/ Published January 16, 2018
Future War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield by Robert H. Latiff. Alfred A Knopf, 2017, 208 pp.
Future War is a timely, authoritative, and wide-ranging look at the interplay of ethics and technology in warfare. While the title promises preparing for the “new global battlefield,” this book does not delve into the question of how, where, or with what weapons future wars will be fought. Instead it limits itself to surveying the ethical and moral dilemmas of employing advanced, autonomous, or futuristic weapons such as artificially intelligent machines, gene editing, or long-range hypersonic vehicles. While Dr. Robert Latiff explicitly states his purpose is to explore how new technology has changed warfare and to “highlight both the dramatic developments in technology and war and the speed with which they have occurred and to describe how these will challenge soldiers, decision makers, and the public,” he is less than immediately clear that the challenges he is describing are ethical and moral in nature. Ultimately Future War is a cautionary tale warning that unless we begin to understand the ramifications of technology on war, as a nation and a military the United States will be ill-equipped to control technological development and the destructiveness it can cause.
Future War begins by cataloging the myriad technologies that have been, or potentially could be, integrated into a military’s arsenal in the coming decades. After Latiff conducts his analysis on future technologies potential impact on war, the soldier, society, and the military, he concluding with an impassioned argument that we must all take on the task of deciding what and how we will deliberately and ethically employ technology in combat.
Within his catalog of future weapons, Latiff shows a remarkable understanding of numerous technological disciplines and a keen awareness for how these technologies—many of which are still highly experimental—might be employed during hostilities. The first chapter alone serves as a wonderful primer for anyone interested in the scope and scale of developing technologies broadly defined within national security circles as the “Third Offset Strategy.” However, given Latiff’s extensive experience in defense science, technology, and engineering it should not be surprising to see such a comprehensive review setting the stage for a book on future war.
What is surprising to find in a book on future war is a rather deep and informed discussion of Just War Theory, the Law of Armed Conflict, and the importance of military leadership. Central to his discussion, Latiff argues that although its adversaries may be unethical in the use and development of advanced technologies, the United States should not sacrifice its values by pragmatically following suit but instead should preserve the standards and values that make us human. By doing so the United States will be able to lead by example and thereby help persuade its adversaries that discrimination, proportionality, military necessity, and the reduction of suffering should be critical criteria used in limiting warfare, especially as technology deadens our senses to the horror of war and its consequences.
Throughout the bookLatiff posits that in future wars killing will be impersonal. It is argued that technology will reduce the amount of human interaction required on the battlefield by continuing to replace humans with intelligent and autonomous systems with long-range capabilities. Latiff worries that without the fear of death to modulate and restrict their actions, soldiers of the future may be willing to be unethical in their actions and their political and military leadership more willing to engage in armed conflict. He even goes one step further in arguing that the conflicts of tomorrow will be increasingly defined by speed-of-light weapons and computer automation making human perception and coordination a limitation. Wars of the future will become more a test of technology than a struggle between humans and death by algorithm would be the ultimate indignity for the soldier.
This brings Latiff to his final point, echoing ethicist Wendell Wallach that we are at an inflection point in our development of technology. We can either choose to deliberately and ethically develop our weapons, being fully aware of the implications of their use, or we can lose control of technology and potentially suffer the loss of our humanity. Latiff argues that as the primary conduit through which most of the public and our political leadership are informed about the military and war, the media has the burden of educating society on technology and ethical warfare. However, his argument suffers in the closing chapters of his book as he dwells on his observation that “there is a strong strain and long history of anti-intellectualism in American culture. In its current form, it dismisses science, the arts, and the humanities in favor of entertainment and self-satisfied ignorance.” The concluding two chapters of the book border on diatribe as Latiff uses numerous and disparate anecdotes to illustrate his point that politicians, the media, and the military have willfully shirked their responsibilities to inform society of the implications and reality of war. Despite this, Latiff returns to his primary thesis at the conclusion of the book that the deliberate and ethical development of technology is possible if our leaders and the public make the concerted effort to create the generational changes necessary to educate themselves and take ownership of the issues.
Overall, Future War is a quick read and a wonderful introduction to several topics relevant to military conflict. While the book’s constrained look at future conflict through the lens of technology and ethics initially seems to limit its utility, the strength of this book comes in providing a framework for grounding the technologies of the future in the key war-fighting principles of the past. This book should be a welcome read for anyone serving in acquisitions, concerned with how the United States should use future weapons of war, or charged with commanding those who will use them.
Capt Sean E. Thompson, USAF
401 Chennault Circle
Maxwell AFB, AL 36112-6010