Gendered autonomous weapon systems?


I’ve been mulling over some ideas about aerial bombing, autonomus weapon systems (aka killer robots), and gender for a while. I’ve never written on gender before, but I started thinking about bombing and gender following on from watching Derek Gregory’s talk here (there is also a shorter blog version here). In it, he talks about the masculinities of aerial bombing, and the prevalent idea amongst fighter and bomber pilots that bombing is bold, brave and ‘separates the men from the boys’.” I’ve had a few thoughts myself, as to how this could apply to the autonomous weapon systems that my thesis is focussed on, so hopefully you think my continuation of this theme is interesting.

RAF Bomber Command 1940. Handley Page Hampden of No. 83 Squadron with crew, seated on a loaded bomb trolley at Scampton, 2 October 1940. (Image was created and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence)

The idea that bombing is manly seems to come from the high-risk missions that bomber pilots undertook in World War II. Indeed, out of every 100 airmen serving in RAF Bomber Command, 45 would die. In fact, WWII bomber crews had a shorter life expectancy than an infantryman in the WWI trenches. But, not all were killed by the enemy. For every bomber shot down, six were lost through accidents. Due to this massive loss of life and his apparent indifference to it, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris who led Bomber Command was also known by his men as ‘Butcher’ Harris (Havers (2003). The Second World War: Europe, 1939–1943, Volume 4, p.69). Clearly, bombing was risky, difficult, and deadly for those involved. I have no doubts that the men taking on these risks had significant fortitude, and it is taking on this risk that is seen by pilots as ‘manly’.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Commander in Chief of Royal Air Force Bomber Command, seated at his desk at Bomber Command HQ, High Wycombe. (Image created and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence)

I think this idea is well presented in this quote by Canadian pilot Murray Peden, who refers to ‘unshakable resolution’:

“The crews faced formidable odds, odds seldom appreciated outside the Command. At times in the great offensives of 1943 and 1944 the short-term statistics foretold that less than 25 out of each 100 crews would survive their first tour of 30 operations. On a single night Bomber Command lost more aircrew than Fighter Command lost during the Battle of Britain. Yet the crews buckled on their chutes and set out with unshakeable resolution night after night. They fell prey to the hazards of icing, lightning, storm and structural failure, and they perished amidst the bursting shells of the flak batteries. But by far the greater number died in desperately unequal combat under the overwhelming firepower of the tenacious German night fighter defenders.”

Gregory notes, in reference to Tom Englehardt’s work, that since fighting the North Vietnamese Air Force in the early 1970’s, the US Air Force has faced almost no challenges. Whilst the Iraqi Air Force was supposed to be rather competent prior to the first Gulf War, many of those pilots fled to Iran. Indeed, when Robert Gates, then US Secretary of Defense addressed the US Air Force Academy, he said: “There hasn’t been a U.S. Air Force airplane lost in air combat in nearly 40 years, or an American soldier attacked by enemy aircraft since Korea.” Furthermore, Engelhardt reminds us that not since 1999, where an F-117A Nighthawk was shot down by Serbian surface-to-air missile, has a US aircraft been “lost due to anything other than mechanical malfunction“.

Two RAF Tornado GR-4s pull away from a KC-135 Stratotanker after refueling. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Thus, despite the contention by air force pilots flying manned aircraft that their colleagues flying drones are ‘cubicle warriors‘ flying in the ‘chair force‘ from their air conditioned boxes at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, neither are put at a real risk of death or injury. According to Engelhardt, pilots actually flying over modern war zones are as safe as drone pilots, as the terrorists and militant groups modern air wars are fought against have no method of response.

As an aside, I’m aware that some of the discussion on risk and modern air war could be construed as disrespectful to contemporary pilots. That is not my intention, and in no way to I seek to insult their role – I am merely pointing out that due to the increases in aircraft safety, and not fighting near-peer enemies in recent wars, the risk to their safety is not what it was previously.

Predator soars to record number of sorties
Captain Richard Koll, left, and Airman 1st Class Mike Eulo perform function checks after launching an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle August 7 at Balad Air Base, Iraq. UAVs are handed off to personnel stationed in the United States after launch controlled in-theatre. 7 August 2007. (United States Air Force photo by Master Sergeant Steve Horton)

So, what we have is pilots of both unmanned and manned aircraft currently taking on almost no physical risk from the enemy. If we see taking on risk, and facing it with courage, or Murray Pedens’ “unshakable resolution“, as manly, can we really see contemporary bombing as a masculine activity? Perhaps not in the physical sense. I only note a reduction in physical risk, as drone pilots do suffer a significant increase in their experiences of PTSD. This increase is due to potentially watching their targets for weeks on end, and then having to watch the aftermath of their attacks to carry out a ‘battle damage assessment’. This is unlike the pilot of a manned aircraft, who will likely not see their bombs land, and nor would they be able to see some of the detail and granular intricacies of the scene they have just caused an explosion within.

Whilst the Taranis system shown in the video above would be an automated weapon system, as a person is in control of strike decisions (shown in this pdf download), what about the potential use of autonomous weapon systems? Where the system makes ‘kill’ decisions, and no physical risk would be transmitted to the operator, nor would there would be no constant stream of images reflecting the destruction you have just wrought creating a psychological risk. I don’t think this would be manly. I did wonder whether this in itself could create gender-neutral violence. After all, I would struggle to identify either manly or feminine characteristics of a killer robot.

But, then I remembered this article by Carol Cohn, where she explains the gender dimensions of nuclear strategic analysis. Perhaps the modern defence establishment has changed in terms of gender awareness since 1987, but her writing on how “The history of the atomic bomb project itself is rife with overt images of competitive male sexuality, as is the discourse of the early nuclear physicists, strategists, and SAC commander” (p.694) did make me consider whether there would be hang-overs of these discourses still around. I think there probably could be. Therefore, the discourse and language of discussion on killer robots is likely to be gendered from the outset. Indeed, even at the 2014 United Nations meeting on autonomous weapon systems had all-male panels. Although, this was not the case when I attended the most recent UN discussions.  Still, both arms and disarmament are male-dominated.

Gate of the Palais de Nations, Geneva. (Photo by Author).

So, the discussions and discourses around autonomous weapon systems are gendered towards men. But what of the systems themselves? Well, they would be a product of their environment. Currently, most programmers are white men, indeed only 18% of computer science students in 2011 were women. Although, it wasn’t always like this. However, their biases will end up going into the programming. So, we’ll end up with robots with masculine traits.

Male Robot. (Used under CC0 Public Domain license. Image by Comfreak

In terms of autonomous weapons systems, Mary Manjikian notes, the traditional male roles in combat of “killing, protecting and rescuing” could be performed by robots. In a sense, autonomous weapon systems could do both the killing and protecting. Although, perhaps not the rescuing. A killer robot could obviously use lethal force, taking care of the killing element. However, much like a remote-controlled drone, a killer robot can be used as a proxy to protect its operator, removing the need for the individual in control (and their sizable support crews) to be in the warzone.

Thus, we can see that there are inherently male characteristics in the discourse around autonomous weapon systems, their programming is likely to be imbued with male characteristics, and they are likely to be used in ‘male’ combat roles. So, whilst the risks are reduced, and what we see as the ‘manly’ part of aerial bombing may be gone, the architecture surrounding it is still ‘male’, and these masculine factors have never gone away.

Until next time!

Bomber Command memorial, London. Photo by Tim Raedemacher ( Used under CC 4.0 License.


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