Epilogue: Peter W. Singer

by Dr. Martin E. Goldstein, Professor of Political Science

Dr. Peter W. Singer, considered one of the leading authorities on warfare in the 21st century, delivered a wide-ranging presentation Monday evening at the Kimmel Center from the future role of robotics in the military to cyber warfare and the role that increasing urbanization of the planet will have on reshape militaries.

The author of three books and currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Dr. Singer described the role of robotics in today’s military and in the future. A robotic weapon is a mechanical device that follows the instructions of a human warrior. Probably the most familiar robotic weapon in use today is the drone, a pilotless aircraft that is controlled from the ground either nearby or thousands of miles away. Code-named Predator, this flying robot can be equipped to take pictures of the ground below and/or to fire missiles at targets on the ground. The United States currently has 8,000 drones in service, many deployed in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. The military credits these robots with killing numerous terrorist leaders. Several other countries also possess or are developing drone aircraft.

Observing that these drones are only first-generation robots, Dr. Singer predicted some possible future uses for these devices, uses often unrelated to warfare in the traditional sense. For example, police forces might employ them to search for drug dealers or to spot illegal immigrants scrambling across a border. Park rangers could use drones to search for poachers decimating endangered species. And terrorists could load up a drone with explosives and fly it into a building or a nuclear reactor without sacrificing the lives of their followers.

The use of robots in warfare could well alter people’s attitude toward war. Citizens might well find war more acceptable if their pilots are not being killed in air combat missions.

Dr. Singer also reflected upon other likely military developments that might occur as the 21st century unfolds. Cyber warfare is just beginning to appear on the “electronic battlefield.” A recent example occurred in Iran, where outsiders introduced a crippling device into the computers controlling the centrifuges that enrich uranium, possibly for use in nuclear weapons. Citing other instances of cyber attacks, Dr. Singer predicted that this form of combat would only become more common as time goes by.

Dr. Singer noted the increasing urbanization of the planet, as people are moving from countrysides and deserts and forests into cities.He observed that military forces will need to reshape themselves to wage war in the environment most dreaded by soldiers — crowded urban areas. In such a setting, there are no front lines. Patrolling along a narrow street walled in by buildings, a soldier can be shot at from any direction, including above and below. Avoiding civilian casualties will be extremely challenging in such situations.

In response to a question about the greatest threat to American security in the future, Dr. Singer cited the theft of our advanced technology by countries or terrorists that would then use that technology against us. “Electronic defense,” already important, will grow more important than ever as the 21st century unfolds.


 Widener University 1821


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