Wired for War 2009 by Peter Singer is an uneven book about the rapid introduction of robots into the military. It’s interesting that the book is called Wired for War, it could be called Wired on War as the book is like a long Wired article. Wired magazine, which is like Vogue for nerds, is an occasionally amusing read that is also uneven in quality. Singer has hit on a topic of considerable importance and this is the first mass audience book on the subject. Singer makes a lot of references to popular culture and other successful mass market non-fiction books. There is a tipping point to how many outliers you can have on the flat world before you blink.
The book is divided into two sections, the first is the change we are creating and the second is what change is creating for us. The books chapters jump all over the place. The past, the present and the future are all considered. The book starts with a look at the Packbot and TALON UGVs. The next chapter is a short history of robotics which rapidly flips into how the user interfaces on robots are built. This is typical of the way the book jumps around. The book rapidly gets to how science fiction has influenced robotics and Singer starts furiously dropping references to science fiction. The three laws of robotics are repeatedly mentioned, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Terminator get regular mentions. In a book on robots in war there is even a comparison of Star Trek and Doctor Who and how they reflect US and British culture.
The book does not look at the way in which control systems developed that has led to UAVs. There is a brief mention of the V1 and cruise missiles, but absent is discussion of the missiles used in jet aircraft which are really the first robotic vehicles, albeit kamikaze ones. The book has more mentions of Star Trek than the AMRAAM or Sidewinder. The book doesn’t look at in enough detail when near term UAVs are likely to replace other aircraft and which other aircraft are to be replaced. The Predator is discussed a lot, but no comparisons of the Predators record and cost against the A10 or Apache are made.
The book has some interesting points to make. On p253 Singer says that
“Many believe that the air force cancelled its combat drone, Boeing’s X-45, before if could even be tested, in order to keep it from competing with its manned fighter jet of the future, the JSF ….. One designer recalls, “The reason that was given was that we were expected to be simply too good in key areas and that we would have caused a massive disruption to the efforts to ‘keep..JSF sold’ . If we had flown and things like survivability been even assessed on a small scale and Congress had gotten hold of the data, JSF would have been in serious trouble”.
This is relevant for many countries around the world. Australia is currently looking into the JSF. If statements about the superiority of the X-45 are correct then Australia is about to waste billions of dollars on an aircraft that will be obsolete and replaceable with a cheaper, superior vehicle within years of its introduction.
The book starts about being about robots and then becomes a mishmash of grand strategy and speculation. It doesn’t do this well. Singer does not question whether the US must fight potentially bankrupting wars across the globe against guerrillas. The book also does not discuss the fact that despite have superior weapons and robots the US won the 1990 Gulf War but has found the Afghan and Iraq Wars far more difficult propositions. There is no mention of the fact that the Predators are alleged by some to have killed many more civilians that guerrillas. According to Brian Cloughley writing in Informed Comment the Predator between Jan 14 2006 and April 8 2009 14 al-Queda leaders were killed but so were 537 civilians.
The book is still amusing and interesting in large parts. But it is too long and the scope too wide and too haphazardly put together to be a really good book. Robotic vehicles are probably the future of much of war and the subject is an interesting one, but Singer doesn’t do a good job of investigating the issue carefully and thoughtfully, instead choosing to throw in references to sci-fi and come up with chapter headings referencing Coen Brother’s films.