Pain Rays and Robot Swarms: The Radical New War Games DoD Plays

An insider's look at why ethics, policy, and law matter to current and future warfare.

In the year 2025, a rogue state--long suspected of developing biological weapons--now seems intent on using them against U.S. allies and interests. Anticipating such an event, we have developed a secret "counter-virus" that could infect and destroy their stockpile of bioweapons. Should we use it?

From a legal standpoint, it seems pretty straightforward that use of bioweapons by either party would violate the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and therefore be prohibited. From a policy standpoint, our first use of a bioweapon sets a most dangerous precedent for other states to justify their use of bioweapons--the very thing we want to prevent. But from an ethics standpoint, leaving the BWC aside, perhaps we are merely "practicing medicine" with a counter-virus--a vaccination of sorts--and surely this seems to be permissible.

A proper analysis, of course, goes much further. The lawyer also may point out that we've already violated the BWC by developing a counter-virus for war. The ethicist may argue that other options seem worse: A Stuxnet-like cyberattack may accidentally knock out containment systems and release the bioweapons, and incendiary bombs would kill both pathogens and people, potentially triggering an open war. The policy advisor, on the other hand, may prefer a more devastating, disproportionate attack to send a message to the world: We will not tolerate bio-threats, so don't even try it. But would this policy fuel animosity and thus be counterproductive to peace?

A new kind of wargaming

These are part of actual discussions last month at an unusual wargame sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense's Rapid Reaction Technology Office and the U.S. Naval Academy. Hosted by the consultancy Noetic Group and directed by Dr. Peter W. Singer--author of Wired for War, a book partially responsible for raising global awareness about the "drone war" and its controversies--the event was part of the NeXTech wargaming series focused on emerging and future military technologies.

The technologies of interest are potential "game-changers": biotechnologies (e.g., human enhancements), energy (e.g., lasers and superefficient batteries), materials (e.g., 3D printing), hardware (e.g., robots), and software (e.g., electromagnetic and cyberweapons). But this particular wargame was dedicated to their ethics, policy, and legal issues, helping to identify friction points as well as to test how they can be integrated better in national-security planning and military-technology development.

Read more at The Atlantic

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