Robot dogs, with guns for heads

Images of a military or security robot resembling a dog with a gun in place of a head have elicited dread online. The machine, created by Ghost Robots and Sword International and named the Special Purpose Unmanned Rifle (SPUR), may offer a glimpse into the future of warfare.

A common reaction is one of horror. We have seen all the Terminator and Matrix movies, featuring the robot takeover and enslavement of humanity. In such movies, a common theme is that robots exceeded humanity in their abilities. They became more agile, resilient, and even more intelligent. Ultimately, their fighting ability grew greater than humanity's and humanity was conquered (subverted in the movies, of course, by messianic heroes who can outclass the machines).

Warfare advances and there is no point in complaining. But is it really a matter of man against machine? Or even a matter of better machines against inferior and dated machines? Such thinking may have more in common with movies than reality.

What does technology mean to war?

The actual relationship between technology and warfare is often misunderstood. Technology has always been more a way for a wealthier power to leverage its wealth to produce military results with greater propaganda effect and at a reduced cost in personnel lives, rather than a silver bullet capable of producing victory. It is just more ordnance put to use against the other side's ordnance, and not ultimately the deciding factor in who will will be victorious. Just take a look. History is filled with examples of wealthier and better-equipped nations being defeated by poorer ones in wars. Technological advantages can be negated a lot more easily than many would think, and humans are a lot harder to kill than their counterparts portrayed in movies and games.

Those times when advanced technology got beaten

Look no further back than the outcome of the War in Afghanistan (2001-2021). Surely, it was a foregone conclusion that the mighty NATO forces would defeat the inferior Taliban forces? It was also a foregone conclusion that the Soviet Union would be defeated by the German military in 1941. What happened?

We might be able to inflict our wrath on people in poor nations as a result of billions spent on advanced weapons, but that act in itself just serves to encourage someone else to pick up an AK-47 and continue the fight. A Taliban fighter is a low-cost means of waging war, driven by faith, willing to sacrifice his life. You only believe killing him is a victory because you mistakenly equate his loss with your own death, when in reality a group like the Taliban has an endless supply of men. You don't have an endless supply of expensive bombs and robots. Worse still, depending on robots means you have absolutely no supply of men willing to sacrifice themselves.

Attrition ultimately can still wear you down, even when you take no human losses. And the unwillingness to take even one casualty just makes that one casualty hit a whole lot harder, when it eventually does happen. The anti-war sentiment ends up being just as strong, nay, worse, than it would be if you were taking thousands of losses in 1940.

Strengths and weaknesses

There is also the fact that a robot soldier may just be forever doomed to be less efficient, less manageable and far less adapted to its environment than the real thing.

Imagine a robot horse. That is a fine thing for fiction, but a real horse operates a lot better in the real world and is better made for it. A normal horse does not come from a manufacturing plant thousands of miles away. It can be replaced very easily using other horses. It can be recharged using grass and water abundant in many normal environments, and does not need expensive and rare power cells that must be transported to it by yet more technology.

Of course, an already good military can be made better by robots, which surely can add to its firepower. These kinds of unmanned rifles are not going to be a replacement for soldiers, but they could certainly be buddies for soldiers and increase the firepower of already effective military units.

An army that still puts a lot of human bodies to use in addition to its mechanical muscle will likely prevail over one that attempts to rely solely on machines. Willing humans will continue to be the more important factor in winning. People and even animals are going to continue to be a more convenient and cost-effective way of getting lots of weapons to the front line, for a long time.