I have no military experience, and have never served in any military branch. My father did, but he got out just after the Korean war, so things were a bit different back then. What I know about the military I know from speaking to others and reading.
Which isn't to say you can't know anything without going through it, but its not the same to read about something and personally experience it.
So while I have a concern, its mostly theoretical. I know how this works out in other areas, and I have a bad feeling about it, but I can't really say for certain and I hope that the more military-experienced of my readers can pitch in and help out.
My concern is expressed well in this article on Cracked by a drone pilot:
Wait, did you think the pilot was the only one involved in flying the thing? Not at all. The optics guy (me!), called a sensor operator, has to make sure the pilot's ADHD doesn't detract from the mission via visuals that look closer to GoldenEye 007 than an engine of war. But if that still kind of sounds like a video game to you, there is a key part missing: the bit where you actually play, i.e., find your target and blow it up.Its not a video game, its not like the movies, its a top down control deal. Like jets who have to get permission to fire on a target and bomb a location, the entire operation of war these days is becoming less about the point of the spear and more about the guys back in town reading about someone holding the spear.
We don't get to pick our targets. Instead, someone else watches the footage while we fly along and, every now and then, decides some building or person we've spotted needs to have projectiles thrown at it. They call several more important people until eventually someone whole countries away from my chair makes the decision to fire. And even that doesn't happen often.
And its not just in the air. Men on the ground have to get permission and okay to take action more than ever now. The reason is that with all of the surveillance and battlefield intelligence, the brass know more of what's going on than ever before. They have cameras in space and on the wing looking down at the field, they have IR information on what's going on, they have continuous radio contact with squads, they have cameras on soldiers showing them what is taking place.
I don't know but this seems like a real problem to me. Part of what makes a soldier in the American military action is their training to show initiative, react to a changing environment, rely on experience and "instinct," and adapt to overcome. That's a stark difference between militaries such as Iraq which had to get every order confirmed and okayed by the central command.
But the more high tech the army becomes, the more this changes. If you have a lieutenant in your ear watching through cameras on the squad sitting back in a command bunker telling you what you can and cannot do, you lose that initiative and adaptability.
And further, it seems to me that this makes the modern military all too similar to the Vietnam-era military. A major complaint, and a valid one, during Vietnam was that certain areas were declared off limits due to political and economic reasons. No, you cannot pursue them into that rubber plantation, you can't shell that banana field, you can't go into that area, that country is off limits, etc. This was because the folks back in Washington DC nine thousand miles away were making decisions on how things could be done. Not soldiers, even, legislators and bureaucrats.
Afghanistan has already seen this, with certain spots being declared untouchable. You can't mess with those poppy crops. You can't go into that town. You can't use that weapon there. You can't shoot into that cave.
And the more the Eye in the Sky is watching, the less flexibility soldiers have, because someone sitting in an air conditioned base doesn't have the same feel or knowledge of the battlefield as the soldier, and they have concerns other than "stay alive" and "get the bad guy." Political, diplomatic, and media optics all begin to play a part.
To make matters worse, officers who are more interested in advancing their career and a political goal in the future become more intimately involved in operations. In the past you could claim the radio was busted, that you couldn't hear them. Or just get far enough away that these guys weren't a direct influence or problem on your squad. Yes, you had to deal with them back at the base, but out in the field they were out of your hair. No longer.
Those of you old enough to have watched M*A*S*H, do you remember those officers that Hawkeye Pierce kept getting into conflicts with? The Major Flaggs and the ones who didn't care about their men, only their career? Remember the guys that always were the villain? They had agendas, they had ideologies that conflicted with the survival of their men and even accomplishing their military objectives and were always portrayed as the bad guy. And rightly so. Well those guys are unfortunately in every organization, even the police and military, and they have even more control than ever before.
As an aside it just fascinated me that the same people who would have damned and screamed at the screen when John Kerry types showed up were cheering him and voting for him in 2004. He was all about his career and the long-term goal, not the men with him and the job at hand, just like those bad guys on M*A*S*H.
In any case, this seems to be damaging to the US military. One of the absolute truths of military that everyone in all times all agrees on is that its the "noncom" level soldiers that make a military work. Non-Commissioned officers are basically sergeant level soldiers. These are the rough, experienced leaders who keep morale up, organize the men, and execute orders on the battlefield. They are the officer right by the grunts doing what they do and keeping things working. Good noncoms = good army. Bad ones = trash army.
But who's doing the leading and commanding on the field when you're being told by radio in your ear what to do from back at the base? Not the non-coms. And without those guys making it happen what happens to an army?
And what happens to morale when you have to wait for permission to take action on what you know needs doing right away? What happens to effectiveness when you can't adapt and take action because you have to do what the guys back in the command center say?
I can see why the brass would love this. Instead of pushing models on a big map, they can push people on a real-time updated battlefield. They can directly influence the flow and action of battle, and control what gets hit, where, and how.
Which brings us to the unmanned military. The more robotic it becomes, the more top down it does. Instead of having soldiers on the field making any decisions, its all by guys back at the base. You do away with those confusing and sometimes irrational soldiers at the front. Nobody will go crazy, nobody will freeze up in combat, nobody will get too tired or make mistakes because they've been out there for 13 hours without a meal.
The more automated and remote combat becomes, the less lethal it becomes for that army as well. Now there aren't images of bodybags going home, no more "Grim statistics" being chanted by a hostile press. Nobody can complain about meat grinders and soldiers dying on the field. And the control, no robot will ever turn a blind eye toward your signals.
Granted, good officers will not use this unless they need to and see a real problem. And there are clearly advantages to having more eyes on the combat. You'll have fewer friendly fire casualties if someone knows where everyone is, for example. You'll do better in the battlefield if your intelligence is faster and more accurate. That bunker hidden by the rubble will slaughter your squad, warn them. The objective is best reached by going down this street. Rifle fire will never reach that target, use indirect fire. Mixed assault with air and artillery and infantry work better when more clearly coordinated. There are definitely benefits to all this information and control.
Yet in the end I wonder if the drawbacks don't outweigh the benefits. And I wonder what its doing to our soldiers. In the past, the greatest leaders, innovators, and public servants America has enjoyed have come from the military. The "greatest generation" gave us some amazing soldier-presidents over the years. That crucible of combat and the lessons learned on the field about discipline, what really matters and what does not, and leadership all were well taught in the military. But what will this do to such lessons? If you cannot rely on your leadership, initiative, and adaptability to overcome problems but have to wait for approval and control from on high, what does that do to our soldiers coming home?
And when you have a president tearing through the command structure of the military to replace them with more amenable, agreeable choices that affects the quality and sort of command that our soldiers are dealing with. If the tough, capable soldiers are being replaced with PC diversity drones, that is going to change what and how the soldiers are commanded. It will change what they're allowed to do and why.
Already we're getting reports from chaplains about being mocked and limited for doing their job and expressing their faith. How much is the morale and effectiveness of the military being affected?
Like I said, I'm no expert. I can only analyze and consider based on what I've learned, not what I've experienced in the field of combat. These are just some concerns I have from examining the information we have, and I fear for the military as a result.