More than a decade ago, I saw the future -- and it sure looked bleak.
I was in Orlando, Florida (like I said, bleak!), for the 26th Army Science Conference, a showcase for emerging military technologies that was nothing if not underwhelming.
All these years later, only a few memories leap to mind. Watching the Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot, or "BEAR" -- a would-be mechanical medic -- break down and begin hemorrhaging hydraulic fluid all over the floor of the exhibition hall, for instance. Or the drunk conference-goer taunting a soldier who -- to tout a futuristic robo-suit with on-board computers and integrated weapons systems -- was clad in a ridiculous-looking mock-up comprised of plastic armor over sparkly Armani fabric. "How do you feel about the glittery shirt?" the paunchy salesman slurred. "Does it make you feel tough?" Still, whatever abuse he had to endure, it was easier being a faux super-soldier in Orlando than a real regular soldier in Iraq, where the 2006-2008 "surge" that cost 1,200 American lives was just winding down, or Afghanistan where the war was grinding on (just as it is today).
In addition to taking in the sights, I talked to several Global War on Terror veterans, including one of the top-ranking enlisted men in the Army who, in a moment of candor, admitted that up-armored American soldiers couldn't keep up with their tennis-shoe-wearing adversaries in the mountains of Afghanistan. When I wondered aloud whether it made sense to outfit a soldier in $20,000 worth of gear if it made pursuit of the enemy impossible, he backpedaled. "We're gettin' it done," he insisted. Another command sergeant major (CSM) jumped in, adding: "Yeah, I can't run the mountain with them, but I'll still get them." I asked him when. "Eventually," he responded.
"Eventually" is, of course, still somewhere over the horizon and "gettin' it done" a sad tagline for a war typified by the opposite. But those conflicts weren't the only subjects the two of them and three other command sergeants major -- men who had spent a collective 140 years in the military -- weighed in on. I also asked them about autonomous robots. CSM Jeffrey Mellinger, first drafted into the Army in 1972, scoffed at the suggestion of autonomous machines making military decisions. An eye in the sky might spot a potential enemy, he granted, but "somebody's gonna have to go look 'em in the eye and say... 'Who you with?' 'What's your name?' 'Who's your daddy?'"
"I think it's one of those things that you'll always have a soldier in the equation," CSM James Diggs chimed in. Just like their predictions for the Afghan War, however, their prognostications about autonomous military technologies have long since passed their expiration date. Artificial intelligence (AI), as Allegra Harpootlian and Emily Manna explain today, is already transforming the U.S. military and threatening to make America's ceaseless wars even more "remote" (in every sense of the word). With humans out of the loop, they warn, already threadbare accountability is bound to suffer further and the consequences may be dire. Then again, technology has a way of aping nature in terms of unpredictability. And tomorrow's AI may well end up, like BEAR back in 2008, a hunk of junk bleeding out as onlookers slowly shake their heads and walk away. Nick Turse
Here's a question worth asking about America's seemingly endless global conflicts: if you kill somebody and there's no one there (on our side anyway), is the United States still at war? That may prove to be the truly salient question when it comes to the future of America's war on terror, which is now almost 18 years old and encompasses significant parts of the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Think of it, if you want, as the artificial intelligence, or AI, question.
It's not, however, the question that Washington is obsessing over. Retired military officials, defense outlets, and pundits alike have instead been pontificating about what it means for the Department of Defense and key Trump officials to regularly insist that the country's national security focus is shifting -- from a struggle against insurgent groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to the growing influence of what are termed "near-peer" enemies, a fancy phrase for China and Russia. Speculation about what this refocusing will look like has only grown in the wake of President Trump's various tweets and statements declaring that America's endless wars will be coming to a "glorious end" and how "now is the time to bring our troops back home."
What's been missing from this conversation is an answer to what should be a relatively easy question: Is the war on terror really being dumped to focus on great power competition?
After President Trump announced in December that he was pulling all 2,000 American troops out of Syria because "we have won against ISIS," White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders clarified that this does not "signal the end of the global coalition or its campaign." Breaking with Trump, the Pentagon soon clarified further: 1,000 of those troops will, in fact, remain in Syria, and the U.S.-led coalition will continue its airstrikes and coordinated attacks until the "enduring defeat of ISIS." Since then, those airstrikes (and accompanying civilian casualties) have only risen.
Almost simultaneously, reports surfaced that Trump had ordered the Pentagon to pull 7,000 of the approximately 14,000 soldiers in Afghanistan out as part of a bigger plan to draw down the war there. After bipartisan outrage, the administration quickly walked this back, too.
Just weeks later, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported that, in 2018, U.S.-caused civilian casualties from airstrikes had almost doubled from the previous year. It attributed the increased numbers -- themselves probably an underestimate -- to the U.S. conducting a greater number of strikes. In 2019 alone, we estimate that more than 100 civilians have been killed by American air attacks there, a phenomenon that shows no signs of decreasing.
Next, the Trump administration floated a rumor that the Pentagon would be drawing down troops across Africa, specifically in Somalia, to focus on that "next frontier of war" (Russia and China). With one stipulation: airstrikes and counterterrorism operations would, of course, continue. The only difference? Under the new plan, responsibility for those airstrikes against militants in Somalia would be shifted ever more to the CIA.
In fact, U.S. air strikes have already been radically on the rise in the Trump years. According to New America, there have been more of them in Somalia in the past six months than in any full calendar year of the campaign since it began. To add a further twist to Trump's desire to "stop the endless wars," Pentagon officials released their own news: that U.S. troops would, in fact, remain in Somalia for another seven years!
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