60 Minutes Does an Infomercial On Drone Swarms For The Pentagon

Recently America’s premier TV news magazine, 60 Minutes, has pivoted toward more military technology segments than they featured in the past. As always, the Pentagon rolls out the red carpet for the iconic show; but much like the profiles they do on America’s wealthiest CEO’s and the “fascinating” companies they run, these segments can lean toward canned infomercials more than hard journalism. Last night’s segment “The Coming Swarm” was no different. 

You can watch the segment on the 60 Minutes site

David Martin did his usual oohing and ahhing on the capabilities the Pentagon is openly working on, most of which we talk about here regularly. The focus of the program was Perdix drone swarms, one of the DoD’s small, expendable, networked drone plays that has been in development for some time. We also got to see a silly demonstration of facial recognition and semi-autonomous networked fire (briefly featuring our old friend the M80 Stiletto), as well as an unmanned sub-hunting boat we are all familiar with—DARPA’s ACTUV, aka the Sea Hunter.

Sure, seeing video of a trio of F/A-18 Hornets executing a mass drop of 100 little Perdix drones over NAWS China Lake was fun (check out this other story and video on the test), and there was some very light talk about autonomy and what it could mean for the future of warfare, but the topic was left feeling woefully underserved and unchallenged. It seemed as if someone made a call to the Pentagon public affairs office and asked “tell us about swarms” and that’s what the DoD cooked up. In other words, an infomercial for the Pentagon. 

Sure, the DoD is very happy to tout its unclassified miniature networked drone projects. But with all the talk about autonomous swarms, and how they can react faster as a team than humans—even little low-cost brick-sized ones—how was there no talk about larger, higher-end capabilities? In other words, it is all very DARPA-ish stuff, but as a defense reporter for decades, Martin seems to have very little insight into other capabilities that are supposedly out there, or worse, he’s not willing to ask about it. 

You’re left with the feeling that, once again, networked Unmanned Combat Air Systems (UCAVs) and even lower end UCAV-like systems do not exist, even at a conceptual level. It’s such a glaring omission, especially in a piece about flying drone swarms. The first question a well-briefed reporter would ask on the tarmac at NAWS China Lake while watching Pedix in action should be “Great, these flying shoe boxes are neat, but if they can do all this, what can fighter-sized drone swarms do, and why aren’t they flying around here too?” 

The UCAV has long disappeared from the USAF's public train of thought after showing revolutionary promise in the 2000s.

Maybe even more of an issue is Martin’s lack of follow-through with officials over their concerns of the “ethics” of unmanned autonomous warfare. This topic is having a huge impact on the future of America’s military and the ethical arguments surrounding it need more fleshing out at the highest levels. Although it may be an interesting topic to debate academically, the hard truth is that our enemies will have no problem handing over tactical decision making, including on what to kill and how to kill it, to a machine—if it means gaining a substantial tactical advantage. 

Take the Russians for instance, who have recently executed an entire air campaign over urban areas using unguided munitions. The thought that they would forestall development and deployment of unmanned autonomous weapon systems due to the ethical concerns is laughable. Another one of our potential peer-states, China, will leverage any weakness the US has in its collective armor. Choosing not to realize the massive increase in overwhelming force that fully autonomous drones could provide will be one of those weak links if we don’t pursue it first. In the end, slowing down the effectiveness of autonomous weaponry considerably by keeping it “semi-autonomous,” or maintaining a “man in the loop,” largely defeats its purpose and future foes will not curtail their own development of these systems for similar reasons. In other words, regardless of what some philosophers and lawyers may say, giving up supposedly the biggest technological combat edge since the creation of nuclear weapons by choice is a fateful decision. 

This is why follow up questions and clarity on where key people within the DoD and industry stand on this issue is so important. Like asking if its smart for the US to knowingly be giving such an advantage while the enemy certainly would not and is not? And yes, our potential foes, and many others, are developing these things too. With all this in mind, wouldn’t you think Martin would want to find out what these experts on the frontlines of swarm development’s arguments are for or against end-to-end autonomy for robotic combat systems? What about the opinion of experts who don’t make a paycheck from a DoD or an associated program? This is the autonomous swarm story—not a video rendition of what was in last month’s Popular Science magazine.

At the end of his piece David asks: ”I’ve heard people say that autonomy is the biggest thing in military technology since nuclear weapons. Really?”

Will Roper: “I think I might agree with that, David. I mean, if what we mean is biggest thing is something that’s going to change everything, I think autonomy is going to change everything.” 

We agree. Tell us why.

If you are 60 Minutes, or any serious news organization for that matter, you should not have to “play ball” by not pushing the hard questions in exchange for cool visuals. Hopefully that’s not the case, as other 60 Minutes reporters, such as Lara Logan, don’t seem as constrained in their questioning of military officials. If it isn’t, Martin should use his platform more aggressively to probe into the shadowy areas of the subjects he covers, and there are plenty believe me. If he doesn’t know where those shadows fall, there are many who can guide him. 

Without these elements, the masses may be wow’d with great imagery, strong-sounding narration and questions that seem like they have impact. but really, you’re seeing a 15-minute prime-time infomercial for the cool stuff the Pentagon wants you to see, and opinions they want you to hear.  

In the end you can be nearly certain the high-end swarming autonomous combat craft are already here, albeit in small numbers. And, as I’ve stated in great detail before, if this is true then it’s a major problem. If it’s not true, and they don’t exist at all, we are in far worse trouble. The power of good journalism at the highest levels could help effect this somewhat precarious situation and allow us to get to the bottom of what exactly the DoD plans on doing when it comes to unleashing the swarm on its own accord.

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com