November 2022. King Hall, Naval Postgraduate School.
“Do you recognize this auditorium?” asks Saint Barbara.
General Smith looks across the crowd of mostly Naval and Marine officers and nods.
“I do. King Hall. Where the NPS students receive all-hands briefs. Guests range from Congressmen to scientists, astronauts, and senior defense leaders. I’ve spoken here a handful of times. We send bright officers to NPS for graduate degrees so they can work on complex problems.”
King Hall, Naval Postgraduate School
“General, this brief is about the future. It takes place a few months from now.”
“Everywhere you’ve dragged me has been the future! What am I supposed to do about some briefs at NPS? There are briefs everyday all over the place about the future. All I think about is the future and how the hell to prepare for it!”
Saint Barbara dismisses General Smith’s frustration and smiles. “The head of the Office of Naval Research is giving a brief called ‘Re-Imagining the Future Force’. Remember, I’ve shown you a future and its future force.”
On stage, an admiral in khakis speaks dispassionately about the latest technological innovations and projects. He uses highly technical terms, assuming his audience can follow mathematical, programming, and engineering concepts. He speaks freely with little care for dumbing down the message.
“I think digital engineering needs to be foundational to everything we do,” says the admiral. “That way, we could maintain configuration control and ensure that the standards used at the interface is understood by those that need to understand and not everybody else. There are some critics who worry about silos of knowledge centered in technology. They’re afraid of some Terminator 2 ‘Skynet’ scenario, where our machines turn against us.”
The Skynet Logo from The Terminator Universe
The crowd laughs. A handful, nervously.
“Most of those fears are from luddites,” continues the admiral, “and we need to ignore them. We’re at a pivotal moment in history. We’re in the middle of a new transition in technology, and I think we must adapt rapidly to succeed in this new world we’re entering, a new world where the character of war demands uncomfortable choices to outcompete our adversaries.”
Saint Barbara pulls General Smith out of King Hall into the central California air. A light fog blankets the campus. General Smith is tired and struggling to keep his tattered uniform presentable. The ground starts to shake, and the air around becomes a furnace. General Smith struggles to keep his balance as he shields his eyes. Saint Barbara now stands twenty feet tall and her eyes aflame.
“The time for showing is over!” her voice assaults the general to nausea.
“Do not be taken in by the promises of technology. These mythmakers of easy war have walked the earth forever. They are tricksters and cheats all! Do not be fooled by their pretty slides and fancy studies or their demonstrations and simulations. You are all frogs slowly boiling! These charlatans preach certainty in numbers, that systems will never fail. They speak of the endless ascent of technological progress. You sacrifice your children to an automated idol and call it good. The price of progress, general, is your Marines.”
General Smith responded, “There are always risks! We cannot fall behind the Chinese. If we don’t do these things, someone else will. We are in an arms race, don’t you see?”
“Yes, you are in an arms race. But you are choosing to climb a mountain without a plan to get back down. General Gray warned you about overreliance on technology. Don’t you remember him saying, ‘There will always be a tendency for some to want to solve all problems through technology. Advantages from technology are seen as only temporary. Long term results come from people.’”
Saint Barbara smiles and whispers, “Tell me, general, what happens when the lights go out?”
General Alfred M. Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps
“We are making fitter, smarter, more mature Marines to adapt if that happens! We are thinking about these things!”
“Your future Marines are the product of the world they live in, a world where cognition depends on screens and skill is ceded to machines. Automation makes them complacent. ‘The progressive effect of automation is first to relieve the operator of manual effort and then to relieve him of the need to apply continuous mental effort’. The sharper the tool, the duller the mind, general! And then you speak of a future where Marines are better warfighters but give them tools designed to remove human agency. You assume Marines can be taught without realizing that the skills they need are fading from their reach—and your institutional memory. You will force an age of re-discovery. A DOD dark age. General, I showed you the future if you do not change. I showed you what it looks like when the lights go out. It’s carnage and defeat!”
General Smith said nothing. Nothing made sense anymore. He felt helpless and hostage to this ghost. The proposition was simple but not easy. He had to modernize the force to compete, had to adopt new technologies, and had to take risks with automation. And that’s OK. We don’t use sails or steam power anymore; calvary is in the air and soon enough it will be drones. The problem is that the more technology we adopt, the less we need humans. The less we need humans, the less humans are capable of. If our systems fail…. we’ll be left with Marines capable of very little. He tried to wrap his head around this until a bright light once more consumed him…
Home of the Commandant, Washington, D.C.
General Smith is back in his office. His uniform is no longer stained with island mud or wrinkled from traveling across space and time. It was all a dream, it seems.
The 39th Commandant stands uneasily from his chair. He leans over his mahogany desk, right hand in his pocket and left hand scratching his head. A bugle plays. He checks his watch. 2100. Taps. He writes himself a note and heads to bed, still shaken by the intensity of the dream.
The general’s note reads just five words. A simple question. “Do we need artillery Marines?”
Marine Artillery Firing in Operation Phantom Fury, November 2004