America's robot army

Already there are killing machines operating by remote control. Soon the machines will be able to ki

War is about to change, in terrifying ways. America's next wars, the ones the Pentagon is now planning, will be nothing like the conflicts that have gone before them.

In just a few years, US forces will be able to deal out death, not at the squeeze of a trigger or even the push of a button, but with no human intervention whatsoever. Many fighting soldiers - those GIs in tin hats who are dying two a day in Iraq - will be replaced by machines backed up by surveillance technology so penetrating and pervasive that it is referred to as "military omniscience". Any Americans involved will be less likely to carry rifles than PlayStation-style consoles and monitors that display simulated streetscapes of the kind familiar to players of Grand Theft Auto - and they may be miles from where the killing takes place.

War will progressively cease to be the foggy, confusing, equalising business it has been for centuries, in which the risks are always high, everyone faces danger and suffers loss, and the few can humble the mighty. Instead, it will become remote, semi-automatic and all-knowing, entailing less and less risk to American lives and taking place largely out of the sight of news cameras. And the danger is close to home: the coming wars will be the "war on terror" by other names, conflicts that know no frontiers. The remote-controlled war coming tomorrow to Khartoum or Mogadishu, in other words, can happen soon afterwards, albeit in moderated form, in London or Lyons.

This is no geeky fantasy. Much of the hardware and software already exists and the race to produce the rest is on such a scale that US officials are calling it the "new Manhattan Project". Hundreds of research projects are under way at American universities and defence companies, backed by billions of dollars, and Donald Rumsfeld's department of defence is determined to deliver as soon as possible. The momentum is coming not only from the relentless humiliation of US forces at the hands of some determined insurgents on the streets of Baghdad, but also from a realisation in Washington that this is the shape of things to come. Future wars, they believe, will be fought in the dirty, mazy streets of big cities in the "global south", and if the US is to prevail it needs radically new strategies and equipment.

Only fragments of this story have so far appeared in the mainstream media, but enough information is available on the internet, from the comments of those in charge and in the specialist press to leave no room for doubt about how sweeping it is, how dangerous and how imminent.

Military omniscience is the starting point. Three months ago Tony Tether, director of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the Pentagon's research arm, described to a US Senate committee the frustration felt by officers in Iraq after a mortar-bomb attack. A camera in a drone, or unmanned aircraft, spotted the attackers fleeing and helped direct US helicopters to the scene to destroy their car - but not before some of those inside had got out. "We had to decide whether to follow those individuals or the car," he said, "because we simply didn't have enough coverage available." So some of the insurgents escaped. Tether drew this moral: "We need a network, or web, of sensors to better map a city and the activities in it, including inside buildings, to sort adversaries and their equipment from civilians and their equipment, including in crowds, and to spot snipers, suicide bombers or IEDs [improvised explosive devices] . . . This is not just a matter of more and better sensors, but, just as important, the systems needed to make actionable intelligence out of all the data."

Darpa has a host of projects working to meet those needs, often in surprising ways. One, called Combat Zones That See, aims to scatter across cities thousands of tiny CCTV cameras, each equipped with wireless communication software that will make it possible to link their data and track the movements of every vehicle on the streets. The cameras themselves will not be that different from those found in modern mobile phones.

Seeing through concrete

Already in existence are sensors the size of matchboxes which respond to heat, light, movement or sound; and a variety of programmes, including one called Smart Dust, are working on further miniaturising these and improving their ability to work as networks. A dozen US university teams are also developing micro-aircraft, weighing a few grams each, that imitate birds and insects and could carry sensor equipment into specific buildings or rooms.

Darpa's VisiBuilding programme, meanwhile, is making "X-ray eye" sensors that can see through concrete, locating people and weapons inside buildings. And Human ID at a Distance is working on software that can identify individual people from scans of their faces, their manner of walking or even their smell, and then track them anywhere they go.

Closely related to this drive are projects involving compu-ter simulations of urban landscapes and entire cities, which will provide backdrops essential for using the data gathered by cameras and sensors. The biggest is Urban Resolve, a simulated war against a full-scale insurgency in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, in the year 2015.

Digitised cities

Eight square miles of Jakarta have been digitised and simulated in three dimensions. That will not surprise computer gamers, but Urban Resolve goes much further: the detail extends to the interiors of 1.6 million buildings and even the cellars and sewers beneath, and it also includes no fewer than 109,000 moving vehicles and people. Even the daily rhythms of the city have been simulated. The roads, says one commentator, "are quiet at night, but during weekday rush hours they become clogged with traffic. People go to work, take lunch breaks and visit restaurants, banks and churches."

Digitise any target city and integrate this with the flow of data from many thousands of sensors and cameras, stationary and mobile, and you have something far more powerful than the regular snapshots today's satellites can deliver. You have continuous coverage, around corners and through walls. You would never, for example, lose those mortar bombers who got out of their car and ran away.

All this brings omniscience within reach. The US web-based magazine DefenseWatch, which monitors developments in strategy and hardware, recently imagined the near-future scenario of an operation in the developing world in which a cloud of minute, networked sensors is scattered like dust over a target city using powerful fans. Directed by the sensors, unmanned drones patrol the city, building up a visual and audio picture of every street and building. "Every hostile person has been identified and located," continues the scenario. "From this point on, nobody in the city moves without the full and complete knowledge of the mobile tactical centre."

Another Darpa project, Integrated Sensor is Structure, is working on the apex of such a system: huge, unmanned communications and surveillance airships that will loiter above target areas at an altitude of 70,000 feet - far above most airline traffic - providing continuous and detailed coverage over a whole city for a year or more.

From these platforms, all the information could be fed down in real time to soldiers and commanders carrying the hand-held computers being developed by the Northrop Grumman Corporation with Darpa funding. The real aim, however, is not to expose flesh-and-blood Americans on the ground, but where possible to use robots. That way there will be no "body bag problem"; and in any case machines are better equipped than human beings to process and make use of the vast quantities of data involved.

In one sense, robots are not new: already, armed drones such as Predator, "piloted" by CIA operators from screens in Florida, have been responsible for at least 80 assassination raids in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan (killing many civilians as well). Defence contractors have also developed ground-based vehicles capable of carrying cameras and weapons into the battlefield.

But this is only the start. What will make the next generation different is that they are being designed so that they can choose, all on their own, the targets they will attack. Operating in the air and on the ground, they are being equipped with Automated Target Recognition software capable not only of comparing signals received from new-generation sensors with databases of targets, but also of "deciding" to fire guns or launch missiles automatically once there is a good "fit". Automated killing of this kind hasn't been approved by anyone yet, but it is certainly being planned. John Tirpak, editor of Air Force Magazine in the US, expects initially that humans will retain the last word, but he predicts that once robots "establish a track record of reliability in finding the right targets and employing weapons properly", the "machines will be trusted to do even that".

Planners believe, moreover, that robot warriors have a doomsday power. Gordon Johnson, a team leader on Project Alpha, which is developing robots for the US army, predicts that, if the robot's gun can return fire automatically and instantly to within a metre of a location from which its sensors have detected a gunshot, it will always kill the person who has fired. "Anyone who would shoot at our forces would die," says Johnson. "Before he can drop that weapon and run, he's probably already dead. Well now, these cowards in Baghdad would have to pay with blood and guts every time they shoot at one of our folks. The costs of poker went up significantly. The enemy, are they going to give up blood and guts to kill machines? I'm guessing not."

Again, this may sound like the plot of a B-movie, but the US military press, not a body of people given to frivolity, has been writing about it for some time. DefenseWatch, for example, also featured robots in that future war scenario involving sensors dispersed by fans. Once a complete picture of the target city is built up, the scenario predicted, "unmanned air and ground vehicles can now be vectored directly to selected targets to take them out, one by one".

The silver bullet

It is shocking, but will it happen? The project has its critics, even in the Pentagon, where many doubt that technology can deliver such a "silver bullet". But the doubters are not in the ascendant, and it would be folly, against the background of the Iraq disaster and the hyper-militarised stance of the Bush administration, to write it off as a computer gamer's daydream.

One reason Washington finds it so attractive is that it fits closely with the ideologies of permanent war that underpin the "war on terror". What better in that war than an army of robot warriors, permanently cruising those parts of the globe deemed to be "supporting terrorism"? And what a boon if they destroy "targets" all on their own, with not a single US soldier at risk. Even more seductively, this could all take place out of sight of the capricious western media.

These technologies further blur the line between war and entertainment. Already, games featuring urban warfare in digitised Arab cities are everyday suburban entertainment - some are produced by the US forces themselves, while a firm called Kuma Reality offers games refreshed weekly to allow players to simulate participation in fighting in Iraq almost as it is happening in the real world.

Creepy as this is, it can be worse: those involved in real warfare may have difficulty remembering they are not playing games. "At the end of the work day," one Florida-based Predator operator reflected to USA Today in 2003, "you walk back into the rest of life in America." Will such people always remember that their "work day", lived among like-minded colleagues in front of screens, involves real death on the far side of the world? As if to strengthen the link with entertainment, one emerging military robot, the Dragon Runner, comes with a gamer's control panel. Greg Heines, who runs the project, confesses: "We modelled the controller after the Play Station 2 because that's what these 18-, 19-year-old marines have been playing with pretty much all of their lives."

The US aspiration to be able to kill without human involvement and with minimum risk raises some dreadful questions. Who will decide what data can be relied on to identify a "target"? Who will be accountable when there is an atrocity? And what does this say about western perceptions of the worth and rights of the people whose cities are no more than killing fields, and who themselves are mere "targets" to be detected, tracked and even killed by machines?

Finally, the whole process feeds alarmingly into the "homeland security" drive in the cities of the global north. The same companies and universities are supplying ideas to both, and the surveillance, tracking and targeting technologies involved are closely related. What we are seeing is a militarisation of urban life in both north and south that helps perpetuate the biggest and most dangerous myth of all, which is that technical and military solutions can somehow magic away resistance to George W Bush's geopolitical project.

Stephen Graham is professor of human geography at Durham University. His latest book, "Cities, War and Terrorism", is published by Blackwell (£19.99)