The Army wants the first casualty of the next war to be a robot, not a human being

Thursday, November 12th, 2020

The Army wants the first casualty of the next war to be a robot, not a human being:

Army studies of recent conflicts — Russia vs. Ukraine, Armenia vs. Azerbaijan — show you can have a dramatic impact by adding a small infusion of 21st century tech to a largely Cold War force, [Maj. Gen. Patrick] Donahoe said. How? One approach the Russians have employed to devastating effect is to use drones to spot targets for rocket launchers. Likewise, while the US Army is developing a host of new missiles, armored vehicles, and aircraft, most units will be using Reagan-era hardware for years to come. In essence, Donahoe wants to organize these existing weapons in new formations and add drones and ground robots to scout ahead.


Historical data on direct-fire engagements “shows that our enemies generally shoot first 80 percent of the time,” Sando said. “We don’t like those odds, [so] we want to avoid the close fight if we can. If we can’t avoid it, we want to enter it under conditions that are favorable to us.”

But how? Current Army doctrine prescribes “making contact with the smallest element.” In layman’s terms, if you must stumble upon the enemy and get shot at (the formal term for this is a, “meeting engagement”), then do it with the smallest vanguard possible, giving the main body time to prepare and maneuver without being pinned down. In the future, Donahoe said, the goal will be to make first contact with an unmanned element.

Cold War doctrine envisioned engaging the enemy along what’s called the Forward Line Of Troops, or FLOT. In the new concept, according to a briefing at the conference, a Forward Line Of Unmanned Aerial Systems (FLUA) will fly ahead through no-man’s-land into enemy-held territory, followed by a Forward Line Of Robots (FLOR) on the ground, followed in turn by the Forward Line Of (Human) Troops. The unmanned systems will flush out the enemy, stumble into meeting engagements and ambushes, take and receive the first hits, and map the enemy position for the human troops coming along behind them.

Of course, the Army can’t do this today. To execute the concept in reality, they need a lot more unmanned systems, so they’re going to build them.


  1. Kirk says:

    I’m ambivalent on this whole idea, TBH.

    On the one hand, yeah, great… Let the drones do the dirty work.

    On the other, it’s the first step off the top down a slippery slope that ends who knows where. Do we really want an accidental “AI” event to start with autonomous weapons platforms…?

    Then, there’s a moral issue: As these platforms and systems get more sophisticated, the line between “sentient and self-aware” or “dumb machine” is inevitably going to get more and more blurry. Do you really want to be sending even primitively self-aware machines, say at about the level of a Down’s Syndrome kid, off to do your fighting? Is that moral?

    Then there’s the fact that the troops are going to anthropomorphize these weapons, big time. It’s already happened in Iraq with EOD robots, and there’s an apocryphal tale I never got confirmed that one of our EOD teams blasted a civilian vehicle that ran one of their robots over, and killed/wounded a bunch of civilians who were in it. Deliberately, and with malice aforethought, ‘cos they’d run over their robot. Which they’d named, and which they ascribed human traits to, like self-sacrifice for the team.

    Things like that are going to happen, even if that story was utter bullshit. It will eventually happen that some set of troops will identify with their robotic surrogates as people, and then “avenge” them on the enemy or civilians. Or, alternately, their bosses who they might see as having been the agents of their robotic friend’s demise.

    People are ‘effing weird, and combat soldiers are some of the weirdest of the lot. The brass is going to see those robotic systems as expendable tools, and the guys actually running them are possibly going to see them as their buddies.

    One of the EOD teams actually held a memorial ceremony for their robot, when it got blown up. They were dead serious about it, too…

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Why build a force which effectively brings tomorrow’s technology to yesterday’s battles?

    Personal view — it would be better start with a more fundamental set of questions. Who do we expect to have to fight? Why? What will be our objective? What is the enemy’s objective? How do we get what we want with the minimum of damage to our side?

    If the Russians invade Europe – have at it, guys! None of our business. The whole of Europe is not worth the bones of one American soldier.

    If the Chinese sink a US aircraft carrier, they should understand beforehand that the US does not do “proportionate responses” anymore. Sink that carrier, and Beijing & Shanghai disappear in a nuclear cloud. While China is mulling over that message, we should ask ourselves — why is that aircraft carrier even there where the Chinese could sink it?

    And if there are places where we are not prepared to respond disproportionately, then we should not be there at all. Time to bring the troops home from Europe, Afghanistan, etc. It is time to focus on fighting back in the economic war which we are currently losing — and losing badly!

  3. Kirk says:

    Disproportionate response always sounds good, in theory. In practice, it has a less-than-stellar track record because the people going to implement it always find that there are “other considerations” to take into account.

    What was that plan for post-WWII Germany, again? The one where we were going to turn them into a peaceful agrarian nation, with no industry, that could never wage modern war ever again…? What happened with that, again? Did they implement it?

    No matter what, a couple of major cities for even a capital warship is not a proportionate response, and would likely not actually happen on our end. If it did, then the reaction to that would probably be equally disproportionate, because that exchange is fundamentally insane in the first place. A nation doing that would rightly be excoriated and ostracized, world-wide.

    Right response? No idea, but it ain’t cities. China sinks a carrier, something needs to be done, but not that.

    I have to be honest–The more I look back at the aberration of the Cold War, the less moral I think Mutual Assured Destruction really was, and the more fundamentally insane the entire proposition looks. It is a notable fact that we haven’t had a nuclear weapon used in anger since ’45, and I suspect it’s because they take proportionality right out of the equation–You don’t do tit-for-tat with entire cities, not with the ease and essential madness a nuclear exchange implies.

    Honestly, I strongly suspect that the only time you’re going to see nukes get used by anyone will be by nihilistic terrorists who don’t give a damn. Anyone tied into the international system, with something to lose? No way in hell. Retaliatory nuking for something like Hezbollah getting a nuke into Shanghai or San Diego? Sure. But, major powers who have hundreds or thousands of nukes to let fly? I really don’t think you’re ever going to see that. The politicians may get right up to the edge, teeter over it, even… But, I just don’t see them doing it. Too big a step, too major of a paradigm shift.

    It’s just like that deal with thinking that they’ll start droning each other to death. The politicians are not going to break that particular norm, if they can help it. And, if one of them does, then there’s probably going to be a unified response from all the others sitting on the sidelines, and whoever it was that did it will wake up sharing their bed with a 500-lb bomb for just a few seconds.

    People are stupid and crazy, but they’re generally not that stupid and crazy. The ones who are generally don’t get to become major politicians, these days. I suspect that a modern-day Hitler would have so many of his own people working to pull him down from within, thinking about the odds of an irradiated Germany, that he’d never get past mid-level power.

    Could be wrong, though. I hope I’m not. I suspect the nukes are not ever going to be used in anger, again. What worries me more are the things like that weaponized mouse pox the Aussies did as a proof-of-concept thing a few years ago–Biowarfare or nanotech that gets out of control, those are the things I see being more of a threat, because they don’t require major state-level infrastructure. Some idiot high school student or teacher in the Gaza Strip, that’s who we need to worry about.

    Or, some really smart Israeli kid whose little sister gets blown up in a bus.

  4. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Kirk: “I have to be honest–The more I look back at the aberration of the Cold War, the less moral I think Mutual Assured Destruction really was, and the more fundamentally insane the entire proposition looks.”

    That is a defensible point of view — probably the majority point of view of which Political Correctness approves.

    There is the other point of view — Mutual Assured Destruction was the ultimate in morality.

    In conventional war, the grunts die and the civilians (quaint concept!) get raped, starved, used as slave labor; but the leaders who give the orders stay far away, safe & warm. Accurate ballistic missiles (+/- nuclear weapons) put the leaders — the decision makers — on the front line. Now the leader who gives soldiers the order to go to war knows that he (or these days, more likely she) is likely to die.

    That takes us back to the days when the King had to ride into battle at the head of his army, putting his own life on the line — a highly moral situation where war is concerned.

  5. Kirk says:

    Thing is, though, Gavin…

    Odds are pretty good that any “leadership” in a nuclear exchange will have taken appropriate protective measures before starting things off, and you’ll just be killing a bunch of civilians that didn’t have very much at all to do with the theoretical sinking of a a capital ship…

    MAD might have been a little justifiable when you could only go after a country’s leadership cadre by destroying the city they were theoretically in, but once you recognize that you’re just killing potentially millions of people that effectively had nothing to do with the attack on your nation, the whole thing goes out the window inasmuch as the morality of it all. It’s like a judge in a murder trial saying “OK, you killed so-and-so, who was X’s mother, so now we’re gonna kill your mother…”.

    Many of those populations, like in North Korea, are just as much prisoners/victims of the regime as the theoretical dead here in the US, so killing them in order to get at the regime’s leadership…? Is that what we’re reduced to? Is that moral?

    Strikes me that it’s about like the Germans and their Francs Tireurs policies during WWI and II. If it’s reprisals-against-the-law-of-war to do what they did to an Ouradour-sur-Glane or Lidice, how is it possible to say that what amounts to a deliberate policy of extermination is A-OK?

    I don’t think that there is really a workable moral answer to someone like China nuking or dropping a biowarfare agent on a major city. I think you just have to write off morality, accept that you’re a monster when you do it, and let the fur fly, hoping that the fact you’re a monster will dissuade people from engaging you on those terms.

    Doesn’t change the fact that you’re still a monster, though. And, in a thousand years or so, any justifications you make that you “had to do it” are going to sound a lot like Cato the Censor’s “Carthago delenda est…” speeches. I’m not sure that MAD will stand the test of time, TBH.

    As a practical matter of pragmatism, however? I am unsure what other option there is. I just don’t think it’s a particularly moral option. I mean, seriously–What has that random million or so residents of Shanghai really done to deserve sudden immolation, should some no-doubt well-protected member of the leadership cadre in Beijing decide to fling a missile at Los Angeles?

    Not to mention, what if it wasn’t China that did unto Los Angeles before we visited immolation on Shanghai? What does MAD look like, in terms of morality, when there’s been a mistake?

    Of course, one of the assumptions of MAD is that it’s an end-of-the-world as we know it sort of proposition, one that includes us all going to assless chaps as a fashion statement, but… I think the point still remains, you’re holding China’s population hostage against the chance of their leadership nuking us.

    Which, when you’re talking about a totalitarian state, ain’t something I like the idea of. Smacks of shooting the hostages, to my mind…

  6. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Kirk, you make the case re morality very well. Now extend it to an individual soldier — Is it moral for him to shoot an enemy soldier?

    Practical matter — the individual soldier is an a kill-or-be-killed situation; the only way to survive is to be the better shot. Moral situation — the enemy soldier is simply some poor sod who was born on the opposite side of the line and is merely following orders, same as our soldier.

    That is why the most moral response is to make killing the people who give the orders for violence the top priority. That is why the current situation where Hillary Clinton is safe & warm while she makes decisions which result in the death of Libyans is very immoral.

    Still, as a practical matter, it seems that the best way to avoid violence in this world is to make it very clear that we won’t hit first — but if anyone hits us, the response will be extremely disproportionate and targeted at the leadership who issued the order for the attack on us.

    And if that approach leads us to think twice about why we are putting aircraft carriers on the other side of the world — so much the better.

  7. Kirk says:


    See, here’s where I’m at–I don’t personally have a “moral objection” to either MAD or the killing of an enemy soldier. I’m really not all that “moral” a person, in that what I’ve done all my life is look around me at the people I see and interact with, trying to understand them, their “rules of operation”, and what makes them do what they do. I don’t, for whatever reason, have a very good instinctive grasp for most of what I observe, so I have to work my way through it from first principles.

    So… People tell me that they’re moral human beings, and have ethical codes. Lots and lots of them point to the fact that they go to church regularly, and rub their bellies with blue mud along with the rest of the crowd.

    Thing is, though… The actual “things they do” bear no relation to that set of espoused beliefs and ethics. It’s like most people just ape what they see their betters doing, as far as they want to, and then make up their own rules to gratify themselves and justify what they’ve done.

    War is a perfect example of it all. You go back and look at WWI, and ask “Why’d they destroy their own civilization…?”, and the answer comes back, in the final analysis “‘Cos they wanted to”.

    To a degree, I think I’m something of a high-functioning sociopath, because about 99% of what I observe other people doing in real life and the history books (which are two very different things, history being written by the literate and self-justifying… Churchill’s line about making sure he’d look good in the histories written about WWII because he’d write them springs most clearly to mind…) simply does not present as congruent in any way, shape, or form with the things people say they meant to do or why they did them. The fact that I don’t instinctively know the right moment to pivot a given direction in the dance of life means that I have to watch, try to learn, and then comply with the rules I think others are following.

    Thing is, older I get? The more I think that there really are no rules; all y’all are just doin’ whatever turns you on, and the hell with any sort of overarching moral code or rulebook.

    This thing with MAD is just a perfect example. Most of the people who saw no problems at all with Nuremberg later went on to take part in setting up the international order that relied on MAD, and apparently, suffered not a whit of cognitive dissonance as they did so.

    Kill a million Ukrainian peasants with nice, clean fusion bombs? No problem… Kill a few million Ukrainian peasants with machine guns, gas chambers, and starvation…? Now we have a problem. Is the difference that the Nazis were up close and personal? Why don’t people remember the Mongols with the same sense of outraged moralization, after they killed enough people in Eurasia to actually change the climate? People romanticize the Mongolian conquests, despite the fact they stacked heads with the same sort of enthusiasm that the Nazis dead. Or, is the difference because the Mongols didn’t try to hide it all? After all, they were out and proud with the slaughter, depopulating and destroying entire regions by the sword, horse bow, and torch.

    What. The. Actual. F**k.

    I’ve about come to the conclusion that most of the human race is insane. How the hell you reconcile the two attitudes towards dead Ukrainian peasants, I’ll never fully understand–That, or what Stalin and his minions did during the earlier Holodomor. “Hey, everyone is starving under our brilliant new economic program… Ivan, do you think that maybe it’s not so brilliant? Could we have gotten this… Wrong?”.

    All y’all are basically nuts, I’m afraid. I may be a sociopath with no real internal compass to work off of, navigating the shoals and depths of social conduct, but the rest of you seem to be actually worse off, because you’re not even trying to work out the rules. And, observedly, don’t have any that seem to keep you from self-gratification and doing whatever the hell you like.

    Aliens ever show up to judge the sentient occupants of this planet, I’m gonna be going up to them and I’m gonna be very, very clear that I’m not with the rest of you. Y’all can simply do your own thing, trying to explain it all to the nice near-godlike beings, ‘cos I’m pretty much done trying to understand you as a group or individually.

    I really don’t do “morals”, but at least I try. The rest of you just seem to use them as a cudgel to beat other people up with, while you’re doing whatever you like, anyway.

  8. Lucklucky says:

    It is much different. If they kill your civilians you retaliate by killing theirs. That prevents civilians being killed. How is that immoral, promoting a behavior that respects civilians?

    Instead Communists killing of Ukranians did not saved lives.

  9. Kirk says:


    Show me the moral calculus that reconciles killing “their” innocents to protect ours. There isn’t one–The Soviet Union ran on totalitarian terms, and those Ukrainian peasants had no real option but to participate in the whole nasty mess they were in. Same-same can be said for the Germans during WWII, but at least they’d had the facade of having voted in the stupid bastards that got them killed.

    No, when you get down to it, the real deal is that there is no “moral” to be seen anywhere in the idea of MAD. It’s all thuggery, all the way down–You kill what I value, I’ll kill what you value, and never mind that the victims are essentially uninvolved in even the discussion. When you’re talking thermonuclear war, the people whose necks lay over the chopping block wouldn’t have even seen the blow coming–It wouldn’t have even been a hostage situation, where they knew they were in danger. The whole thing would have been like a drive-by shooting in a gang-run neighborhood where the mass of people living there just had to try to survive while the elephants danced.

    I don’t object so much to the idea of MAD as I do the attempts to dress it in the clothes of morality. It is no such thing, and cannot be reconciled with any recognizable moral code in history. Although, it fits in nicely with the mentality of those who’ve had no moral code, whatsoever. Pirates, terrorists, bandits, and the like…

    When nation-states start acting like that, it’s time to re-evaluate what the hell you’re doing, as a collective civilization.

  10. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Kirk, since we seem to be talking past one another, let me repeat something which might have been missed: “That is why the most moral response is to make killing the people who give the orders for violence the top priority.”

  11. Kirk says:


    Sending in the Mossad stripper ninja assassins would be the preferred technique, then.

    MAD implies a 50-megaton warhead, which is by definition, a bit on the “indiscriminate” side of things, even if you are using an Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein as your point of aim. The stripper assassins will likely hit only the target. The nuke…?

    Collateral damage is an euphemism that I have always loathed.

  12. Harry Jones says:

    Killing the people who give the orders is easier said than done. They tend to be expert at not getting killed. Practically speaking, you need to accept some… pardon the expression – collateral damage. Maybe a lot of it.

Leave a Reply