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VCJCS Selva Says US Must Not Let Robots Decide Who Dies; Supports LRSO

Posted by Colin Clark on


Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Paul Selva

WASHINGTON: Admitting there’s a “raucous debate” in the US military about whether humans should allow robots to decide when to pull the trigger, the nation’s Nr. 2 uniformed officer told the Senate today that he doesn’t “think it’s reasonable to put robots in charge of whether we take a human life.”

Gen. Paul Selva, the Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has been thinking deeply for years about the issue of what the Pentagon calls keeping humans in the loop, and today he offered a compelling argument for his position:

“I must tell you I’m an advocate for keeping that restriction because we take our values to war, and because many of the things that we must do in war are governed by the laws of war, which say we must take proportional and discriminate action to action against our enemy to achieve our objectives.

Interestingly, Selva made a point of saying that US officials should “publicly” all “be advocates for keeping the ethical rules of war in place, lest we unleash on humanity a set of robots that we don’t know how to control.”

“That’s way off in the future,” he conceded, “but it’s something we need to deal with right now.” As Breaking Defense readers know, Selva first coined the term Terminator Conundrum to describe this issue.

Although former Defense Secretary Ash Carter staked out the position that humans must always be in the loop, his head of acquisition, Frank Kendall, publicly raised grave doubts. Kendall’s argument is one that Selva told the Senate Armed Services Committees is “very compelling.”

In Selva’s words, the “speed and accuracy of command & control and the capabilities that advanced robotics might bring to a complex battlespace — particularly machine to machine interaction in space and cyberspace where speed is of the essence” — can lead to the conclusion that humans are just too slow to make decisions in those domains. Kendall and many others argue that if an enemy is willing to allow artificial intelligence to process data and make lethal decisions, doesn’t that put the US military at a potentially huge disadvantage?

Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM)

Nuclear Options

In other news, Selva stepped out and told the Senate Armed Services in his written answers that the Long Range Standoff cruise missile (LRSO) is needed, something his boss, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, has not yet publicly declared. “A nuclear air-launched cruise missile contributes significantly to every element of U.S. nuclear strategy and is therefore an essential component of our future nuclear capability,” Selva writes. “The AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), initially fielded in 1982, is well beyond its intended service life. The Department has undertaken several Service Life Extension Programs to sustain ALCM, but they are not sufficient to meet long term operational requirements.”

Selva also declared support for a program rarely mentioned in public, the replacement for the doomsday plane known as the E4-B. The program, inserted in the 2018 budget, is known as the Survivable Airborne Operations Center.

E-4B National Airborne Operations Center

One of the most counterintuitive bits of data Selva offered the committee in his written questions was whether the Afghan Taliban is increasing in strength.

The committee’s question was very specific: “Do high profile terrorist attacks in Kabul by the Taliban and similar attacks by ISIS elsewhere in the country, represent a terrorist organization losing and trying to present a picture of relevance, or does it signal an organization increasing in strength?”

Selva’s reply: “While the threat persists, the total number of high-profile attacks in Kabul decreased by 20% compared to the same time period last year, and by 11% in the rest of the country. The Taliban and ISIS Khorasan continue to perpetrate high-profile attacks to generate media attention, create the perception of insecurity, and undercut the legitimacy of the Afghan government.”

So the number of “high-profile attacks” is substantially lower than last year? Yes. Bet you didn’t think that.

What do you think?