The Public Diplomacy of Drones

Today’s article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “More Drones, Fewer Troops” looks at the policy behind the increasing use and reliance on drones, but it misses an essential point: unmanned warfare’s impact on public opinion and public diplomacy.  While the technical and budgetary advantages of unmanned systems are front and center, their impact on foreign policy are often an aside, usually in the context of meddlesome by-products of using “drones.”  We have seen, if not acknowledged, the powerful impact of human intervention (e.g. SEAL Team Six) over the powerful impact of robots, either remote controlled or autonomous.  Leaving the issue of the public diplomacy of these activities on the margins of planning is short-sighted and unwise.
In my article “The Strategic Communication of Unmanned Warfare” (June 2008), I explored the impact of ground robots, intentionally avoiding flying drones because since World War II, flyers and targets were largely anonymous from each: death rained from above.  Today’s communication environment and technical advances are removing the “air gap” between the ground and the flyer, or drone in this case, allowing for direct links between policy and the people on the ground.

This topic requires a deeper discussion.  Public diplomacy and strategic communication must be on the take-offs of drones, not just the landings, crash landings or otherwise.  In lieu of an organization that could look at this, I invite comments and articles on the subject to be posted at

See also Unintended Consequences of Armed Robots in Modern Conflict from October 2007.


Robots as Strategic Corporals

This week, the Complex Terrain Laboratory, or CTLab, hosted another of its brilliant online symposiums. The topic of this one is Peter W. Singer’s book Wired for War and robots in warfare.

There are a lot of good posts over there to read. Go check them out.

My first of at least two posts just went up: Robots as Strategic Corporals. The second post will look at justifying the robots based on what can be done according to Western notions which creates, counter intuitively, an engagement model that is too permissive and detrimental to the mission as a whole. Certain acts, justifiable under international law, could backfire if the information effects are not anticipated, planned for, and managed effectively.

Read Robots as Strategic Corporals at CTLab.

See also:

Event: Online Symposium on P.W. Singer’s Wired For War

Over at CTLab next week, I’ll be in an online discussion built around about Peter W. Singer’s outstanding book, Wired for War. Read the CTLab announcement:

CTlab’s second symposium in its 2009 series starts next week, on Monday, 30 March, and will run for four days, until 2 April (or until participants run out of steam, which might take longer). The subject: Peter Singer’s new book, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and  Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin Press: 2009).

This is going to be an exciting booklab, on a work that’s been getting broad exposure, in an out of the blogosphere. Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy, and Director of its 21st Century Defense Initiative, will be participating on day 1. Proceedings will be compiled and indexed on a separate page for ease of reference, here.

Confirmed participants include:

  • Kenneth Anderson (Law; American University)
  • Matt Armstrong (Public Diplomacy; Armstrong Strategic Insights Group)
  • John Matthew Barlow (History; John Abbott College)
  • Rex Brynen (Political Science; McGill University)
  • Antoine Bousquet (International Relations; Birkbeck College, London)
  • Charli Carpenter (International Relations; UMass-Amherst)
  • Andrew Conway (Political Science; NYU)
  • Jan Federowicz (History; Carleton University)
  • John T. Fishel (National Security Policy; University of Oklahoma)
  • Michael A. Innes (Political Science; University College London)
  • Martin Senn (Political Science; University of Innsbruck)
  • Marc Tyrrell (Anthropology; Carleton University)

Quite a few of our guest participants are active on the web, as well. Many participate in theSmall Wars Council, and write online about highly topical security issues. Blogs represented:


Check out David Axe’s video series on military robots at GOOD magazine. It’s a good overview for anyone interested in unmanned systems, autonomous and tele-operated. Note: would have liked if he mentioned other “robot” systems (by his implicit definition) such as Patriot to AEGIS that had notable accidental kills: an allied pilot and a civilian airliner, respectively.

Think the U.S. is the only country with robots? Lots of other countries are deploying unmanned systems, like Pakistan. From Danger Room:

"Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters use not just mobile and satellite phones for communication, but also sophisticated military radios," Defense News notes. So companies like East West Infiniti are building SIGINT [signals intelligence] for small drones and robotic blimps, to capture those conversations.

  • Site note: Whenever I post on robots, hits from China, Singapore, Korea, Pakistan, and Indonesia spike.

Doolittle’s spies: Pigeons, Squirrels… time again for Project ACORN

In July 2007 it was spying squirrels from Israel. Now, it’s pigeon spies:

Iranian security forces have apprehended a pair of "spy pigeons," not far from one of the country’s nuclear processing plants. If local media reports are to be believed, that is.

One of the pigeons was caught near a rose water production plant in the city of Kashan, down the road from the Natanz uranium enrichment facility.  It had "a wired rod" and "invisible threads… fixed to its body," an unnamed source tells the Etemad Melli newspaper. A second, black pigeon was nabbed earlier in the month. …

Time once again for Project ACORN, the Autonomous Coordinated Organic Reconnaissance Network (first fielded July 2007):

Robots on the Radio: interviews with Arkin, Asaro, and Armstrong on warbots

In the first of a two part program broadcast in England, Dr. Noel Sharkey interviews Dr. Ron Arkin, Dr. Peter Asaro and me on his Sound of Science program.  Stream or download the interview from England here.  (Note: the audio begins with two minutes of station promotion.)  The interview series looks at the ethics issues of using military robots that are allowed to apply lethal force on their own terms, the Laws of War and the international laws on discrimination, as well as their role in war. 

This first episode episode includes:

  • Dr. Ron Arkin, Regents’ Professor, College of Computing, Georgia Tech about some of the dangers facing us in the near-future with robots that decide who to kill. Professor Arkin tells us about his work on developing an Artificial Conscience for a robot and about some of the difficult ethical decisions that both soldiers and robots have to make in war.
  • Dr Peter Asaro, the exciting young philosopher from Rutgers University in New York. Peter talks about a range of issues concerning the dangers of using autonomous robot weapons. He cautions us about the sci-fi future that the military seems to be heading towards and how a robot army could take over a city. Interestingly he makes the provocative claim that one of the first uses of insurgency was the early Americans against the British redcoats.
  • Matt Armstrong, an independent analyst specialising in public diplomacy and strategic communications working in California. Matt writes a famous blog called MountainRunner. On the programme he discusses the “hearts and minds” issues, a term he dislikes and the problems with having a robot as the “strategic corporal” of the future.

My segment begins around the 44 minute mark.  Briefly, I don’t want to comment in depth on the interviews now, but my views on the subject are based on public diplomacy, counterinsurgency doctrine, and civil-military relations. To be more specific, I am looking at the informational effect of these systems, the need to build trust and show commitment among local populations, and the impact of commodification of violence, and the reduced the cost of violence, on Congressional oversight and Executive decision-making, among other considerations (see more here).

This was my very first radio interview.  As such, there were a couple of significant points I didn’t get to, but hopefully the essential points were captured.  Listening to my interview again, there are a few words and phrases I will avoid next time (does FM3-24 really have “passages”??), as well as other changes.  Live and learn. 

The second episode will include interviews with Rear Admiral Chris Parry, Richard Moyes from Landmine action and military robotics people from NATO, the German and Swedish Armies as well as from the French Defense Ministry.

An important correction: I unintentionally demoted Lt. Colonel Chris Hughes when I referred to him as a Captain in the Najaf example

Also, a clarification from Ron after listening to my interview:

For future reference though I’d like to point out, that I have never advocated that robots be used as prison guards. I only use Abu Ghraib as an illustration of the propensity of ethical violations by human beings. A system capable of independently monitoring human performance would be helpful I’d suspect – but I agree completely that humans should not be removed.
I further advocate, as you do, that robots should *never* fully replace the presence of soldiers, but rather serve as organic assets beside them for very specialized missions such as room clearing, countersniper, and others as pointed out in my scenarios. These are also not intended (at least in my work) where active civilian populations are present, but only for full-out war (declared). The systems I am working on are for the next conflict (not the current one) whatever that may be – and also for the so-called "Army after next".

As Noel and Ron said, the more we talk about this in the open, the smarter we’ll be in the deployment of robots. 

Your comments are appreciated. 

See also:

The Strategic Communication of Unmanned Warfare

Modern conflict is increasingly a struggle for strategic influence above territory.  This struggle is, at its essence, a battle over perceptions and narratives within a psychological terrain under the influence of local and global pressures.  One of the unspoken lessons embedded in the Counterinsurgency Manual (FM3-24) is that we risk strategic success relying on a lawyerly conduct of war that rests on finely tuned arguments of why and why not.  When too much defense and too much offense can be detrimental, we must consider the impact of our actions, the information effects.  The propaganda of the deed must match the propaganda of the word.
Giulio Douhet wrote in 1928,

“A man who wants to make a good instrument must first have a precise understanding of what the instrument is to be used for; and he who intends to build a good instrument of war must first ask himself what the next war will be like.”

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has said that there is too much spending geared toward the wrong way of war.  I find this to be particularly true in area of battlefield robots.  Much (if not all) of the unmanned systems planning and discussion, especially with regards to unmanned ground combat vehicles, is not taking into account the nature of the next war, let alone the current conflict.

Last year I posted an unscientific survey that explored how a ground combat robot operating away from humans (remote controlled or autonomous) might shape the opinions of the local host family.  The survey also explored the propaganda value of these systems to the enemy, in the media markets of our allies, Muslim countries, and here in the United States.  The survey results weren’t surprising.

Serviam Magazine just published what could be construed as an executive summary of a larger paper of mine to be published by Proteus later this year.  That paper is about four times longer and adds a few points with more details.  In the meantime, my article that appeared in Serviam, “Combat Robots and Perception Management,” is below.

Continue reading “The Strategic Communication of Unmanned Warfare”

Article: Combat Robots and Perception Management

Robots will figure prominently in the future of warfare, whether we like it or not. They will provide perimeter security, logistics, surveillance, explosive ordinance disposal, and more because they fit strategic, operational, and tactical requirements for both the irregular and “traditional” warfare of the future. While American policymakers have finally realized that the so-called “war on terror” is a war of ideas and a war of information, virtually all reports on unmanned systems ignore the substantial impact that “warbots” will have on strategic communications, from public diplomacy to psychological operations. It is imperative that the U.S. military and civilian leadership discuss, anticipate, and plan for each robot to be a real strategic corporal (or “strategic captain,” if you consider their role as a coordinating hub).

Source: my article “Combat Robots and Perception Management”, published in the 1 June 2008 issue of Serviam Magazine. The magazine’s website is no longer available, so it is reposted here: The Strategic Communication of Unmanned Warfare.