With Covid-19 incapacitating startling numbers of U.S. service members and modern weapons proving increasingly lethal, the American military is relying ever more frequently on intelligent robots to conduct hazardous combat operations. Such devices, known in the military as “autonomous weapons systems,” include robotic sentries, battlefield-surveillance drones, and autonomous submarines. So far, in other words, robotic devices are merely replacing standard weaponry on conventional battlefields. Now, however, in a giant leap of faith, the Pentagon is seeking to take this process to an entirely new level — by replacing not just ordinary soldiers and their weapons, but potentially admirals and generals with robotic systems.
Admittedly, those systems are still in the development stage, but the Pentagon is now rushing their future deployment as a matter of national urgency. Every component of a modern general staff — including battle planning, intelligence-gathering, logistics, communications, and decision-making — is, according to the Pentagon’s latest plans, to be turned over to complex arrangements of sensors, computers, and software. All these will then be integrated into a “system of systems,” now dubbed the Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control, or JADC2 (since acronyms remain the essence of military life). Eventually, that amalgam of systems may indeed assume most of the functions currently performed by American generals and their senior staff officers.
The notion of using machines to make command-level decisions is not, of course, an entirely new one. It has, in truth, been a long time coming. During the Cold War, following the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with extremely short flight times, both military strategists and science-fiction writers began to imagine mechanical systems that would control such nuclear weaponry in the event of human incapacity.
In Stanley Kubrick’s satiric 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove, for example, the fictional Russian leader Dimitri Kissov reveals that the Soviet Union has installed a “doomsday machine” capable of obliterating all human life that would detonate automatically should the country come under attack by American nuclear forces. Efforts by crazed anti-Soviet U.S. Air Force officers to provoke a war with Moscow then succeed in triggering that machine and so bring about human annihilation. In reality, fearing that they might experience a surprise attack of just this sort,