Back to the future of the Techno War?


this week I was interested to hear about Project Maven. It’s a potential solution to the big issue of how the US and friends are supposed to deal with the hours and hours and hours of footage that is captured by drones and video pods on conventional aircraft when flying over war zones, whether on intelligence gathering, or strike missions.

If an analyst sees something now, he or she typically types the data manually into a spreadsheet. Pentagon leaders do not believe that’s a good use of these analysts’ time.

According to Air Force Lt. Gen. John N.T.“Jack” Shanahan:

“How do we actually begin to automate that in a way that gives time back to analysts who otherwise spend 80 percent of their time doing…mundane, administrative tasks associated with staring at full-motion video”

About 60 percent of the full-motion video gathered over the battlefield is benign while the drone or aircraft flies to and from a point of interest. Then there could be bad weather where the camera cannot see through the clouds.

The goal is to find technology that can clean up that video, “finding the juicy parts where there’s activity and then labeling the data,” Shanahan said. That work today is done by three-person teams of analysts.

So, the project is all about the use of AI and machine learning to identify the interesting bits from all that full-motion video. It’s slightly more boring that ‘ AI will defeat ISIS‘. But, it could have implications for autonomous weapon systems. After all, if video analysis software can identify something as interesting, then perhaps with the use of machine learning and some evolution in programming, similar software could be used to identify targets and other criteria related to law of armed conflict compliance. Of course, the use of machine learning raises some significant issues about whether the operators and programmers actually know what the system is learning.

A U.S. Navy X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System. DoD photo by Capt. Jane E. Campbell, U.S. Navy. (Released)

But, that’s not really what I want to talk about here. I wanted to focus on a quote which was shown to me by my friend, and philosophy scholar, Mike.

‘collection and production of information for its own sake generated a fictional account of the conflict based on a misplaced sense of omniscience and on the basis of which incorrect decisions were taken.’

It’s from Antoine Busquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare (2009, p.156) (original thesis here), and refers to the Vietnam War. For those who don’t know, this conflict was referred to at the time as ‘The Techno-War’ because it was the first time many technologies were used in warfare, including computers and drones.

USAF Ryan AQM-34L Firebee drone “Tom Cat” of the 556th Reconnaissance Squadron, 1969. Photo: USAF, USGOV-PD

It seems that, perhaps, the increasing use of technology in the War on Terror might be giving the US a similar sense of total superiority because of the industrial scale upon which they gather and analyse information. Daesh are still out there fighting, but they are also losing. At the moment, it doesn’t seem like the conflict against Daesh will turn into the quagmire of Vietnam again.

Perhaps, this time the feeling of total superiority created by the technological superiority might be justified. But, who knows what will come after the defeat of Raqqa? Wil Daesh disperse into a global terror group attacking Western targets and allies at random? Will its leaders and fighters flee to other Daesh offshoots in the Sinai, or Nigeria? Or will Daesh die? Or something else…

Himalayas, 2010. Photo by John Hill.

Until next time!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s