal, July 2007, 18, http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/2007/07/2786772.

14. Quoted in Thomas E. Ricks, “Beaming the Battlefield Home: Live Video of Afghan Fighting Had Questionable Effect,” Washington Post, 22 March 2002, 1.

15. Stephen D. Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 65.

16. Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, 1st ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), 314.

17. Four different interviewees used this expression.

18. Interview by the author, US military facility in US Central Command region, 19 February 2008.

19. Nicholas Wade, “Bytes Make Might,” New York Times Magazine, 12 March 1995, 28.

20. Reachback is “the process of obtaining products, services, and applications, or forces, or equipment, or material from organizations that are not forward deployed.” Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 April 2001 (as amended through 17 October 2008), 454, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdf.

21. Air Force colonel, interview by the author, Arlington, VA, 18 April 2006.

22. Ibid.

23. Quoted in Ricks, “Beaming the Battlefield Home,” 1.

24. Quoted in Rosenberg, “Technology and Leadership,” 17.

25. United States Marine Corps general, interview by the author, Washington, DC, 16 January 2007.

26. Air Force colonel, interview by the author, Arlington, VA, 28 August 2006. See also LCDR John J. Klein, “The Problematic Nexus: Where Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles and the Law of Armed Conflict Meet,” Air and Space Power Journal - Chronicles Online Journal, 22 July 2003, http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/cc/klein.html.

27. Bing West, telephone interview by the author, 23 August 2006.

28. Michael Wynne, interview by the author, Washington, DC, 25 January 2008.

29. Richard A. Chilcoat, “The ‘Fourth’ Army War College: Preparing Strategic Leaders for the Next Century,” Parameters 25, no. 4 (Winter 1995–96), http://www.carlisle .army.mil/usawc/parameters/1995/chilcoat.htm.

30. Ibid.

31. See Janine Davidson, “Learning to Lift the Fog of Peace: The United States Military in Stability and Reconstruction Operations” (PhD diss., University of South Carolina, 2005).

32. Paul T. Harig, “The Digital General: Reflections on Leadership in the Post-Information Age,” Parameters 26, no. 3 (Autumn 1996): 134.

33. Chilcoat, “?‘Fourth’ Army War College.”

34. Credit for this point goes to Harlan Ullman.

35. James Mattis (presentation, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, 16 January 2007).

36. Quoted in John T. Bennett, “DoD Struggles to Craft Offensive Cyberspace Plan,” Defense News 22, issue 9 (26 February 2007): 1.

37. Tony Skinner, “DARPA Develops Strategic Decision Support Tools,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 4 January 2007, 7.

38. Donald McFarlane, “Dr. Alexander Kott,” Jane’s International Defence Review 41 (March 2008): 66.

39. Gray, Postmodern War, 58.

40. Barbara Opall-Rome, “Israeli Defense to Use Artificial Intelligence, Defense News 23, issue 3 (21 January 2008): 1.

41. McFarlane, “Dr. Alexander Kott,” 66.

42. Interview by the author, US military facility in US Central Command region, 19 February 2008.

43. Drew Westen, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (New York: Public Affairs, 2007), ix, 69–88, 417–20.

44. Stephen Peter Rosen, War and Human Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 28.

45. Ibid., 87.

46. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., Technology and the 21st Century Battlefield: Recomplicating Moral Life for the Statesman and the Soldier (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 1999), 12, http://www.strategic studiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/00222.pdf.

47. Christopher Coker, The Future of War: The Re-­Enchantment of War in the Twenty-first Century, Blackwell Manifestos (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 73.

48. James Lasswell, interview by the author, Washington, DC, 7 November 2006.


Dr. Peter Warren Singer

Dr. Peter Warren Singer (AB, Princeton University; PhD, Harvard University) is Senior Fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC. He is the youngest scholar named Senior Fellow in Brookings’s 90-year history. He has worked for Harvard University, the International Peace Academy, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In his personal capacity, Singer served as coordinator of the Obama ’08 campaign’s defense-policy task force. Singer is the author of the book Corporate Warriors (Cornell, 2003), which introduced the study of private military firms, and Children at War (Pantheon, 2005), which explored the rise of another new force in modern warfare—child soldier groups. His latest book is Wired for War (Penguin, 2009), which explores the implications of robotics on the battlefield. For further information, see http://www.pwsinger.com.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University

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