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Interview – Priya Lal


This interview is part of our Black History Month features. The interviews speak to the fundamental aims of Black History Month and discuss current research and projects, as well as advice for young scholars.

Priya Lal is an Associate Professor of History at Boston College. Her first book, African Socialism in Tanzania: Between the Village and the World, tells the story of Tanzania’s ujamaa socialist experiment of the 1960s and 70s. She is currently writing a book entitled Human Resources about the training, labor, and circulation of educational and medical professionals in and beyond Southeastern Africa since independence.

Where do you see the most exciting research/debates happening in your field?

African history is a big and somewhat fragmented field, but in the last fifteen years it has seen an explosion of scholarship on the decolonization and postcolonial eras. With this have come a few welcome thematic and methodological trends. One is toward exploring Africa’s transnational or global connections, especially to the African diaspora, the Global South, the socialist world, and international organizations and institutions. Another trend is toward urban history, and there is also an important emerging cluster of scholarship around the history of science and technology.

But I think the most interesting current debate in the field is still implicit; it deals with the limits of the African nation-building project. By this I mean less the internal failures of postcolonial African states than their inability to escape from global structures of power. Historians of Africa are long past the point of triumphalist narratives of African independence, but we haven’t yet adequately addressed the persistence and even intensification of global inequality after decolonization. Older concepts like neocolonialism and analytical frameworks like world-systems theory tried to reckon with this issue, but we need new approaches. I hope to see more research on African political economy and state policy in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that engages with new transnational histories of neoliberalism. There are also many cultural and social histories of popular experiences of economic hardship or decline that remain to be written for this era. Given the contemporary pressures of climate change on the continent, I also hope to see more scholarship on African environmental history attuned to themes of political power and social transformation. It’s important to pay attention to the continent’s many histories, but I think these specific areas of inquiry will better equip us to make sense of the present.

How has the way you understand the world changed over time, and what (or who) prompted the most significant shifts in your thinking?

Big question! I’ve been preoccupied with the fact of global inequality in one way or another since I was quite young. I had a very privileged childhood in material terms, but my parents came from a part of the world with crushing levels of poverty, and that affected me deeply. Growing up relatively near the U.S.-Mexico border, that marker and maker of hemispheric disparities, was also formative for me. In college, I sought explanations for why some parts of the world were so much poorer than others, and ways to correct this injustice. Reading a bit of Walter Rodney and Frantz Fanon showed me the value of thinking about these questions historically. Before I began graduate school, I spent some time working for local rural development organizations in India and South America. These experiences taught me a lot about the limits of conventional development interventions, which seemed so futile in the face of colonialism’s crippling legacies and the monstrous structures of global capitalism.

When I got to graduate school, I was especially inspired by anthropologist James Ferguson’s scholarship on southern Africa – both his critique of the international development regime as an “anti-politics machine” and his ethnographic study of Zambian mineworkers’ experiences of economic decline. In a search for political alternatives, I was also taken by the writing of many African leaders and activists of the decolonization era. Two who stand out are Steve Biko and Julius Nyerere. I still admire the clarity and elegance with which they connect abstract concepts like colonialism and capitalism to the relatable realm of everyday human experiences, relationships, and ethics. My first book and my current book focus on African national development projects, including Nyerere’s own, out of a desire to better understand what transformational possibilities existed at the moment of African independence and what happened to them in practice. I still care about these issues, but these days I’m also reading and thinking a lot about climate change, a subject that is fundamentally altering how I see the world. The fact that our species has set into motion such destructive planetary forces that exceed our control is unsettling some of my core assumptions about the potential for human progress in the present and the recent past. I’ve already completed most of the research for a third book on nature and education in the decolonization era that will hopefully help me think through some of this more carefully.

How do the aims of Black History Month speak to your field/discipline? What can be done to forge a more equal discipline?

In the U.S., we celebrate Black History Month in February. In the spirit of this tradition and the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a lot of discussion of race and power in academic circles here lately. Among leftists there is something of a consensus about the need to “decolonize” the study and writing of history, but it’s not always clear what that means. Symbolic acts like removing statues of slaveowners from college campuses, institutional initiatives to hire more professors of color, and the revision of standard curricula to highlight the historical experiences of black people have been important areas of emphasis.

But unfortunately these reforms do nothing to address the most obvious problem of my field: the fact that scholars based in North American and European institutions have close to a monopoly on the production of and access to contemporary knowledge about Africa’s past. A lot of my colleagues seem resigned to this obscene reality, but it’s a bit absurd to speak of intellectual decolonization without taking it on. The key is finding an effective point of intervention. Historians like me don’t have much control over the material conditions of knowledge production on the African continent, where many universities face long-standing institutional challenges that make it difficult for their staff and students to sustain active research and publication agendas. But scholars based in the West do have the power to intervene in the realm of African access to knowledge, by finding alternatives to the profit-driven academic publishing industry to circulate our work. Normalizing open-access publication would greatly benefit African readers, many of whom can’t afford expensive books and database subscriptions. It wouldn’t cost us a lot, and it would force a rethinking of some arbitrary professional norms that are probably long overdue for questioning anyway.

The subtitle of your book African Socialism in Postcolonial Tanzania is “Between the Village and the World”. Can you explain this phrase, and how the Tanzanian ujamaa project fits into it?

Thank you for this question! I wanted “Between the Village and the World” to be the book’s main title, but my publisher thought it was not literal (i.e. marketable) enough. The phrase has several meanings. First, it captures the internal logic of Tanzania’s ujamaa experiment of the 1960s and 70s, which sought to resettle the country’s rural population into socialist villages that would form a radical template for new sorts of political community at the national, continental, and even global scales. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere believed that socialist development should begin with a process of subjective transformation, a remaking of personal practices and social norms on a small scale, rather than a state-enforced program of mass industrialization. At its most ambitious, ujamaa villagization aimed to cultivate a socialist ethos among rural Tanzanians that could ultimately change the world. Second, the phrase reflects my desire to depict the rural subjects of my fieldwork, people usually rendered as actors on a minor “local” side stage of history, as figures engaged with ideas and institutions and processes that we usually think of as “global”: socialism, capitalist markets, the Cold War. Put simply, I tried to de-provincialize the Tanzanian village and place it at the center of twentieth-century world history. Third, “Between the Village and the World” plays with theories of historical geography that emphasize how certain spatial categories can reinforce prevailing power dynamics by naturalizing or concealing them. One of these categories is the unit of the nation-state, which I deliberately sought to bypass or disaggregate from the inside and the outside. Hence, the Tanzanian nation is simply one of a range of spaces “between” the local and the global.

How do you think scholarly work on African socialisms contributes to a more multifaceted history of global socialism?

When I started working on my first book, there was very little scholarship that took African socialism seriously as a political project. Most scholars implicitly dismissed it as a poor copy of Soviet-style socialism, an absurd fantasy doomed to failure, or a crude rhetorical cover for sinister power grabs by postcolonial leaders. By contrast, I found the writings of some of African socialism’s main architects to be fascinating works of political theory with a distinctive set of shared themes and a unique underlying logic. When examining how their policies played out in different national cases, too, I identified common patterns making up a previously overlooked continental repertoire of African socialism. I hope that by highlighting this repertoire and paying close attention to its content and effects, I have helped open up a story of mid-to-late twentieth-century politics that escapes the blinding but oddly persistent binary frameworks of the Cold War. There were many socialisms, and we are only starting to understand some of them.

Can you tell us a bit about the book on postcolonial development and professional labour you are currently working on?

My book starts with a question: how does a newly independent country build a welfare state when, due to colonial underdevelopment, it has hardly any citizens qualified to staff its institutions? I examine how the governments of Tanzania and Zambia navigated this dilemma with regard to professional manpower in the spheres of education and medicine. The book begins with 1960s state efforts to train an entire workforce of African professors and doctors on a limited budget and in a compressed timeframe, in both local and foreign institutions. I then follow these professionals into the new national universities and teaching hospitals where many of them would spend their careers. The rest of the book explores the difficult working conditions they faced – involving acute resource shortages, institutional breakdown, and tensions with state authorities that worsened in the late 1970s and 80s – and their efforts to serve the public, maintain their professional integrity, and meet their own basic needs in the face of these challenges. Throughout the study, I show how the effort to staff African welfare states was a transnational production, involving money and people and knowledge from across the world. I also argue that these national projects were ultimately undermined by global dynamics that drove local economic decline, fostered devastating rates of professional emigration, and promoted a destructive politics of austerity.

How does your historical work on national development in Southeastern Africa challenge existing narratives of development and progress?

I’m almost halfway through a draft of the book, but I’m reluctant to answer this question until I’ve written the whole thing, because I’m still working out its interventions as I go! For now, I can say that my book underscores the centrality of the human resource question to the fate of African national development projects. It’s very odd how this point has evaded significant scholarly attention. In the 1960s, socialist planners and development economists alike were obsessed with the issue of skilled manpower: they thought that building and supporting an African professional workforce was an imperative condition of economic growth and popular welfare. In the 1970s, this belief began to wane, and by the 1980s cost-cutting and economic efficiency had replaced social investment as the overriding priority of most policymakers. Today, the human resource question is still as urgent as ever, but we have very little good scholarship with which to make sense of it. We have still fewer studies that try to approach this topic from the perspective of African professionals themselves, as my book does. This scholarly blind spot has profound contemporary implications. For instance, without an adequate understanding of the historical roots of African medical labor shortages and the mixed effects of past efforts to correct them, we can’t grasp why the health care systems of many African countries are so poorly equipped to deal with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

What is the most important advice you could give to young scholars?

Perhaps because I’ve spent so much time studying academic labor, I’m reluctant to dispense traditional professionalization advice. A lot of senior scholars with successful careers like to tell junior scholars or students that they should read a certain type of book, or write a certain type of dissertation, or pursue a certain path to publication. If the younger scholars simply follow these instructions, the myth goes, they’ll end up just like the successful senior scholar: with a comfortable tenured job and the freedom to spend their life pursuing exciting intellectual projects. However, the truth is that – at least in the U.S. – the academic job market is completely broken. Brilliant scholars doing extraordinary work are grinding themselves into the ground competing for fewer and increasingly exploitative teaching contracts. Given this, I urge younger scholars to be wary of anyone who believes that academia is a meritocracy and who gives advice based on that assumption. I’d rather direct my own suggestions, as presumptuous as this may be, to my tenured peers and more well-established colleagues. If we want to support younger scholars, we need to pay attention to the conditions in which they work and our role in sustaining them. We need to ask uncomfortable questions about why universities resist efforts at graduate student unionization, why growing ranks of adjunct professors are paid poverty wages while tuition rates skyrocket, and why so many of us cling to the myth of a functional system of academic training and hiring in the face of all this. And then we need to do something about these problems.

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NATO Imagines Future Warfare


Innovation is a key component of readiness when it comes to future threats. NATO’s Innovation Hub recently commissioned a short story from author August Cole, asking him to draw upon his writing and imaginative abilities to create a picture of what NATO operations could be like in the year 2040. The Cipher Brief is pleased to be able to bring you 2040: KNOWN ENEMIES, with permission from NATO.

CHAMPS-ÉLYSÉES — PARIS, FRANCE

The protestors’ braying air horns reminded Alain Durand of the feel of his father’s hand squeezing his as they watched the Tour de France peloton speed by on a verdant hill outside Chambéry, half a lifetime ago. Tonight on the Champs Elysees it meant drones. It meant gas.

He carefully pushed aside two old fashioned white cloth banners — “PAX MACHINA” and “NON AUX ARMEES, NON A LA GUERRE,” written in thick red brush strokes to better see. In a field of view populated with synthetic representations of the real world, the banners were anachronistic but also enduring. They spoke to the necessary spirit of dissent in one of Europe’s more temperamental democracies, Alain thought. Yet it was time to change again: France was the last NATO member, other than the United States, to maintain conventional combat forces. The other members had already robotized.

“A matter of not just tradition but national survival,” his father, a colonel in France’s 3e Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine, always insisted.

The horns stopped. The crowd of thousands hushed to better hear the whine of the oncoming Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité riot-police crowd-control drones, a sound like a frantically played piccolo. It was a child’s sound — that was why it intimidated. The flight of a dozen drones hovered in a picket formation in front of the crowd of more than 10,000 marching along the cobbled stones toward the Arc de Triomphe. On Alain’s augmented reality glasses, the bots were bright orange dots, tagged with comments from around the world guiding him on everything from how to download apps to jam their controllers to offers of legal representation. Alain reached into his satchel and cursed, as an ad for gas mask replacement filters popped into view.

A protestor’s drone, bright yellow and the size of an espresso cup, darted past him, then returned to hover in front of his face. It was filming. He could see the live feed it broadcast on his own glasses, identifying him as the son of a senior army officer. He looked around, feeling a need to disappear in the crowd even though that was impossible. He swatted at the yellow drone, and it darted off.

Was that a Catalyst design?, he wondered. The mysterious informal global network emerged on the public stage about three years ago, fomenting dissent and countergovernment action in the virtual realm. It started with what was essentially algo-busting or AI-enabled augmented-reality pranks to make a point about excessive Chinese and American influence around the world. But in the last six months, something had changed, and they were now moving from the online to the real world, supplying not only plans for printable grenades or swarm drones but also the fabs to make them. They had never tried to operate in Europe before, or the U.S. Was this drone a sign something was changing, literally before his own eyes?

Those same eyes began to itch. He had other things to worry about for the moment.

“Juliet, I don’t have my mask,” he said to his sister. She already had hers, a translucent model with a bubble-like faceplate that made her look like a snorkeler.

“And?” she said.

“I am certain I put it in there, but …” he trailed off.

She sighed angrily, condensation briefly fogging her mask. Four years younger, his 15-year-old sister could judge him harshly. She got that from their father.

“We stay,” she said, passing him a bandana and bottle of water. “Parliament votes tomorrow. Father is already deployed. If we leave now, when will we ever stand?”

“Ok, ok,” Alain muttered. He wet the bandana and braced himself for the gas.

Drones dashed just a few feet overhead, a disorienting swirl of straining electric motors and the machines’ childlike tone. The crowd sighed all at once and then individual shouting erupted around him. A moment later his eyes began to sting. Fumbling with the bandana he quickly wrapped the wet cloth around his mouth. But, eyes now burning, he struggled to tie it around his neck. With so much gas in the air, no one without a mask would be able any more to continue watching the eruption of digital dissent. He felt Juliet’s fingers on his neck, helping secure the bandana’s knot. Hands now free, he angrily pumped his fists in the air and blindly grasped to help hold his cloth banners aloft.

JULIUS NYERERE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT — DAR-ES-SALAAM, TANZANIA

It was so hot, when the convoy stopped at the main gate to the joint United Nations-African Union compound, that the German and Italian battle bots broke formation. The NATO task force’s hundreds of small armored wheeled and tracked machines jerked and shimmied like ants as they fought over the shade beneath the bright blue revetments — towering stacks of shipping containers reinforced with blast-foam. That left the French para forces, what NATO classified as a light-effects company due to its mostly non-robotic composition under, in the crushing heat with nowhere to go. That was fine for the French unit’s commander, Luc Durand. His men and women could handle the heat; the bots were another story.

Captain Monika Toonce hopped off one of the oversized German Jaeger crawlers and jogged over to Durand’s open scout car. The French convoy included the jeep, six-wheeled troop carriers (each carrying 12 paratroopers as well as external racks of offensive and defensive smallbots), and four mules loaded with ammunition, spare parts, and assorted spider-like fixers.

“Colonel, we are still waiting for the clear codes before the task force can enter the compound,” Toonce said. She paused to wipe sweat from her nose. “Headquarters said they sent them. But they are not yet authenticated here …”

Durand cursed. The bots would not yet be cleared for self-defense, let alone offensive use. He forced himself to ease back and put his boot up on his jeep’s wheel well, a pose he could hold for hours on a high-speed cross-desert dash or pulling security at a vital intersection. This is an old problem in a new form, he thought. This is why the French army trains to fight with or without machines. “La victoire ne se donne pas!” was the motto adopted four years ago.

Deconflicting the newly arrived German and Italian anti-armor/aircraft and counter-personnel bots with the existing UN-AU peacekeeping forces — so that they didn’t automatically attack one another — was just another form of confusion and complexity. For all the advantage the machines offered, they also brought the onset of the fog of war forward that much earlier in a conflict. Ignoring Toonce, Durand drew with his finger on the dusty screen he wore at his waist, a series of arrows to sketch out a concept. He snapped a picture of the tracings with his glasses; it was something he would write up when he got back from deployment. You never know where inspiration will come from.

“Ok, you want to ride with us then? We are heading in. The machines can handle themselves, no?” Durand said.

Toonce looked torn between waiting with the disabled bots or accompanying Durand. Her responsibility for the German armored forces was a significant one, given the expense and competition for deployment-likely slots in the Bundeswehr. There were fewer soldiers in the German army today than there were postal carriers in Bavaria. Why they kept so many of the latter and so few of the former us was not something Toonce allowed herself to weigh too deeply. She loved the army, loved her comrades and their machines.

Toonce nodded. The maintenance techs were still on the way. She was the sole German representative, and she told herself she needed to be present when the NATO task force leaders finally presented themselves.

The two soldiers were in a narrow pause, a lull — in what had been fevered fighting — that the NATO task force had taken advantage of to deploy by air from a staging area outside Nairobi.

“Good choice,” Durand said. Toonce hopped on. Durand smiled at the master sergeant in the seat next to him, who tapped the jeep’s dash twice with the sort of gentle encouragement one might give a beloved horse. The vehicle advanced on its own at the gentle command.

They proceeded inside the compound under the watching guns of a pair of stork-legged Nigerian sentry turrets, each armed with a trio of four-barreled Gatling guns mounted on the mottled-grey fuselage pod.

Serge Martelle, the para master sergeant, handed Durand a palm-sized screen, a phone that used the local civilian networks.

“Seen this, sir?” Martelle asked.

A sigh. An image appeared of Alain’s face, jaw clenched and wide eyed, in the midst of a Paris protest. Again.

“No, not now, Martelle,” Durand said. A nod and he withdrew the screen. But Durand pulled up footage on his glasses, already tagged to his own and his son’s social media accounts. The final image was a bleary-eyed and red-faced Alain holding aloft the “PAX MACHINA.” It is Bastille Day after all, isn’t it. Durand smiled as they pulled up to a Kenyan general and his staff, standing at attention.

AU-UN HEADQUARTERS — DAR-ES-SALAAM, TANZANIA

“It’s not a mystery, as such, but we are not yet certain who is supplying the rogue Tanzanian army elements, as well as other local elements. But we can ascertain that they are currently involved in a rapid-equipping cycle using established and improvised fabrication sites that …”

“It’s Catalyst,” Durand barked. “Just call it out!” It was too easy to be rude to the UN Peacekeeping Office AIs; they were atrocious. Indecisive. Burdened with a politeness programmed to appease too many sensibilities. And that accent, unattached to any country’s native tongue, is an affront, he thought.

“Colonel Durand, analysis indicates a probability of certainty of—” the machine responded, now using a careful ethereal cadence to mollify Durand.

“General Kimani, with respect, how might we begin to engage an adversary that we refuse to identify?” Durand pressed the point. If the AU UN force acknowledged an “outbreak” of Catalyst coercive technologies, it would require an escalation of military presence that neither organization wanted to endorse at this point in the crisis.

“The last twenty-seven hours have seen no fighting,” Kimani responded. “We are hoping to use this window for dialogue.” He was the senior officer of the AUMIT, or African Union Mission in Tanzania. His charge included the military aspects of the peacekeeping mission, as well as coordinating with UN and quasi-governmental conflict-resolution groups trying to cool the conflict. “Right now, we’re running a Blue Zone dialogue with the dissident Tanzanian army, UN negotiators, Front Civil, and others. An invitation was extended to Catalyst, but no response.”

Durand nodded. Why would this highly disruptive and increasingly dangerous movement join in? It had no leaders. No clear strategy. He viewed French military intelligence’s take as sound: Catalyst sought to undermine US or Chinese economic, political, and military blocs of strategic influence to enable sub-national movements of self-determination.

The Blue Zones were private virtual environments managed by UN AIs to facilitate non-confrontational negotiations with machine-speed modelling and data. Some even talked of the platform’s AIs themselves being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. If Kimani really believed the UN could speed that diplomatic cycle up before the rearming of the Tanzanian coup forces then there was a chance this could resolve without further violence. Durand knew him by reputation and instinctively trusted him. Then he ground his teeth. He was being too optimistic. But what were the odds some Catalyst algos weren’t already spoofing that whole thing? It happened before, in Venezuela, in ’38. They never joined these kinds of hand-holding sims.

His watch buzzed. Toonce reported the clearance codes were finally being transmitted and would be uploaded shortly. Having the NATO mech forces inside the base would make him feel better as they could be re-checked, zeroed, and synched with the UN and AU bots already in the area of operations. NATO-reinforced UN and AU patrols could begin the next morning, he hoped. Leave the conciliation and negotiation to the UN. He had his mission.

On his glasses, Durand cued up his task force’s status reports, and began watching the downloading of the clearance codes. Details mattered, even more so with machines. As a leader you had to stay on top of it. He focused on the data and half-listened as Kimani spoke for another minute. A Rwandan officer began discussing the Belgian food fab facility near the port about to be brought online.

Blasting horns brought conversation to an abrupt stop. Half of the attendees around the table jolted upright, standing and holding the conference table with white-knuckled grips as if bracing for a bodily impact. Durand remained seated and sighed. He locked eyes with Kimani, who shook his head. An attack with a warning was one you would survive, they both knew. It’s the strikes that come without any heads up that get you.

His glasses blinked, a scratching and pixelated green snow, then returned to showing the download progress of the clear codes. Stuck at seventy-six percent. Martelle was already on his notepad, ensuring the French paras inside the compound were ready for what came next. Of course they would be, he knew. That also gave him calm.

The door burst open and Toonce paused to catch her breath. She wiped dust from her mouth and began to speak.

“The clear codes were hijacked,” she said. “Catalyst payload rode the packets, but it’s not a Tanzanian Army attack. They got partially hit, too — at least their Chinese systems, from what I can tell already. One of the local groups it looks like, based on analytics. Took the task force bots and mechs down. Same with the AU and UN already deployed here. They’re trying to bring the whole country to a stop, they say, to start real negotiations.”

“How did they attack, exactly?”“They used the clear codes to target our bots’ firmware, forcing a factory reset that requires hard keys that only exist back with the civilians at the defense ministries. We, as the deployed German army, don’t even hold those. Same with the Italians. As for the Tanzanian army systems they got from the PLA, I don’t know anything for sure, but seem to be down, too.”

That might seem fortuitous, but Durand immediately looked at it another way: If Catalyst elements could wipe out the Tanzanian army’s reliance on Chinese platforms, that would be a blank slate for a new dependence on easily downloadable and fabbable Catalyst systems. Tanzania would probably acquire the Doktor anti-armor system, a simple self-firing short-barreled launcher that could be concealed in a backpack or mounted with suction-grips to a driverless vehicle, and maybe Viper launchers, a short-range 64-shot swarm weapon about the size of a concrete block that could be held and aimed by two handles or prepositioned to strike on its own.

Nearby explosions — one, two, three — rocked the room and knocked out the lights. Sounds like mortars. In the darkness, as Durand began to taste dust in the air, he conferred with Martelle about what to do next. His paras might be the only truly friendly combat-capable force in the area right now.

CHAMPS-ÉLYSÉES — PARIS, FRANCE

Wringing out the handkerchief for a third time into the café’s brown-stained sink, Alain finally had the courage to look into the cracked mirror. Black splotches beneath the edges of the glass stained the edges of the reflective surface, framing a specter’s raw, red eyes peering back from an inky cloud.

“Oof,” he sighed. The neck of his black shirt was torn, by whom he could not remember. Claw-like scratches ran along his neck from his left ear down to his opposite clavicle. The blond girl who was shot in the legs? Or was it the CRS trooper who hit him with the mace?

A gentle knock on the door. “Everything Ok?”

That was his sister.

“A moment,” he said. He wiped his face with a coarse paper towel one more time, then put his augmented reality glasses back on. He tinted the lenses light blue. “I’m coming.”

Back out into the café, he rejoined his sister. A coffee waited, and he carefully touched its side with shaking fingers. Still warm. He closed his eyes and sipped the bitter espresso, grateful for the company of his sister and the tranquility of the café. Police drones raced by every few minutes, but no police were going to stop in here. They had other concerns right now responding to the attacks on the Champs-Élysées.

AU-UN HEADQUARTERS — DAR-ES-SALAAM, TANZANIA

Through thick black smoke, one of the tall two-legged defense turrets spun its gun mounts in lazy circles like a pinwheel. It did not fire as a swarm of bird-sized winged drones flew past in a corkscrew formation toward a far corner of the compound used for medevac flights. A series of blue strobe-like flashes followed by a sound like tearing paper meant that part of the camp would no longer be usable, Durand knew.

“Whose drones?” he asked aloud, looking around for Martelle.

“TA,” Martelle shouted, meaning “Tanzanian Army.” Normally, Martelle could look up with his glasses and get a read-out of the environment, seeing detailed information on everything from bandwidth to physical objects just as if he were going shopping. But since he had been on the base network during the attack, he saw nothing except fingerprint smudges and dust.

Yet after emerging from the bunker, the French officer knew where to find his soldiers. He sprinted at a low crouch toward a dispersed arrangement of vehicles set up in defensive positions. He greeted a soldier crouched near the rear flank of an AMX-3 armored vehicle. The paratrooper had set up a camoflage brown pop-up ballistic shield and was aiming a 10-year-old portable defense weapon skyward. These double-barreled shoulder-fired kinetic and microwave weapons were not connected to the base network or even the vehicles they were carried on, and so were still able to autonomously shoot down incoming shells and drones.

“Getting started a bit earlier than we wanted,” Durand said.

“Always ready, no?” said the soldier, whose chest armor name-plate read Orbach.

Durand held up the tablet he wore at his waist, and tapped it against the soldier’s forearm-mounted screen. Between the hastily broken up meeting and this physical connection, the mission-management AIs hosted on Durand’s tablet had created a plan of action based on years of training and real-world operations led by the colonel.

“There you go, Orbach. You have everything you need? Maybe I can fire up a fab for a nice coffee for you?”

Orbach smiled and nodded.

“Now get ready,” Durand said. “Let’s get out of this mess here and go start some trouble.”

Orders given, the information would spread rapidly from soldier to soldier, vehicle to vehicle, by direct or indirect laser transmission. Reliable, tightband, and perfect for a situation like this. Somebody might intercept it, but that was true with everything, wasn’t it?

At once, half the French paras moved to their vehicles, as the other half began climbing the shipping containers. Thanks to the task force’s own orbital sensors, unaffected by the attack so far, Durand had targets. Conventional doctrine emphasized machine vs. machine engagements, but he was going to be doing something far riskier. And more important: targeting the individuals who were the contacts, or nodes, for the Catalyst technologies. There was no time to waste staying inside the protection the base afforded. The Catalyst systems were learning and improving, from the first wave of attacks. Iterative warfare required ferocious speed and more initiative than most leaders were comfortable with.

A text message from Toonce appeared on Durand’s glasses. The UN base’s network was back up. Wait. Based on the auburn-colored text and the blue triangle icon, this was a message being sent via an encrypted consumer messaging app.

“I’m printing new logic cores for the defensive bots first, then the offensive systems. We have 213,” Toonce said.

“Of course,” Durand responded, a subvocal command converted to text. “How long?”

“Six hours.”

“And if you alternate printing, say, one defensive then one offensive, so there is … balance in our capability? I will not wait for the AU forces to regenerate. There is a window here we have to take before another round of upgrades by Tanzanian Army forces, or whoever else is equipping with Catalyst systems. We are moving out now.”

He closed out the conversation. Six hours would become 12, which would become a day delaying until the machines were ready. Durand’s paras were primed to fight now. La Victoire ne se donne pas.

Inside and atop the trucks and jeeps, the soldiers began cueing up virtual representations of their targets. The drivers took manual control, the safest option at a time like this. Less than a minute later, Durand and Martell were back in the scout car, with the commander buckling on his armor. The convoy rolled forward at a walking pace toward the base’s main gate. Some of the paras cast wary glances at the glitching Nigerian defense bots, which swayed back and forth atop their stork-like legs. Other soldiers looked for the two para sniper teams protectively watching from atop the shipping containers. As the vehicles advanced, the snipers flew a quartet of Aigle reconnaissance drones to scout routes established by Durand’s AIs.

The French soldiers were not the only ones rushing to action. Holding a water bottle in his lap, Martelle watched a squad of Kenyan infantry worked carefully to clear the medevac flight pad, guiding a pair of eight-legged explosive ordnance disposal bots as they cleared the area of micro-munitions left behind by the Catalyst swarm. The “confetti mines” were the size of an old postage stamp, paper-like explosives that detonated when their millimeters-thin bodies were bent or cracked. Coiled tight around titanium spools stored inside the bird-like drones, the mines fluttered to the ground by the hundreds, arming as they fell. One mine alone might not be enough to injure a person or even a machine. But if one detonated, it triggered other nearby mines.

“Martelle, hey,” Durand said.

“Sir,” Martelle responded, nodding. He took a drink of water.

“They have their job. We have ours.”

“Always ready. Onward,” Martelle said.

A tap on the pad at his waist and Durand urged the column forward. The base’s thick-plasticrete barrier-gates at its main entrance swung outward like arms extending for an embrace. Durand held his breath as his jeep was the first through, out into the open area beyond the base. With a feeling of regret, he passed intricate human-sized pyramids of dust-covered German and Italian bots, looking like cairns on a forgotten desert trail. It was as if in their final moments they sought to join together out of fear. He did not need those machines to complete this mission, but he would be lying to himself if he did not admit that they could make a life-or-death difference for his soldiers.

“Faster now,” said Durand. “We have our objectives, now we—”

His glasses vibrated painfully.

“MISSION ABORT,” read the message, a bright red scrawl of flashing characters.

This was no time to stop. He swiped it aside, and motioned for Martelle to keep driving.

Then General Kimani broke through with a direct audio feed.

“Colonel, you need to return to base. Mission abort. Confirm?”

There was no way to lock the officer out. Unlike with a fully autonomous formation, there was no “kill switch” for Durand’s troops. He led them, fully.

“We are en route to the objectives, general. You can see our target set; it has been approved by the task force command.”

The jeep slewed to the right, around a broken-down Tanzanian Army T-99X tank, a self-driving Chinese model that was exported throughout Africa, complete with stock PLA green-and-brown digital camo.

“No longer. PKO and AU leadership just made the call. They do not want your troops hunting down individuals in the city. Their models say it will just worsen the situation for civilians, everybody.”

Worsen? Durand thought. Isn’t it already bad enough?

“So,” said Durand. “That’s it?”

“I am going to propose another target set. Only bots, fabs, and cyber targets. No humans. We can deploy the task forces systems in six hours, I understand. Your paras can be on standby.”

Machines targeting machines, said Durand. That’s all they want any more.

He braced his leg and leaned back in his seat as his vehicle accelerated onto a deserted artery flanked by half a kilometer of torched and roofless four-story buildings. He looked back over his shoulder at the trailing convoy. His troops were there, following.

August Cole is co-author of Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution

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