The madness of automated response: warfare on autopilot

As we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I – arguably the first engagement that could with some justification be characterized as “automated response” – it behooves us to take a look at the development of this phenomenon in years since, but, even more importantly, at its anticipated future.

The automated response that led to WWI was purely legal in nature: the successive reactions following the general mobilization of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were rooted in a network of treaties of alliance. The system contained a fair number of “circuit breakers” at almost every turn, even if they would have amounted, in contemporary view, to breaches of a treaty obligation. This situation found a direct successor in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949 (the Washington Treaty establishing NATO), which to date has been invoked only once following 9/11.

But it is not so much the automatism based on honor, credibility and other social compulsion on an international scale that will likely determine automated responses in the future. It is much more a technical and systemic automated response that will increasingly, for a variety of reasons, take reactions out of human hands.

For one, response time of modern weapon systems is shrinking at an increasing pace. Comparable to the situation in computer trading, the percentage of situations – without regard to their significance – will grow where human response will under almost any imaginable circumstance be too slow and hence come too late.

From a warfighter’s perspective, therefore, automated response is a good thing: if a threat is identified and incoming munition destroyed before it becomes a manifest threat, it matters little whether that happens by human intervention or fully under the control of technology. Of course, a number of concerns are evident: