Warbot 1.0: AI Goes to War by Brian M. Michelson. War Planet Press, 2020, 415 pp.
Winston Churchill once suggested we could avoid future wars if certain “blunders” can be avoided. That is my hope; however, I also know as Vince Lombardi said, “hope is not a strategy.”
So, we are left with strategists, futurists, and visionaries like former Col. Brian Michelson, to lead us through whatever the future holds. And, in writing Warbot 1.0: AI Goes to War, he has given us a captivating science fiction novel set in that future, in 2033.
West Point and Army War College educated, Michelson served in the 101st Airborne Division and special operations commands in sites around the globe, including the Philippines—the setting of Warbot 1.0. One of his culminating military assignments included a year-long fellowship with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. During this period, the author dove into emerging technologies, including robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Encouraged by futurist and science fiction novelist, August Cole, co-author of Ghost Fleet, the author introduces, educates, and challenges the reader to consider how emerging technology will alter the dynamics of a future war.
The story is relevant to many of today’s concerns and to discussions swirling around the nation’s capital, and one in particular, that China is on a path to regional hegemony through its actions toward Hong Kong, the Spratly Islands, recent threats over Taiwan, and rapid military growth. The author ties together history, current affairs, future challenges related to both emerging technology and China’s ambitions with a scenario in which China invades a regional country in its effort to spread influence. In this case, China invades the Philippines, and, as expected, the United States comes to its rescue.
The author tells the story from dual perspectives: the men and women of the United States 1st ARM Battalion Headquarters, located in Meycauayan City and led by Lt. Col. Buck Gammon and the Chinese National Assistance Task Force Headquarters led by Major General Yu. Many of the anecdotes and references seem heavily influenced by the author’s and his family’s military experience. The heavy lobbying campaign by Lt. Col. Gammon’s family for a dog prior to his deployment is a confirmed detail from the author’s life—Nacho the wonder dog.
The author dedicates the book to, “…the young men and women who will fight the next wars. My hope is that this story will give them a few ideas of what to expect.” For readers who have spent much of their life in the military Warbot 1.0is engaging. But, wondering if the book would resonate with my two middle-school aged boys, I read it to them and they were completely captivated. The reading drove multiple conversations about humanity, moral implications of war, advanced technology, my own upbringing in the Philippines, and of course China. Further, the book helped me as a parent with my obligation to prepare my children for a lifetime of service in some capacity.
One of the more interesting proposals the author raises is a reorganization of the service academies to better meet the nation’s challenges. My wife and I attended the Air Force Academy which prompted one of my sons to ask, “I wonder how this book will actually play out?” One of the side stories that caused us to have a hearty laugh—because I have some knowledge of the technology—involved learning about sound generators and how they can be used to control crowds or enemy forces in a non-lethal way. One of the effects of these sound generators can cause “brown sound.” Although I cannot comment further, the author goes into more detail in the book.
Even more worrisome than the potential threat from emerging technology is the impact disinformation and misinformation can have on society. In Warbot 1.0 a Chinese general writes, “The loss of historical perspective and the limited ability of even the educated classes to think critically have gifted us with a pliable audience.” This is the most concerning sentence in the entire book and a reality we need to confront.
The chapters on ethical and moral implications related to advanced technology are vital as robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning capabilities become more integrated into tactical, operational, and strategic warfare. The author makes a clear distinction between the United States and Chinese approaches to the moral use of these weapons. The United States, the author says, takes the moral high ground, while China takes an uninhibited approach and becomes complicit in wholesale civilian genocide for tactical gain. Throughout, the robotic and drone battles are intense and vivid, providing a glimpse of the realm of the possible, without overly focusing on this one aspect of the story telling. It is worth reminding the reader, however, new tools and military capabilities do not significantly alter the human element of war—death, extended family separation, relationship and mental health challenges, and other human impacts. And the author rightly focuses on the heroes, those that step up to advance this nation’s freedom and democracy.
Without revealing the outcome, but as an air power advocate, this reader was pleasantly surprised the air force was called to deliver decisive air power by the soon-to-be-fielded B-21 Raider in one of the final chapters. Warbot 1.0 is just the beginning as the last chapter reveals. The author alludes to the Chinese playing the “long game,” which could be a nod to the Chinese strategy game Go. Warbot 2.0: White Sun Rising is scheduled for release in 2023, and this reader recommends to those pondering the implications of China and how emerging technology will affect future warfare to read this book and to learn about the strategy game “Go.”
My recommendation for policy and decision makers and leaders is to invest simultaneously in advancing emerging technologies through science, technology, engineering, and math education and research and development and to focus on the human element. The latter includes resilience research and training, relationship building, driving human to human connection, building cultural awareness internal and external to the United States, resurrecting civics education; and encourage “how” to think not “what” to think.
I quote Winston Churchill again: he once said, “… President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once ‘The Unnecessary War.’” We need deep thinkers who can prevent and prepare for the next unnecessary war to the maximum extent possible.
PS. Both my boys give Warbot 1.0: AI Goes to War two thumbs up.
Book review contributed by Lt Col Christopher P. Mulder, USAF
Mulder is a Senior Military Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, air force pilot, and engaged on national security and leadership matters. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the US government or other organization.
Additional information about Christopher Mulder can be found at: Christopher P. Mulder – Atlantic Council