In this month’s issue of GX magazine, there’s an interesting article about the Army’s Future Combat Systems, or FCS. In short, it’s the Army’s program for a high-tech, networked force, comprising numerous manned and unmanned combat systems and vehicles, all tied together via a tactical network.

What’s most interesting – and strangely disturbing – is the projected reliance on robotic vehicles to bear the combat burden of tomorrow’s Army. The Armed Robotic Vehicle (ARV) is a light armored vehicle, comparable maybe to the M1117 Armored Security Vehicle, but one that is totally unmanned.

Maybe I’ve watched and read too much science fiction; for some reason, while reading this article, I had visions of the short anime film The Second Renaissance (from the Animatrix compilation) or the Terminator. It’s not just the idea of automation in combat that I find disturbing; it’s the idea of semi-autonomous armed robots roving the battlefield that is a little hard to swallow.

Of course, the chances of some unstoppable robot army rising up and crushing the planet is pretty slim at this point; if such a thing happened tomorrow, you could just upload a copy of Internet Explorer and some hot spyware to the robots’ built-in FTP servers (I’m sure they’d have that feature, right? That and the Demolish Enemy Fighting Position Wizard) and the whole legion would come crashing to a halt. But seriously, while the notion of crazed robot tanks tickle my proverbial creep-bone, it’s a more subtle concern that is both more realistic and more sinister.

That concern is that of the bloodless fight. Advances in unmanned combat systems are trumpeted as being great life-savers for American servicemembers, and I’m sure they will be – one of the uses for one of the FCS’ small robots is to breach doors and throw concussion grenades! (I can see the pre-mission briefing now: “Number Five, you’re the breach man…er, robot.”) But all this automation raises a question: if there are no lives at stake when the battle happens, what’s the disincentive to fight?

Right now, it’s easy to raise objections to starting a war: if for no other reason, one can selfishly argue that it would necessarily result in Americans being killed, and that such fatalities are without question unacceptable. But what if we could, for example, overthrow Iran’s government tomorrow, without any American lives being put at risk? If all you have to do to initiate a conflict is order a few more bots from the factory, you’ve lost a powerful motivation to avoid conflict in the first place.

All of this is not to say that I think that these combat systems are evil per se; in the short term, it’s a logical progression of the American dominance in firepower and network technology. It represents leveraging our strengths to fight on future battlefields in ways no other opponent can match. But I worry about the day when all the killing is done by robots; for, as General Robert E. Lee said, “it is well that war is so terrible – we would grow too fond of it.”

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(BTW, I found the Second Renaissance to be profoundly creepy – it’s probably the best thing to come out of the Matrix franchise, and really captures the mood that all of the movies should have had.)