Skip to content Skip to footer

Moral Robots for the Pentagon? Let’s Work on Pentagon Morality First

Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, Chief of Naval Research, introduces CHARLI-2 from Virginia Tech's Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory during the start of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) 2012 Science and Technology Partnership Conference. ARLINGTON, Va. Oct. 22, 2012. (Photo: Official U.S. Navy Imagery / Flickr)

Part of the Series

This story could not have been published without the support of readers like you. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to Truthout and fund more stories like it!

The Office of Naval Research (ONR), the think tank of the Navy, has put together a team to figure out how they can inject human morals into the computers of future fighting robots, so they will have judgment on who to kill and when. They have signed contracts totaling $7.5 million, employing outside consultants to further this goal. As outlined on the website Extreme Tech:

The US Department of Defense, working with top computer scientists, philosophers and roboticists from a number of US universities, has finally begun a project that will tackle the tricky topic of moral and ethical robots. This multidisciplinary project will first try to pin down exactly what human morality is, and then try to devise computer algorithms that will imbue autonomous robots with moral competence – the ability to choose right from wrong. As we move steadily towards a military force that is populated by autonomous robots – mules, foot soldiers, drones – it is becoming increasingly important that we give these machines – these artificial intelligences – the ability to make the right decision. Yes, the US DoD is trying to get out in front of Skynet before it takes over the world. How very sensible.

This project is being carried out by researchers from Tufts, Brown and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), with funding from the Office of Naval Research (ONR). ONR, like DARPA, is a wing of the Department of Defense that mainly deals with military R&D. While we’re not yet at the point where military robots like BigDog have to decide which injured soldier to carry off the battlefield, or where UAVs can launch Hellfire missiles at terrorists without human intervention, it’s very easy to imagine a future where autonomous robots are given responsibility for making those kinds of moral and ethical decisions in real time. In short, it’s high time that we looked at the feasibility of infusing robots (or more accurately artificial intelligence) with circuits and subroutines that can analyze a situation and pick the right thing to do – just like a human.

The DOD admits that it is a tricky task: It involves defining what human morality really is and what mores to choose. From Defense One:

Some members of the artificial intelligence, or AI, research and machine ethics communities were quick to applaud the grant. “With drones, missile defines, autonomous vehicles, etc., the military is rapidly creating systems that will need to make moral decisions,” AI researcher Steven Omohundro told Defense One. “Human lives and property rest on the outcomes of these decisions and so it is critical that they be made carefully and with full knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of the systems involved. The military has always had to define ‘the rules of war’ and this technology is likely to increase the stakes for that.”

I have a suggestion for the DOD. Before programing morals into robots, the department needs to do some self-examination, because the current practices of the DOD are no blueprint for morality. There are areas in the DOD that desperately need their humans to show some morality. After investigating the Pentagon for 35 years, I have seen great lapses of integrity. One could talk about the immorality of going to war on false pretenses, immorality in our military-run prisons including torture, the ongoing morality disaster of Guantanamo prison and many other injustices perpetrated by our Department of “Defense.”

But when it comes to the robots, it’s crucial to consider the morality – or rather, the lack thereof – in our past and current weapons-buying system. DOD generals, civilian leaders and members of Congress have allowed, for decades, weapons that they know won’t work to be used by our troops – and anyone else around who happens to be in their range.

Back in 1980, I did my first military investigation of the C-5A cargo plane’s proposed wing fix – a fix that was necessary because of bad planning and manufacturing. I looked into the history of the C-5A and studied the use of the C-5A for “Operation Babylift,” an attempt to fly Vietnamese orphans to the United States, as South Vietnam’s government began to collapse and the North Vietnamese were threatening to overtake Saigon. It was a classic public relations stunt. The C-5A was badly overrunning its budget and had manufacturing and technical problems – it was a model boondoggle. The Ford White House and the Pentagon planned to fly a number of Vietnamese orphans to the United States and have President Ford meet the plane that “saved” them in San Diego.

The plane took off on April 4, 1975, with 328 people aboard, 149 of them young children. Many of the people were in the troop-carrying section of the C-5A, which was located above the cavernous cargo section of the plane. However, in order to transport as many children as they could, the Air Force broke its own rules of allowing no passengers in the cargo section, and lined the floor of the cargo area with children and their caregivers. Not too long after takeoff, a rear cargo door blew off. The pilot could not make it back to the runway, and crash-landed in a field where the plane broke into several pieces. Out of the 328 occupants, 155 died. Out of the 152 people in the troop compartment, only three died, but 141 of the 149 orphans were killed.

I read government reports on the crash and suspected that the poor manufacturing of the plane may have caused the cargo door to fail. But I came across a 1971 Air Force engineering report that warned in very strong terms about the danger of the C-5A cargo door system. One of the engineers wrote in the report that the complex rear cargo door was a “monster system that was unreliable and unsafe.” He also recommended that the plane be grounded until the defect was fixed.

Not only did people at the Pentagon use that plane in a baby-lift public relations stunt, but they also knew internally that this cargo door was defective – and covered it up. It revealed the “morality” of the weapons procurement bureaucracy: They were willing to put lives at risk in order to save an overpriced and technically flawed plane. I remember my shock that the Pentagon was so morally bankrupt to risk this travesty.

This type of dangerous deception by the military procurement bureaucracy has been going on for decades, and people have died as a result. It isn’t as obvious as the shocking immorality in the Abu Ghraib prison, because the information drips out over time. It is complicated and is under heavy cover-up. Some of it is never known, because these weapons fail during war and everyone just assumes it was due to the war itself. I once debated a general before an audience of military officers about the weapons failures and deaths of troops and others, and he retorted, “It’s a fact of life that men die in war.” I infuriated him by answering that was true, but war was dangerous enough and we didn’t have to kill our own troops.

Here are a few past and current examples of this ongoing immorality in order to buy weapons and keep the huge DOD procurement budget going for promotions and contractor profits:

• The M-2 Bradley fighting vehicle had technical, manufacturing and overrun problems throughout its development. But the most harrowing problem was its aluminum armor that could ignite and blow up when hit by shape-charged projectiles. William Boly exposed this in an article in California Magazine in February 1983, where he wrote, “The vehicle’s armor is made of aluminum, a metal whose chemical energy when oxidized is 10 times greater than that of TNT. When hit by the right type of grenade, mortar, mine or rocket, this aluminum can be counted on to kill the American soldiers whose lives it is suppose to protect.” The Army panicked when Readers Digest picked up the story and published it all over the world. Its immoral reaction was to deny the problem and cover it up. Because the lives of the troops were at stake, Colonel James Burton, who was involved with weapons testing in the DOD, wanted to test the M-2 with live fire ammunition to see just how much the Army was endangering the lives of the troops inside. There was a pitched battle against his efforts, as he outlined in his book The Pentagon Wars, and he was able to show the flaws. The Army, because of public and congressional pressure, did finally work to lessen the danger, but only after it destroyed Colonel Burton’s career. Burton’s book was made into a movie and it may seem like fiction to the general public because the Pentagon has duped the public into thinking that their military would never do this to their own troops.

• Time Magazine reporter Mark Thompson, formerly with The Fort Worth Star Telegram, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for uncovering a deadly design flaw in military helicopters built by Bell Helicopters. The Army and Bell had covered up the problem, and it was not corrected for a decade, leading to the deaths of 250 US service members. The Army tried to retaliate against the Star Telegram by having their newspaper boxes removed from the local base. However, his reporting won out, and 600 Army Huey helicopters were grounded and modified to fix the problem. It took a reporter with determination to force the Army to finally do the right thing instead of admitting and fixing the problem because of the moral conviction to save soldiers’ lives.

• The V-22 Osprey has had a horrendous development with such large technical and budget problems that even Dick Cheney tried to cancel it when he was secretary of defense. But the porkers in Congress and their contractors would not let it happen. During its testing period between 1991-2000, there were four major crashes that killed 30 troops. There was pressure to make the plane work so the Pentagon pushed for it to be tested with troops inside before it was safe. The plane has fundamental problems, as it was suppose to be a hybrid between a helicopter and an airplane and did neither well. It is still having problems and putting our troops at risk. Go here to see a summary of its long and sordid history.

•The F-22 fighter has been a turkey in performance, quality and price its entire life. In April 2014, more public problems were revealed with two Air National Guard F-22 pilots Major Jeremy Gordon and Captain Joshua Wilson, who went on the news show “60 Minutes” in 2012 to complain that the oxygen system in the plane had failed them on several occasions. They feared that this flaw, if unfixed, could lead to crashes and the death of pilots due to confusion from the lack of oxygen. This publicity forced the Air Force into figuring out a fix, but not before, at first, denying the problem. The fix was a charcoal filter, but Captain Wilson complained that the filter also made him ill. Both pilots were pulled off of flying the F-22. Major Gordon was assigned to a trainer jet, but Wilson was grounded even though he requested to return to flying the F-22. Wilson also lost a great deal of his income due to committing truth.

Acccording to Stars and Stripes :

Wilson, who has been grounded for two years, has seen his income plummet. His Air National Guard commander withdrew permission in 2012 to allow Wilson to work a full-time desk job at the Air Combat Command at Langley.

The loss of that job, as well as F-22 flight pay, meant Wilson’s military paycheck dropped to about $10,000 a year from about $100,000, said US Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican and Air National Guard pilot who has been an advocate for the two aviators.

Wilson said that there were other pilots who were deeply concerned about the oxygen problem in the F-22 but were afraid to come forward. Wonder why? It was due to another immoral choice by the Pentagon to deny the problem and kill the messenger rather than to be concerned with the life of its pilots.

• In February 2014,, The Washington Times did a two-part series on the failure of the Army’s main rifle, the M4 carbine. Instead of trying to modify and fix the problems with the rifle that was sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army denied and hid the evidence. From The Washington Times:

Army Senior Warrant Officer Russton B. Kramer, a 20-year Green Beret, has learned that if you want to improve your chances to survive, it’s best to personally make modifications to the Army’s primary rifle – the M4 carbine.

Warrant Officer Kramer has been dropped into some of the most ferocious battles in the war on terrorism, from hunting Islamists in the mountains of northern Iraq to disrupting Taliban opium dealers in dusty southern Afghanistan. He was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in Operation Viking Hammer to crush the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam in Iraq.

The warrant officer said he and fellow Special Forces soldiers have a trick to maintain the M4A1 – the commando version: They break the rules and buy off-the-shelf triggers and other components and overhaul the weapon themselves.

“The reliability is not there,” Warrant Officer Kramer said of the standard-issue model. “I would prefer to use something else. If I could grab something else, I would.”

The Washington Times discovered Army internal documents that showed that the rifle had a problem of jamming in the desert, and rapid fire caused the barrel to explode and fail.

This was not a small problem. According The Washington Times:

The test findings also carried ramifications for the regular Army. By 2002, soldiers were carrying thousands of the conventional, light-barrel M4, of which the service ultimately would buy nearly 500,000 and send them into long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The M4, at times, has been called upon to perform the same kind of rapid fire as the M4A1.

So the Army had internal documents that showed that the rifle was defective and diverted to its usual immoral stand when it found a problem: cover-up.

An Army historian tried to show the death that can happen from this form of immoral behavior but was censored. From The Washington Times:

A former Army historian who chronicled the infamous Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan, where nine US soldiers died after their M4 carbines jammed, tells The Washington Times that his official account was altered by higher-ups to absolve the weapons and senior officers.

This story has a tragic and eerie déjà vu quality to it. As extensively outlined in James Fallow’s 1980 book, National Defense, the M-16 rifle that was used by most of the troops in Vietnam, has similar problems, including jamming. Troops were writing home to their parents telling them how jammed rifles were killing their comrades and asking them to send special cleaning fluid to try to keep the rifles working. The Army’s response was first to deny the problem, and then try to sabotage anyone who worked to fix it.

I could go on for pages on these stories from the past and ongoing current fraudulent weapons buying, but these examples clearly show that the military procurement institution in the DOD is more than willing to let troops be injured or killed rather than admit and fix problems. Most of the fixes are because people with a higher moral conscience stepped forward to expose the problem. Many of them paid the price with their careers or worse.

So this is the military bureaucracy that is studying how to teach its new generation of weapons to make moral choices in the battlefield? Their track record makes this whole moral robot story sound like a ridiculous Jon Stewart skit, if it wasn’t true and it wasn’t killing people. They would be better off figuring how to change their entrenched and corrupt procurement system to inject morality into the top officials and program managers who buy their weapons in the first place.

The solution? After so many years of exposing this horrifying type of immorality, I believe that they will only respond and start to change by exposure, ridicule, and most importantly, cutting their budgets. The Department of Justice and the military legal system should prosecute and discipline the top people who allow this to happen, or the president can, at any time, relieve them of their civilian position or their military command. Our troops and pilots don’t deserve to die due the greed and careerism of their own people.

Some final advice to the Pentagon: Leave the robot silliness alone for a while and dare to try to reform the morality of your humans.

We have 1 day left to raise $25,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.