Military technologyA New World of Warcraft

By Leda Zimmerman

Published 4 November 2020

In the past decade, high tech tools have proliferated in the world’s fighting forces. At least 80 nations can now deploy remote-controlled drones. Will the widespread use of digitally enhanced arsenals prove a destabilizing, if not destructive, element in the complex struggles among states? Not necessarily, argues MIT assistant professor Erik Lin-Greenberg.

In the past decade, high tech tools have proliferated in the world’s fighting forces. At least 80 nations can now deploy remote-controlled drones. Will the widespread use of digitally enhanced arsenals prove a destabilizing, if not destructive, element in the complex struggles among states? Not necessarily, argues assistant professor of political science Erik Lin-Greenberg ’09, SM ’09.

“I’ve learned that in some circumstances, remote war-fighting technologies such as drones can lead to a ratcheting down of tensions, and that it might even serve strategically as a way to de-escalate global crises,” he says.

Lin-Greenberg, who joined MIT in July, is investigating how new technologies affect military decision-making and the use of force. He wants to understand, for instance, whether allies employing different technologies face obstacles working together, or if the high-speed tempo of military operations executed by artificial intelligence might prove challenging to officers accustomed to making decisions in longer time frames. Pinning down answers to these questions is a matter of some urgency.

“Given the massive amount of technological innovation under way, it’s clear that this is the direction war is moving,” says Lin-Greenberg. “I’m trying to figure out how the systems that are becoming dominant will shape both interactions between states and their leaders’ decisions — factors that may determine whether there’s war or peace.”

Managing Intelligence
The impetus for Lin-Greenberg’s scholarly inquiry came from his own experiences as an active duty U.S. Air Force officer, when he was engaged in a series of critical military intelligence roles. He was, for instance, responsible for the deployment of intelligence assets and personnel in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He also led a team of analysts providing real-time support to national agencies and coalition combat forces during surveillance and reconnaissance operations, and, as a political-military affairs analyst, provided intelligence insights to senior Air Force leaders. And today, as a major in the Air Force Reserve, Lin-Greenberg supports strategy and policy work at the Joint Staff, the headquarters team of the Pentagon.

On his first active duty assignment, after nine months of intelligence training, Lin-Greenberg was at a ground station supporting remotely piloted drone sorties. “It was really the height of operations in Afghanistan, before troop withdrawal,” he recalls. “We carried out 50 to 60 combat air patrols of remote aircraft to surveil and execute airstrikes — drones were seen as an easy fix to everything.”

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