With Covid-19 incapacitating startling numbers of U.S. service members and modern weapons proving increasingly lethal, the American military is relying ever more frequently on intelligent robots to conduct hazardous combat operations. Such devices, known in the military as “autonomous weapons systems,” include robotic sentries, battlefield-surveillance drones, and autonomous submarines. So far, in other words, robotic devices are merely replacing standard weaponry on conventional battlefields. Now, however, in a giant leap of faith, the Pentagon is seeking to take this process to an entirely new level -- by replacing not just ordinary soldiers and their weapons, but potentially admirals and generals with robotic systems.
On March 26th, the coronavirus accomplished what no foreign adversary has been able to do since the end of World War II: it forced an American aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, to suspend patrol operations and shelter in port. By the time that ship reached dock in Guam, hundreds of sailors had been infected with the disease and nearly the entire crew had to be evacuated. As news of the crisis aboard the TR (as the vessel is known) became public, word came out that at least 40 other U.S. warships, including the carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd, were suffering from Covid-19 outbreaks. None of these approached the scale of the TR and, by June, the Navy was again able to deploy most of those ships on delayed schedules and/or with reduced crews. By then, however, it had become abundantly clear that the long-established U.S. strategy of relying on large, heavily armed warships to project power and defeat foreign adversaries was no longer fully sustainable in a pandemic-stricken world.
As the coronavirus sweeps across the planet, leaving death and mayhem in its wake, many theories are being expounded to explain its ferocity. One, widely circulated within right-wing conspiracy circles, is that it originated as a biological weapon developed at a secret Chinese military lab in the city of Wuhan that somehow (perhaps intentionally?) escaped into the civilian population. Although that “theory” has been thoroughly debunked, President Trump and his acolytes continue to call Covid-19 the China Virus, the Wuhan Virus, or even the “Kung Flu,” claiming its global spread was the result of an inept and secretive Chinese government response. Scientists, by and large, believe the virus originated in bats and was transmitted to humans by wildlife sold at a Wuhan seafood market. But perhaps there’s another far more ominous possibility to consider: that this is one of Mother Nature’s ways of resisting humanity’s assault on her essential life systems.
In early March, an estimated 7,500 American combat troops will travel to Norway to join thousands of soldiers from other NATO countries in a massive mock battle with imagined invading forces from Russia. In this futuristic simulated engagement—it goes by the name of Exercise Cold Response 2020—allied forces will “conduct multinational joint exercises with a high-intensity combat scenario in demanding winter conditions,"or so claims the Norwegian military anyway. At first glance, this may look like any other NATO training exercise, but think again. There’s nothing ordinary about Cold Response 2020. As a start, it’s being staged above the Arctic Circle, far from any previous traditional NATO battlefield, and it raises to a new level the possibility of a great-power conflict that might end in a nuclear exchange and mutual annihilation. Welcome, in other words, to World War III’s newest battlefield.
It was Monday, March 1, 2032, and the top uniformed officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps were poised, as they are every year around this time, to deliver their annual “posture statement” on military readiness before the Senate Armed Services Committee. As the officers waited for the committee members to take their seats, journalists covering the event conferred among themselves on the meaning of all the badges and insignia worn by the top brass. Each of the officers testifying that day -- Generals Richard Sheldon of the Army, Roberto Gonzalez of the Marine Corps, and Shalaya Wright of the Air Force, along with Admiral Daniel Brixton of the Navy -- sported chestfuls of multicolored ribbons and medals. What did all those emblems signify?
The Situation Room, October 2039: the president and vice president, senior generals and admirals, key cabinet members, and other top national security officers huddle around computer screens as aides speak tokey officials across the country. Some screens are focused on Hurricane Monica, continuing its catastrophic path through the Carolinas and Virginia; others are following Hurricane Nicholas, now pummeling Florida and Georgia, while Hurricane Ophelia lurks behind it in the eastern Caribbean.
The recent White House decision to speed the deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group and other military assets to the Persian Gulf has led many in Washington and elsewhere to assume that the U.S. is gearing up for war with Iran. As in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. officials have cited suspect intelligence data to justify elaborate war preparations. On May 13th, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan even presented top White House officials with plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East for possible future combat with Iran and its proxies. Later reports indicated that the Pentagon might be making plans to send even more soldiers than that.
The pundits and politicians generally take it for granted that President Trump lacks a coherent foreign policy. They believe that he acts solely out of spite, caprice, and political opportunism -- lashing out at U.S. allies like Germany’s Angela Merkel and England’s Theresa May only to embrace authoritarian rulers like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. His instinctive rancor and impulsiveness seemed on full display during his recent trip to Europe, where he lambasted Merkel, undercut May, and then, in an extraordinary meeting with Putin, dismissed any concerns over Russian meddling in the 2016 American presidential election (before half-walking his own comments back).
On May 30th, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced a momentous shift in American global strategic policy. From now on, he decreed, the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), which oversees all U.S. military forces in Asia, will be called the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). The name change, Mattis explained, reflects “the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans,” as well as Washington’s determination to remain the dominant power in both.
With Donald Trump’s decision to shred the Iran nuclear agreement, announced last Tuesday, it’s time for the rest of us to start thinking about what a Third Gulf War would mean. The answer, based on the last 16 years of American experience in the Greater Middle East, is that it won’t be pretty.