Wednesday, April 16, 2014


The Hi-Tech Defense Wizard: Dr Peter Singer
Abu Dhabi (April 14, 2013) In an in-depth interview on emerging developments in warfare and defense technologies, Dr. Peter Singer (the Director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings) shed light on some of the pressing security concerns facing the GCC region and the need for greater coordination. In the interview – which was conducted by the Website of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), on the sidelines of the Center’s 18th Annual Conference – The Future of Warfare in the 21st Century – held on April 9-10, 2013, Dr. Singer also highlighted the introduction of laser technology in US missile defense and other game-changing emerging technologies. Following is the transcript of the interview:

Q1. In your enlightening lecture, you raised very important questions about leadership issues regarding selecting and investing in the right kind of military technologies. What kind of new approaches and technologies should peace-loving countries like many GCC states with relatively small militaries invest in to ward off threats posed by big nations in their vicinity, like Iran, to strike a balance of power?

Answer: I think there are several important issues to be put on the table here. First, while GCC member states are small countries, they do have relatively powerful defense budgets, when you sum them together. So while individually they may not be a match for the size of a large neighbor, like an Iran, collectively that is certainly within their power; particularly when you add in the advantage that they have of being able to purchase high technology.

In most areas, they are a generation ahead of Iran. For example, in terms of jet fighters they are literally a generation ahead. Secondly, they can have partnerships with allies like the US and France that aren’t accessible to a nation like Iran. So that gives them certain opportunities.

The challenge for the GCC, as I see it as a defense analyst from the outside, is a couple of issues. There hasn’t been as much cooperation and coordination as there might be both within the states of the GCC and with their allies, like the US and France. We can see this when it comes to areas like air defense and missile defense, where we still don’t have a well-integrated relationship despite the very clear threat from an Iran, particularly when it comes to missiles.

Another area of cooperation will be if you look for a low level threat from Iran. There is fear that they may not engage in direct hostilities but do something like mine the seaways nearby, which is something they had done previously in their history. And yet we don’t see the kinds of investment being made in mine-detection and mine-clearing at sea by the local states here that might match that threat. The United States, for example, has had to push almost all of its mine-sweeping capacity into the Gulf right now.

The second issue is focusing on spreading out your investments. There is a clear amount of technological change going around in the world today, ranging from the rise of unmanned systems to directed energies etc., and so each of the nations —whether it is the United States or the states of the GCC —have to figure out how to make smart investments. In many ways, like an investor on the stock market, you don’t put all you money in one place but spread out the risks. Again, you particularly don’t put all your money in the thing that is most shiny and most appealing. That’s a challenge, which is facing many militaries and we see that playing out in the market today. So I think that given the amount of transition that is going on, locking into any one program, or locking into any single system is not the way to go. There is enough uncertainty right now that you spread out the risk.

Q2. I would like to know about the benefits of the new laser technology that reportedly would be deployed by the US navy in the Arabian Gulf next year to bring down possible Iranian drones and missiles? The pictures of these weapons show remarkable similarity to Star Warslaser weapons. Is it another case of life imitating science fiction?

Real Life Star Wars
Answer: Lasers, ‘directed energy weapons’ as it is known, has been in the realm of science fiction throughout all our lives and because of that we have imagined it would always stay in that world. Yet it is now becoming real. This pattern is nothing new – we saw the same thing happen with flying machines, which we now call airplanes. We saw the same thing happen with submarines, which first started in science fiction. The tank first featured in science fiction and was originally called the ‘Land Ironclad’ — in H.G. Wells’ short stories. We repeatedly see this and when it comes to directed energy, it is important to pay attention to it because it may — and I emphasize may and not definitely — be a solution to the big challenges that we face, particularly in the region, particularly in the tradeoff of cost when it comes to offense and defense in terms of using rockets and missiles.

So when you are talking about the fear of an Iran shooting missiles into the region, the challenge for the defender is that it has to spend more on its defense to shoot down a missile than the one firing it. So, in the last battle between Israel and Hamas, Israel was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on its Iron Dome Defense System to shoot down hundred-dollar rockets. This cost disparity will be the same situation with Iran shooting missiles and the allies using more expensive Patriot and the THAAD defense programs intercepting and destroying them.

So the ultimate problem is that you get caught in a situation where your enemy can cost impose on you. The benefit of directed energy (lasers) is that it flips the cost equation. The United States and even Germany recently tested rocket defense systems using lasers, which can shoot down an incoming rocket. Even more important than their effectiveness is that it costs roughly a dollar a shot. So now it is your enemy that is spending more than you and moreover with a laser you can fire multiple times. It is something very worthy of investment, and very worthy paying attention to.

On a broader level to your question, science fiction as I mentioned, has always been an inspiration for real world technology and it seems to work in a couple of ways. One is that the scientists themselves, when they are looking for new ideas, often get them from the world of fiction. My favorite example for this is the cell phone. The man who invented the cell phone explicitly talks about how he was sitting in his lab, taking a break from his work, watching an episode of the TV series Star Trek, when he saw the characters using what they called ‘the communicators’ and he thought it would be really neat if we could build something like this. Similarly, Star Trek: The Next Generation inspired digital sound recordings (MP3s) that came from someone watching the 1990s series. There was a robot playing music on his computer and they felt ‘Wow, hold it! That would really be neat if we could do that in reality.’

Q3: Another thing they are trying to invent now from Star Trek is the medical tricoder. Isn’t it?

Answer: Exactly. So, sometimes it is direct inspiration from science fiction. Another fascinating part of it is when the military is looking for things to buy, sometimes science fiction shapes our image of what the future is going to be like, in a way that is persuasive to the military. So, when you meet with defense companies and they talk about how they sell their systems to the military, they tell them “this system is just like it is in Star Wars or Star Trek etc.,” so it allows the military to visualize it and even more see it as something new and futuristic. In a way we can find the same thing in the way that architects sell their buildings, such as the futuristic high rises one sees popping up in Abu Dhabi. They are futuristic, because they match our images of what the future is supposed to look like.

There is another part of science fiction that we should pay attention to, which is that science fiction is not just about giving you ideas about technology. It also talks about the dilemmas — the legal, the moral, the ethical — that come with new technologies that often people forget about.

Q4: Just as the I-Robot talked about some ethical dilemmas and rules?

Answer: Exactly! Science fiction can be an inspiration when it comes to technology, but also a warning and a guide and too often we do not listen to the other part of it. The good example is the atomic bomb. The original idea of the atomic bomb was in a story by H.G. Wells. In it, the author talked about using radioactive materials to build bombs. At the time when H.G. Wells wrote it, most scientists thought this could never happen. But some of them were inspired to build the real world version. However, if we read the story we find Wells describing this world of horror in which entire cities are brought under the threat of this new kind of bomb. He wasn’t writing it as a good thing but he was writing it as a warning of the costs of modern technology and war.

Q5: But then if by the same token we look into laser technology, its devastating potential could be huge. If I am not wrong and if we go by the parallel of the Death Star as in Star Wars, the technology has the potential to annihilate cities and large populations. It could even potentially make nuclear weapons redundant. Isn’t it?

Answer: Maybe, but so far that doesn’t seem to be a possibility for it, because of the limitations of power. Essentially, the energy you are using in a direct energy weapon depends on your power source and we have not yet cracked anything equivalent to a nuclear bomb. So in the ones that they have used so far in testing, it has been good for shooting down rockets, drones and small airplanes. It has not yet reached the capacity to cause a wide-area damage. Now obviously, anything could happen 200 years from now. But for now the reality is that splitting the atom still creates more energy than anything we can store in a battery.

Q6: The old school of military believes that it is the man behind the weapon who wins the war. However, with war becoming increasingly automated do you think that the paradigm has changed substantially and will change even more drastically in the future?

Answer: There are a few things that will never change in war and then there are those areas that will be reshaped and changed. So, the parts that will never change relate to human nature. War is a human activity. The causes of war are human in nature; wars are caused by our human mistakes, our anger, greed and arrogance. The ultimate cost of war is human; we cannot just describe the cost of war in monetary terms or digital costs. War comes at human cost and that makes it war by its very definition.  Again, there has to be motivation for war. A machine doesn’t have a motivation. So these things will remain the same.

Laser Turret: Star Wars
The things that are changing include areas like the impact of technology on the demographics of battle. So, at one point in history the best warrior was the biggest warrior, the strongest man. Then we got technologies like the bow and arrow or the sling which allowed the small person to be just as lethal as the man with the sword and the spear. We saw the same thing with gun powder and each of the times when you got this new technology, it reshaped our definitions of not just who could do what in battles but also our definitions of courage. For instance, if you go back and read the stories from the 1500s, when gunpowder was first introduced on the battlefield, the warriors of the day described men, who used guns, as ‘cowards’. However, now it is completely acceptable.

And now we are seeing this shift from new technologies on the ideal attributes of warrior. Take how our image of a jet fighter pilot is now at variance with those of a drone pilot or a cyber warrior. You can now be a phenomenal pilot, but wear prescription glasses or be overweight. One of the top pilots of drones today is a teenager. He is not even an officer. He never went to a flight school or college. So these changes again are reshaping the demographics too.

Can a drone pilot win a medal? This is a big controversy raging right now in the US military. Some of the military says ‘No! Medal should only be for bravery and for someone who goes into harm’s way.’ Other people argue that drones are the future of war and if the people who fly them can never win medals (and never advance in their careers), then why would anyone go into that part of the service. In fact, this debate has reached to the level of the Secretary of Defense, who is trying to decide this controversy in the US today.

Q7: Technology — particularly robotics in war — has raised a host of ethical and operational issues. There are some experts who are even calling in the media for a ban on ‘killer robots,’ as it is claimed that now machines can themselves select their human targets and kill them. Do you support the position on banning such machines?

Answer: Well there are two things to say, one is where we are right now and where we might be next. Where we are right now is unmanned systems, robotics, are starting to be used globally. Besides the United States, there are 86 other countries that now have military robotics. They range from Great Britain, to France, Australia, Russia, China, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, the UAE and so on. The great benefit of this technology, particularly in drones, is that you can send them into dangerous situation where you might not want to send a man. That benefit though comes with a risk for broader security and stability. A politician can send something into harm’s way and not be worried about a man being killed; the risk is that it might make it easier for him to go to war. It is described as a ‘slippery slope’ because you do something that seems easy and you start doing more and more of it. This is part of the debate in the US. So even at this level, when we do not have the ‘Terminators,’ we have such risk.

The next generation risk is what happens as you move from drones being remotely piloted toward them having more and more autonomy and a robot doing more and more of its decision making. That’s when you enter an area where law and policy is not yet ready because so much of it is based on the idea that ultimately a human is responsible if something goes wrong. But when you talk about an automated system, the human who made the decision that matters most may have been the scientist who programmed it a year earlier, not anyone on the battlefield. So this is all very complex.

Q8: Can you tell us about some of the emerging technologies that have the potential to change our world in the near future?

Answer:I am part of a project called NeXTech and the idea of it is to identify technologies today that are looming game changers. The parallel would be where the computer was 30 years ago or where the drone was 10 years ago. It’s not science fiction, it’s real, but it is only prototype stage and hasn’t yet changed the world. So the computer existed 30 years ago, but it had not fundamentally changed the world then. So we first did a survey of scientists and asked them what they thought, as well as a survey of investors to find out what they were putting their money in to and what they think are really game-changers.

The critical technologies they identified for us were areas like the next generation of Robotics (Autonomous Robotics, smaller robotics), 3D printing also known as ‘Direct Digital Manufacturing’, bio-enhancements (basically where you are changing and modifying human performance with technology), energy breakthroughs both in terms of energy sources and directed energy, and then finally is what’s known as the ‘Internet of Things,’ where it is not you interacting with the Internet but objects being wired into the Internet — whether it is your car or your building and then these things being connected to each other. These technologies are seen as monumental game-changers. They offer possibilities we didn’t imagine we had a generation earlier. But they also raise questions of right and wrong that we did not imagine we would be dealing with a generation earlier. So they are both powerful capabilities, but they pose powerful questions for us all.

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