Killer robots and LOAL munitions

A United Nations expert called Thursday for a global moratorium on the testing, production and use of armed robots that can select and kill targets without human command.
(New York Times, hat tip to Adam Elkus)

I wonder how much people discussing this (and I've seen some really, really inept comments on drones both in English and German) are aware about arms technology.

Bat guided glide bomb
The earliest robots capable of lock-on after launch (that is finding their target after launch without further aid from the launch platform) appeared during the Second World War; 1943 IIRC. These were mostly autonomous torpedoes, but also at least one air-surface glide bomb with an active radar seeker.
Lock-on after launch missiles have since become quite common; all torpedoes have this capability in principle and it's the standard mode of operation of lightweight torpedoes. Anti-air and air-air missiles with active radar seeker or modern wide field of view infrared seeker employ lock-on after launch as well. Anti-radar missiles have this capability as standard, and one (Alarm) is meant to be launched even if no emitting radar was detected yet. Anti-ship missiles all employ LOAL modes. Several 'smart' artillery munitions meant to engage tanks employ LOAL (SmArt155, Bonus etc.). 

These are munitions, of course. And save for the Alarm missile, all of them are typically aimed at a particular target, not launched to seek and engage targets which were not identified earlier.

Now let's add one more example; the Brimstone missile, which can be launched at a general area (such as a road) and tasked to engage enemies there. Is this killer robot enough?

Maybe one step closer to the "drones"; the cancelled Taifun missile/drone, a ground-launched drone (missile) which was meant to do the same as Brimstone, just slower and with more endurance. The Harpy drone does the same, just specialised on radars.
Is this killer robot enough?

Is the difference between "ammunition" (expended by use) and weapon (re-usable, usually dispensing ammunition) really relevant for the ethics et cetera?

I suspect some drone critics who see drones as something new and especially dangerous are too ignorant to realise that this Pandora's box has been opened decades ago already.
Others merely seem to consider drones as scary-enough low-hanging fruit. Chemical and biological weapons were banned already, most mines were banned and the small arms vilification effort is predictably doomed to fail. They may have selected the scary 'drones' as their new low-hanging fruits in a general anti-military effort.

edit: What about CAPTOR, a capsuled torpedo mine? The capsule could be interpreted as a fully autonomous weapon, with the torpedo as the munition.


Spears and anatomy

by Becky Lang, blog.discovermagazine.com

The spear was an extremely important and versatile (high and low position thrusting + throwing, hunt and warfare, pierce and slash) weapon and likely our most important one for all of mankind's prehistory and most of mankind's history.
Its influence on human anatomy will likely never be repeated by any other weapon, and the blog article linked above should - in combination with this blog text - push the idea of the spear as an important, natural heritage into our minds.

Too bad spear combat looks mostly too lame for movies and is thus poorly suited for pop culture. An exception proves the rule.

The idea that a weapon had such a huge influence and is so naturally part of our heritage is in my opinion alien to the modern German society, and I think this shows mankind's progress. 
Nowadays we never need to go to sleep hungry if we don't hunt, we don't need to carry a weapon all the time to provide for our own security, and usually we can even settle the question who gets to f...k whom without violence.

The old instincts are still there, though. Too bad; they don't work so well with a modern society and a modern earth with many states. There's no rich hunting ground left to be conquered and aggressiveness will rarely yield a better meal - but such behaviour patterns are still extant, even in geriatric men.



Drone crashes

The German ministry of defence is in trouble because it botched its answers to a parliamentary caucus' questions in regard to the accidents of its aerial drones.

Well, the botching is bad, but such mistakes happen in bureaucracies.
What's more interesting is how the news media reports about this; a certain aversion against assassination drones among journalists  (which I share because they are useless for actual defence) seems to have grown into an aversion against Bundeswehr drones in general.

Let's not forget:
One of the original arguments for such drones was that they would be cheaper than comparable planes because they don't need the same flight safety (no pilot's life at risk).

Drones crashing into the ground is normal, it was supposed to be tolerable. It looks as if many journos didn't get this memo in the 90's.



Undefeatable clients

Let's have a foreign policy topic for a change.

A part of the West's foreign political repertoire in the post-Cold War world has been a true oddity: 'We' don't permit the final defeat of our clients / proxies / our enemy's enemies.

This became visible in Bosnia where we simply didn't allow (para)militarily clearly lost enclaves to collapse (until 'we' did, and felt remorse).

Similar in the Syrian civil war; the disliked (by us) government may actually finally succeed after building enough loyal (para)military strength? No way - arm the rebels quickly (under the ridiculous pretence that it's all about chemical weapons)!

The civil war in Libya was even more extreme: The West did supposedly not attack the regime, but it made sure that the regime failed to crush centres of resistance by bombing the regime's heavy weapons such as tanks, artillery.
A bit more of the same could have looked like the air support for the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan '01, with a similarly quick collapse of the government. Instead, for most of the intervention the emphasis was on keeping the rebels from losing.

Now what exactly could be the excuse? With the superior forces' victory prevented, the only options are
(1) loooong conflict (hardly justifiable)
(2) peace or truce by negotiations (unlikely or very late in all examples)
(3) inferior forces' victory after a long time

Now how is this an effective fig leaf and how does this look better than attacking the superior forces or government of a sovereign country during a civil war?

 I suppose this  is a fine-tuned hypocrisy, meant to pass the smell tests of public opinion and United Nations. In the end, it's still taking sides and meddling in a foreign conflict.

The Bosnian enclaves, Libyan rebels and also Syrian rebels were and are probably the less evil side of their respective conflicts, but the pattern if not habit of the West does not pass my smell test.
This is hardly what we want to be standard, right? Or would you want China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Saudi-Arabia intervene like this, keeping their favoured side from losing a civil war?
Well, the answer is predictable, for Pakistan actually does it and it's not exactly a popular move of theirs as far as Westerners are concerned.

I want to have this sorted out. We need a better way of handling foreign civil wars if we cannot resist the urge to meddle in other people's affairs.
The United Nations habit of calling for a ceasefire was no superior habit either. This approach merely prolonged conflicts and provoked that the temporarily superior side attempts to 'achieve' as much as possible before their foreign backers get too much embarrassed by the lack of a ceasefire.

An all-or-nothing approach would be nice. The UN should enforce a ban of foreign meddling in civil wars, and meanwhile keep an eye on any civil war to expose violations of a ode of conduct. The government of the country in question could then be expulsed and all foreign intervention become legal. The effect might be a moderation of the ways of conducting the typically very dirty civil wars.
Too bad; not going to happen. The great powers with UNSC veto right would not allow such a limitation on their own adventurism.

Still, this extremely hypocritical 'we are no aggressors, but we don't allow you to win' approach should be replaced. I'm sure it's not going to look well in history books files, but that's the smallest concern. We may actually cause the death of ten thousands by prolonging civil wars and allowing the accumulation of hatred and mercenaries.


Piracy lesson

Piracy off the coast of West Africa has now overtaken Somali piracy, a report by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) and other seafarers' groups says.
It says 966 sailors were attacked in West Africa in 2012, compared with 851 off the Somali coast. West African pirates mostly steal fuel cargo and the crews' possessions, often resorting to extreme violence. Five of the 206 hostages seized last year off West Africa have been killed, the document says.
BBC News Africa

Hands up, who thinks patrolling to suppress piracy is a sensible idea? 
To those who raised their hand(s): So patrolling the Western Indian Ocean, the Eastern South Atlantic, the strait of Malacca and probably soon the entire of Southeast Asia? Think about the cost (in)efficiency of this.

Now hands up who thinks that facing the Somali pirates by either accepting armed crews or by grabbing them directly at their (initially few) coastal villages would have been more sensible.

I know, my stance on piracy is not exactly in synch with my general stance on interventions, but I consider piracy mostly as a policing issue anyway. Piracy without official support or tolerance could be traced to bases with intelligence and police investigations in order to enable the relevant country to act against the pirates itself.
It is a topic for the military only if substantial piracy is being supported or tolerated by a harbouring country and it should then be treated as an aggression by the UN as if that country's navy had committed the piracy. This means substantial organised violence against pirate bases would be OK within my framework as national / collective self defence.

In the case of Somali pirates, some country should have raided the initially only three or four pirate villages early on. Even the Portuguese navy was an overmatch to them. Additionally, no country should have paid ransom money and any company which paid ransom money to pirates should have been seen its ships (including chartered ones) banned from our harbours for supporting organised crime.

2008-06 Piracy

2008-11 "Mission Atalanta" or: How to demonstrate incompetence

2009-04 Somali piracy, a comprehensive approach



Some food for thought

Back in 2002 'we' laughed at Afghanis who when trained by Western special forces would resist the prone position or crawl in the dust. It was culturally not nearly as acceptable to them as to us, apparently. Well, that is if I remember this correctly.

Here is something militarily sensible which we resist for cultural reasons; porters.

Southeast Asians and East Asians did incredible things with porters during the 20th century, an the use of porters could almost solve the infantrymen weight issue. 
Back in ancient times the most heavily armoured Greek hoplites were also the most wealthy ones (save for horsemen). They brought a porter with them; either a slave servant or a young son. This porter functioned at the very least as shieldbearer (the aspis was a rather elaborate shield weighing 7 kg or more for several centuries), and they probably also carried additional equipment such as spear or the very uncomfortable bronze helmet of that era.

A porter does not relieve the infantryman of the weight of the equipment in battle, but he allows him to be less exhausted when it begins. Modern porters could also carry ammunition, batteries and medical supplies, thus reducing the consumables load of an infantryman.

The Western world has largely given up on this model since Marius' mules (the late Republican unitary legionaries). Medieval squires are a notable exception, but squires were for men used to have servants, and -hear hear- supported the most heavily laden warriors, the knights.

So think about this; on purely rational grounds, would porters be a relief for the problem of overburdened infantry?
Next, think about how much the very thought is still appalling to you (I presume).

In fact, we DO have porters in Western infantry forces. Not all men are equal. Some are quite useless in combat and are effectively porters. Except that the bureaucracy still pretends they're full infantrymen and lets them carry mostly their own equipment, not primarily others'.

We also don't totally refuse the use of porters; just think of expeditions in the Himalaya. It's just that thinking of 'our' people as porters is in my opinion a cultural taboo.



The tools are in place now

I wasn't surprised by the NSA scandal n the usual way; so far I'm surprised no program of automatic speech and text analysis to trigger listening/reading by analysts has been exposed so far. As I understood it, such a thing was widely believed to have been in place for years.
The BND does probably something quite similar as the NSA does, or does it in foreign countries in order to let others spy on us so the BND doesn't violate our laws itself. Either way; I remember an incident IIRC in Slovenia where a tolerated BND operation was uncovered by chance. The BND was listening on data flowing through a telecom hub there IIRC. The job offer pages of the BND have been full of electronics and telecom technology expert positions for years.

The whole stuff thus doesn't come as much of a surprise to me, but a recent article in Slate reminded me strongly of what I wrote years ago:

And yet, Jenkins thinks that the U.S. government’s counterterrorism policies—which he’s helped influence over the decades—have gone too far. “What we have put in place,” he said, “is the foundation of a very oppressive state.”

Almost six years ago, I wrote
(...) our reaction to these small threats includes digging our own grave by preparing for an authoritarian or even dictatorial regime at home.

2010-02 The Bundesverfassungsgericht has spoken

2010-10 Digging the grave II

2011-06 The counter-terrorism lie

2011-12 Salami slicing doesn't seem to work in Germany any more

My position is that the benefits of such authoritarian tools are negligible in comparison to the risks (it's no surprise the NSA did not provide any claims about specific terror plots foiled by its activities that weren't debunked already).

You simply don't put your head into the guillotine, even if you think that the blade won't come down for a few more minutes. It would be stupid.

It is stupid to build up the tools of oppression merely to satisfy a desire for the subjective feeling that something is being done about some hyped-up problem. We can make do without, and in fact we would be better off if we used the approaches that really work - and cost less.
Technology-driven intelligence work has been exaggerated for a long time, while HumInt -actual spy work- is widely considered to be very much neglected (by Western intelligence services). Likewise, police forces are too forced to show presence instead of allocating resources to investigation, and policing efforts in the internet are a story of seemingly never-ending humiliations. A few computer-savvy civilians can easily humiliate state or federal police by doing a better job at shutting down child pornography websites with notices to hosting companies with an effort of just a few hours. Politicians' intent; more powers to the police.


edit: A German '07 report about the Slovenja thing.


What's (not) the point of having a military?

What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?

Violent military action is destructive, not productive. Its "use" is usually worse than non-use. Many people maintain naive illusions about the benefits of using military power and come to the naive idea that a military's "use"fulness is in its employment.

The World Wars and the Cold War made the nature of military action obvious to most Europeans, but this lesson was lost in the post-Cold War era due to a salami tactic. Step for step, cruise missile for cruise missile, people in the West became conditioned to believe in a net benefit of military action. A necessary part in this was a great disrespect for foreigners, as these felt the damage done by military action much more than 'we' felt it through our taxes and casualties.

The military was widely considered to be a force for defence as long as there was a capable threat. The idea of military forces as being primarily forces for aggressive coercion, punishment and influence was a minority idea by 1990. It had held out during the Cold War mostly in pockets of the societies in the US, UK and France, but to most other people in NATO the military was really about protecting the society.

It's perpetually astonshing to me how seemingly self-evidently others assume that interventions and preparations therefore are worth it. 
Foreigner's interests get routinely dismissed, but an intervention's advantage to these foreigners is the only thing that could possibly tip the balance towards a favourable cost-benefit ratio.

Once in-theatre, troops value their own kin much higher than the foreigners they're supposedly meant to help.

The dissonance between disregard for foreigners and the necessity to account for foreigner's benefits to come at least close to a jsutification of intervention can be explained with
a) irrational decision-making and a public which tolerated confused or false arguments
b) the racket character of interventions

Warmongers (a.k.a. "defense hawks") at times face accusations of being or working for war profiteers / military contractors. 
I suppose warmongers are gamers. Their game is the incitement of organised violence and destruction.
Sadly, this game is quite appealing entertainment to much of the audience. It doesn't take much to find the spots of the internet or even the mass media outlets that basically wank off on fantasies of power and organised violence.

Regrettably, while some are wanking to fantasies or power, destruction maiming and killing, bridges are closed for want of repair or are collapsing.



The virtue of coolness

Some historical aircraft had horrible handling characteristics in a stall. Modern high authority autopilots can tame aircraft which have even more horrible handling characteristics, but back in the 40's or 60's this technology wasn't available yet.

Some aircraft stalled suddenly, spiralled out of control and pilots died trying to steer against this. Others effectively broke apart because of violent pitching. Counter-intuitively, in some aircraft designs the best method to leave the a hazardous situation was to leave the control stick alone. 
Once the aircraft wasn't tortured with the frantic attempts at steering, their built-in aerodynamic stability did (slowly) the job of recovering from the hazardous flight situation.
This is extremely counter-intuitive, and I wonder how pilots were ever able to find out about this solution at all.

This wouldn't be fit for a blog post here if it wasn't an enticing analogy: 

Sometimes, leaning back and staying cool may be the right thing to do. Think of this especially in face of errorist threats and in regard to systems / communities which have a great deal of inertia or ability to absorb trouble.
Frantic attempts to fight an acute problem may prolong or even worsen the problem.

The COIN people had some insights (keyword "accidental guerilla") in this direction, but this certain coolness and readiness to apply self-discipline and to not do the most obvious thing is not in the mainstream yet.

Don't get me wrong; usually the best recipe against problems is action. It's the cases where action does not yield success in a reasonable timeframe after great expenditures where we should consider the virtues of coolness. The study of history (not just the own country's) can help us to identify these cases even without great expenditure and much waste of time.

I suppose the persistent security policy problems are prime candidates which deserve a coolness-based therapy. Let's ignore North Korea.
Let's calm down about cyber threats (which happen to be addressed by private agents better than by public ones anyway).
Let's calm down about the errorist threat. 12 years of frenzy are plenty - let's regain coolness and remember they can at most scratch us superficially while even largely tolerated issues such as tobacco are pushing our intestines into a meat chopper.



Public debt and final spurt arms races

Public debts have been discussed a lot in recent years, and public debt no doubt has a substantial influence on a nation's ability to compete in an arms race.
I think specifically of the two-year arms races which happened prior to the World Wars, not the extended ones like the Cold War, the dreadnought race or France's army efforts in the 1880's to 1900's.

There is a substantial difference between public debt and public debt, though - and I'd like to waste some lines on it.

One kind of public debt - such as in Germany - is essentially the manifested niceness of the government in its relations with the rich. The government asks the rich politely to buy bonds, instead of harshly telling them to pay high taxes or else. 
This kind of debt raises some doubts about whether the complex of motivations in the country would withstand a higher taxation, but it does not cast doubt on a country's ability to afford its public spending in the medium term, possibly even long term.

The other kind of public debt happens in countries with a trade balance deficit (goods and services). The model of a developing country explains this best. Let's assume a developing country wants to buy a dam and hydro powerplant. It may be able to build the dam on its own, but it cannot build the powerplant, so it seeks foreign credit and buys it from abroad. No amount of taxing the rich would have helped here if the country has a trade balance deficit. Taking foreign currency from the own people (typically the rich, for that's where most wealth is) would simply have meant that other imports would be curbed and to a lesser degree non-government entities and citizens would have taken the foreign credit instead.
Additionally, the debt would be in foreign currency as the foreign corporation would not accept banana republic dollars, so the central bank cannot simply inflate the debt away with the (imported) money press (which is still possible even with inflation-indexed bonds).

The difference between both kinds of public debt is huge in my opinion.
The former merely means that the government has become complacent and delayed domestic conflicts about the distribution of burdens. This kind of debt does not indicate a very much weakened ability to compete in a final spurt arms race.
Public debt coupled with trade balance deficits is different. It shows the the country is living beyond its means, apparently including the government. It would require drastic steps including conscription -possibly even of workers- to overcome this and participate in a final spurt arms race. Either way, such a country would be disadvantaged in the arms race.

Luckily, we are in an extremely imbalanced world situation with one bloc being ridiculously overpowered in terms of fiscal power that final spurt arms races are only likely in a regional context.

This blog post is supposed to clarify and correct earlier ones:


The EW battle as the main, decisive battle in modern-on-modern warfare

Back in World War Two, the main battlefield in night bombing /night interception and the Second Battle of the Atlantic wasn't about guns or manoeuvres, but about radio and radar technologies. This was followed by the horrible fuel shortage in Germany beginning in summer of '44 (and more so for the aviation gas-guzzling night fighters than for the diesel fuel-guzzling subs).

Accounts of these "battles" focus a lot on radio and radar, and rightly so. The pendulum swung always with radio and radar breakthroughs back then, not with the introduction of better weapons, ammunitions, airframes or ship hulls.

Technology breakthroughs tend to filter from naval to air war, and finally to ground war. Naval warfare often comes first because bulky, heavy and expensive components are no real problem on ships. The components already need to be lightweight and compact for use on aircraft and finally they also need to be cheap for use in ground warfare.

It's thus possible to follow certain technologies from naval to aerial to ground applications. There are exceptions, of course.

The intense high frequency warfare has found its way into the ground forces long ago. The multitude of radars and radios was already impressive back in the 50's, and there are ever more electronic tools being added to the ground forces. Some of them aren't widely known, such as hand-emplaced or even artillery-delivered radio jammers which may collapse a battalion's radio net just as it enters contact with the enemy.

The increasing data processing ability appears to handle the complexity of terrain features ever better, and by now it seems as if the most pressing challenge in ground warfare between two modern ground forces would be the radio and sensor conflict. Just the same as with W2 subs and night fighters.

Here's an example (related: I posted on Eerie radar technology earlier):

I-Master radar - lightweight, compact

Just look at the "Coherent Change Detection" thing, which is more than the mere SAR and GMTI modes. I knew about it for a while, but didn't figure out the correct terminology until recently.
This kind of sensor and data processing capability does - in my opinion - prove the dominant influence of sensors on modern-on-modern ground warfare. 

This doesn't mean that all these sensors are going to make hiding impossible. Even millions of bird-sized drones would not do so. Instead, this shows the dominant importance of countering such sensors.
A modern-on-obsolete conflict of the future would probably look quite like Afghanistan; the opposition being unable to pull off much given the technological and organisation superiority of the modern force. The conflict would thus be limited to hiding and the least risky actions (mines, assaults on non-modern proxies) and then mostly where the modern force is stretched too thin.
It's basically like a firing range. 

Modern-on-modern conflict could and in my opinion WOULD look very differently. The conflict would first and foremost be about countering sensors and communications. Tanks, guns - even logistics - would become onlookers, with ground troops probably waiting till the electronic warfare (EW) battle was decided.

An alternative would be that the electronic warfare-inferior modern forces might try to rush towards a more favourable decision by trying to saturate and seek decisive physical combat as soon as possible.
This is just once more a hint that the delaying action is probably the most important and most interesting tactical action (since the EW-superior force would try to avoid an early decision in physical combat since it expects to have better conditions once it won the EW battle).
Finally, EW strengths tend to disappear over time as the enemy adapts with countermeasures. The EW battle might not follow the example of for example air warfare (air superiority, DEAD) where the superior force attempts to decimate and diminish the inferior force's capability to resist as a prelude to knocking it out. Instead, it might rather be about exploiting the advantage as long as it lasts with concurrent "knock out" attempts against the hostile main force. The EW-superior force would in this scenario assume that its superiority isn't growing, but withering away over time.

It is most interesting and curious that so many extremely important sensor and communications platforms of the West don't appear to be built to withstand the EW-onslaught and countermeasures of a modern force. Stories about non-encrypted drone radio traffic, slow-moving drones and even blimps as sensor platforms and many more anecdotes point at 'us' preparing to bash obsolete forces, not 'us' preparing for a modern-on-modern conflict. Sadly, the former is not really defence, while the latter would is.

I propose to pay much more attention to countermeasures to new sensor and communications capabilities than to the capabilities themselves or the more physical aspects of land warfare such as arms, armour, vehicles and even logistics.



S-300 as a major deterrence asset

The recent rumours about S-300 area defence surface-to air missiles of Russian design and manufacture reinforce my impression that this long-range and apparently respected air defence system has become one of the main deterrents against interventionist Western powers with nuclear weapons, the combination of friendly relations + oil wealth and 'allied' status being the others. Ballistic missiles and chemical weapons proved to possess a rather negative deterrence value.

The S-300 versions of 1984 and later (not the 1978 version) are apparently quite highly respected in part because they weren't yet demolished by a SEAD campaign, unlike the 1960's generation.
The nominal range is large enough to nominally out-range typical anti-radar missiles and to provide at least nominal missile range (not necessarily radar range) for coverage of large swaths of a country.

(The newer S-400 missile with its active radar guidance and and comparable ranges is actually more impressive - maybe it will play the deterrence role in the 2020's? Tactically, the longest ranged S-400 version and similar missiles (if they exist) are hugely interesting, for their range allows the participation of surface-to-air missiles in the offensive air superiority fight. The would also push back airborne early warning and control aircraft as well as long-range radar aircraft such as the E-8. Such 300+ kilometre aerial sensors would then be reduces in range to the forward line of own troops (if such a thing exists) rather than being able to support by looking deep into hostile territory.)

The dynamics regarding the S-300 appear to resemble the dynamics regarding nukes in part: There is a sense of urgency to strike before the deterrent is operational. This adds an actually intervention-/aggression-provoking element to this deterrent.

I think it's sad that such a largely defensive system achieved such a fame and importance. It doesn't reflect well on the West.