Disengagement Meets the Army of None

May 2, 2018

This article originally appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog on May 1, 2018.

I had the opportunity to listen to the presentation made at CCEIA by Paul Scharre, author of Army of None.

"Army of None" refers to the development of autonomous land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace unmanned systems combined with the leaps in technology that allow for autonomous operation—in other words, taking the human out of the decision loop altogether. There are all sorts of ethical implications in how governments will ethically manage their claims to possess a monopoly on the legitimate use of force if all aspects of how that force is wielded are divorced from human control, including human ethical control.

Yet, as Scharre continued with his presentation, I could not help but be struck by the apparent utility of the Army of None solution to the question of how the U.S. continues to engage in the world, at least in military terms, when the support for flesh-and-blood sacrifice for that engagement is lacking among the public. We are once again hearing that the Trump administration is mulling how to get U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, and earlier this year, President Trump indicated he wanted to see U.S. troops out of Syria. Is the Army of None the satisficing compromise that would create political support (or at least political indifference) for the use of U.S. military force if no Americans are put at risk, or have to take risks or take decisions? It shifts the question of intervention down the hierarchy of the die-kill-pay paradigm. In other words, the decision to strike a target with an autonomous weapons system takes away the need to consider whether the action is worth dying for—and, for the U.S. policymaker, whether it is worth paying for (in terms of the costs). Continued moves to develop such technologies—and to get them distributed into the military—no mean feat, as Scharre notes the intense bureaucratic resistance for people who don’t want to lose their jobs to robots—could change the conversation about the utility and desirability of U.S. interventions.

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