“Speed,” wrote the legendary Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu, “is the essence of war.”
The truth of this observation turns on the meaning, or in this case, the translation of “war.”
If the meaning here is warfare, war-fighting, I’d agree that speed is essential to success. But war itself, the state of war, is often very slow to bring under control, much less bring to an end, and attempts to speed things along often end in frustration or worse.
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President Trump’s first National Security Advisor-in-brief got famous for speeding up the so-called OODA loop – observation, orientation, decision, action on “actionable intelligence” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Flynn’s innovations, employing law enforcement approaches in searching out and collating evidence, and the latest technologies for gathering and distributing raw intelligence predicated more missions, more arrests, and many more deaths, all occurring at unprecedented rates.
But critics said, too many of the casualties were innocents because too much of the intel was based on tribal or family feuds or personal antagonisms. The operational tempo didn’t give much time for pre-raid discriminations and the new technology faced that age-old problem – “garbage in-garbage out.”
At the very least, one would have to judge that Flynn’s acceleration of the speed from search to destroy had no strategic effect on either long and slow-running war, in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Still, on the battlefield, in the moment, speed wins and the lack of speed is often what kills you. Which makes gaining speed irresistible.
And what is it that slows things down? Not the killing machines, it’s the folks in charge of them. They’re the ones, the corporals and sergeants, the lieutenants and the generals who need time to close that loop from observing, understanding, deciding and acting.
Get rid of the humans and the use of force speeds up. Turn war over to robots enabled with artificial intelligence and watch the adversary be pre-empted. What could go wrong?
And anyway, is there a choice? If our enemies, or even our “competitors” are going for autonomous weaponry, can we afford to be unarmed?
Remember, the bear always eats the slowest camper.
Paul Scharre is the author of Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War. A former U.S. Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is currently a senior fellow and director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security.