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Given the pace of events in Crimea, we’ve barely had time to reflect on the momentous changes in the rest of Ukraine. For instance, we still don’t know the full story behind the collapse of the Yanukovich regime. Despite the weeks of turmoil, it was, in the end, an overnight phenomenon – the protesters waking-up one morning to find that the riot police had withdrawn, never to return.

It goes to show that what ultimately keeps politicians in power isn’t constitutions or electoral mandates, but the support of sufficient numbers of men with guns.

In a thought-provoking piece for Quartz, Noah Smith argues that the underlying logic of the gun is what makes democracy possible:

“…imagine yourself back in 1400. In that century (and the 10 centuries before it), the battlefield was ruled not by the infantryman, but by the horse archer—a warrior-nobleman who had spent his whole life training in the ways of war. Imagine that guy’s surprise when he was shot off his horse by a poor no-count farmer armed with a long metal tube and just two weeks’ worth of training. Just a regular guy with a gun.”

This shift in military technology ushered in a new political era:

“Military success depended more and more on being able to motivate large groups of (gun-wielding) humans, instead of on winning the loyalty of the highly trained warrior-noblemen.”

In recent centuries, “large groups of humans” have been motivated in a number of ways. Some of these were largely or wholly positive, such as nationalism, emancipation and universal suffrage; others were catastrophic – paving the way for fascism and communism. But whether good or bad, it is the “Age of the Gun” – as Smith calls it – that defines the modern world.

But what if this era is drawing to a close?

Obviously, we already have “bombers, tanks, and artillery” which can “lay waste to infantry.” That, however, is not the issue, because there’s no alternative to ‘boots on the ground’ when it comes to controlling territory. Or, at least, there hasn’t been until now:

“Continuing progress in automation, especially continued cost drops, may mean that someday soon, autonomous drone militaries become cheaper than infantry at any scale.

“Note that what we call drones right now are actually just remote-control weapons, operated by humans. But that may change. The United States Army is considering replacing thousands of soldiers with true autonomous robots. The proposal is for the robots to be used in supply roles only, but that will obviously change in the long term. Sometime in the next couple of decades, drones will be given the tools to take on human opponents all by themselves.”

The political significance of this trend is that leaders will no longer need to motivate the masses in order to command an army, instead they’ll just need the cash to buy enough robots.

Therefore as the “Age of the Gun” gives way to the “Age of the Drone,” a nightmare scenario presents itself:

“Imagine a world where gated communities have become self-contained cantonments, inside of which live the beautiful, rich, Robot Lords, served by cheap robot employees, guarded by cheap robot armies. Outside the gates, a teeming, ragged mass of lumpen humanity teeters on the edge of starvation. They can’t farm the land or mine for minerals, because the invincible robot swarms guard all the farms and mines.”

Of course, this is to forget the state’s monopoly on the use of violence – which in the context of the democratic nation-state should ensure that ruthless oligarchs don’t get the chance to amass their automated militias.

But in places where the state is not under democratic control it could be a very different story. For instance, with killer drones at his command, Yanukovich wouldn’t have needed the flesh-and-blood support of soldiers and policemen to enforce his will.

Then there’s the question of transnational organisations. While bodies like the EU are capable of organising limited peacekeeping operations, more ambitious attempts to bring national armies and navies under a transnational banner have foundered. French and British servicemen are willing to fight for their own countries – but for Brussels not so much. Drones, though, have no national loyalties – and, given the funds, could be as easily purchased by the European Commission as the Ministry of Defence.

Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan should watch out: a phalanx of Europhile death-droids could be coming for them soon!

21 comments for: Robot armies versus the nation state

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