P.W. Singer: How Are Screens Changing The Face Of War? Today airstrikes involve generals dictating — and soldiers carrying out — orders behind screens. Strategist P.W. Singer describes how screens have complicated the nature of war.

How Are Screens Changing The Face Of War?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Most of what we've been hearing about so far is how all of this technology is affecting us personally. But screens are also changing the way we think about really big consequential things. When you think about war, how much of it is moving to screens?

PETER WARREN SINGER: The experience for a large number of the players, so to speak, in war is happening on screen.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's level, actually, and here comes power.

RAZ: This is Peter Warren Singer. He wrote a best-selling book about this called "Wired For War."

SINGER: When you're talking about an airstrike in a place like Pakistan or alike...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I got a guy running, throwing a weapon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Roger that.

SINGER: ...It involves multiple people in multiple locations.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He threw it off in the field. He's running back to the vehicle.

SINGER: It's not the human eye that's typically seeing it. They're seeing it through some kind of surveillance device.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He's at the vehicle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Roger.

SINGER: That camera might be beaming back to folks in a command and control center...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Go auto-range on it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Yeah.

SINGER: To commanders...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: What range do you have?

SINGER: ...Who might be back in the United States.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I'm engaging.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yep, engage.

SINGER: You as a general, you as a president didn't used to be able to watch the battle live. Now you can do that.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, there's that iconic image of, like, the president and his National Security cabinet sitting in the Situation Room, watching that operation to eventually kill Bin Laden. Like, to watch - they're watching that in real time through a screen.

SINGER: The things that we once imagined only in science fiction, whether it's the Internet itself, cyberspace, to drones, hybrid warfare, to universal surveillance and observation, the inability to keep secrets - all of these things were imagined in science fiction and have become real. But things don't play out exactly the way that we planned.

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RAZ: So you just heard Peter mention drones. Long before most of us even knew what they were, before we heard about the U.S. military using them to bomb targets in Pakistan or Yemen, Peter was raising questions about how they're changing war back in 2009 in this TED talk.

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SINGER: Something big is going on in war today and maybe even the history of humanity itself. The U.S. military went into Iraq with a handful of drones in the air. We now have 5,300. One of the people that I recently met with was an Air Force three-star general, and he said, basically, where we're headed very soon is tens of thousands of robots operating in our conflicts. A robots revolution is upon us. Another way of putting this is that mankind's 5,000-year-old monopoly on the fighting of war is breaking down in our very lifetime.

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RAZ: So Peter, you gave this talk about six years ago, and obviously, a lot of things have changed. Who - I mean, who else is fighting wars like this now?

SINGER: So 82 different countries have drone programs today of some way, shape or form. But one of the interesting challenges that maybe looms in the future is, if we were in a conflict with a major state power, each of those sides would look at the dependence that the other has on these technologies, from communications to command-and-control to intelligence - you name it - and they would try and take that away. They would, in essence, notice our dependence on the screen and try and jam or block or warp everything from traffic lights to the engine rooms of Navy ships.

RAZ: I wonder if, like, for the people who are actually doing the killing, you know, from far away, like, the drone pilots - I mean, you would think that war would be cleaner, you know, for them somehow.

SINGER: But I would argue that it's not clean and easy on the operators, even if they're operating from afar. Drone operators or analysts who are watching this video - even though they're not physically there, we're still seeing them suffer from PTSD or burnout or the like.

When you take life, that is a psychological toll. When you see horrible things, whether you see them up close or from afar, it can take a toll. Another part of the explanation may be the disconnect of making these kind of decisions, seeing these sorts of things and, an hour later, standing in line at the Burger King or getting in an argument with your wife about, you know, forgetting to pick up milk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SINGER: The future of war is also going to be a YouTube war.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: They're still firing the 203s.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Who is?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: These guys right here are firing...

SINGER: There're several thousand video clips of combat footage from Iraq on YouTube right now. Now, this could be a good thing. It could be building connections between the home front and the warfront as never before.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: OK. We're still taking fire from our western flank - RPGs and small arms.

SINGER: But inevitably, the ability to download these video clips gives you the ability to turn it into entertainment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Get across. Go, go, go, go, go.

SINGER: This ability to watch war but experience less creates a wrinkle in the public's relationship with war. I think about this with a sports parallel. It's like the difference between watching a NBA game - a professional basketball game on TV where the athletes are tiny figures on the screen and being at that basketball game in person and realizing what somebody 7 feet really does look like.

But we have to remember. These are just the clips. They lose the context. They lose the humanity. War just becomes slam dunks and smart bombs.

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RAZ: You know, Peter, I mean, the thing that's interesting is - and I know this is not, you know, a new question that you've sort of thought about, but it is, to me, a big question, which is, when a country has a capacity to send an unmanned aircraft somewhere to attack something or a person and control that through a screen, it means that making that choice to do that is arguably somewhat easier 'cause you're not risking your own people. You're not risking their lives.

SINGER: It used to be that the barriers to war were high. You know, you had to build castles or aircraft carriers. Not anyone could do it. And they were also high in terms of the political decisions that it - was required to take your nation into war - you know, Congress itself voting. What we're seeing now is a lowering of the barriers.

RAZ: Yeah.

SINGER: We can see this, for example, in the drone war, so to speak, that we've been fighting in Pakistan and Yemen. We've carried out more than 500 airstrikes. These are operations that, if we were talking about man systems, we'd be treating very differently. These are operations that have never been formally voted on by Congress. So the barriers to war have been lowered both through the broader availability of the technologies of war, but also the way that we view war or, even more so, things that are war that we're not willing to call war.

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RAZ: Peter Warren Singer - he's got a new novel out that touches on a lot of this stuff. It's called "Ghost Fleet: A Novel Of The Next World War." You can see his entire talk at ted.com.

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