I asked myself, “What if we had perfect sensing and perfect strike, and could still lose?”
A Wasp, we are told, is a small, gray machine designed around a microprocessor, a comms link, insectile wings lined with solar cells, and its primary weapon: a toxin-laden stinger. Its sensor package is never entirely divulged, but it includes at least sight, sound, and smell.
Every member of the target population age 17 and up has a Wasp hovering nearby whenever they set foot outside. The data gathered by the Wasps is collated, fused, and analyzed by intelligent algorithms on servers a continent away. Patterns emerge and are filed for future reference. Whenever a threat is detected via a convergence of patterns, it is instantly eliminated via the Wasp’s simple but brutally effective weapon.
This is the technological backdrop for Mark Jacobsen’s short story The Wasp Keepers. It takes place 20 years from now in a Syria where the civil war was finally ended by the Syrian Transitional Authority via the introduction of the Wasps. A few troops remain on the ground to support the Wasps, the “Wasp Keepers” of the title, but they are exposed to minimal risk and the foreign powers behind them face essentially none.
The scariest thing about Jacobsen’s dystopia may be just how plausible it seems, stretching our present-day fascination with risk mitigation, persistent intelligence, and precision strike to a logical end. He did not intend “Wasp” to be an acronym, but we can discuss some hypotheticals focusing on different aspects of the technology and link them to current trends.
INTELLIGENCE: Winged Aerial Surveillance Platform (WASP)
Airpower was first employed as a surveillance platform. The balloons of the 1800s exploited their altitude to offer a view of the battlefield not possible from the surface. Aircraft were introduced in the early 20th century, combining superior speed and other new technologies to improve the quality and timeliness of their information. As air defenses improved, faster speeds, higher altitudes, and stealthier airframes were needed to access well-protected areas. Unmanned aerial vehicles arrived in their present form in the late 1990s and are slowly coming to dominate the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission set. Their unmatched persistence allows them to loiter far longer than a manned platform, and the lack of aircrew means they can be employed in riskier fashion. However, as defenses adjust for this new target type, “drones” will need to improve as well.
The Wasp is one path these improvements might take. By basking in the sun during times of low operational demand, the Wasp’s solar cells give them unlimited persistence. Their sensors are diverse and robust. However, the key technological departure in the Wasps may be the shift to a small, many, and smart architecture. The Wasps are not particularly difficult to kill and two are destroyed in the course of the story: one is swatted by a hand and one is incinerated with an improvised flamethrower. The effect is negligible, though, as where there is one Wasp, there are many, many more. Survivability is a characteristic of the swarm, not any one particular entity. There is ultimately no way to escape the swarm’s unblinking eye.
ATTACK: Wide Area Strike Persistent (WASP)
Already in the skies over the enemy to observe and report, it didn’t take long for early aviators to realize they could drop things on them, too, and air-to-surface attack was born. Hand grenades lobbed over the side soon gave way to larger bombs mounted on hardpoints and within internal bomb bays. Aircraft flew higher to avoid ground-based defenses, so mechanical bombsights were invented to improve accuracy. Precision-guided munitions boosted accuracy again by an order of magnitude. Increasing precision subsequently enabled long-range attack, culminating in cruise missiles which can be launched from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away, keeping aircrews comfortably outside the range of enemy fighters and surface-to-air missiles. Drones have taken the concept even further, placing continents and oceans between an operator and the battlefield, leading author Richard Whittle to dub the Predator an “intercontinental sniper rifle.”
The toxic stinger is what separates Jacobsen’s Wasps from being merely another set of eyes and ears on the battlefield. Like a perfectly-evolved Hellfire, it homes in on its target and eliminates it with cold precision, only seconds after the order is given. There is no risk to the operator and no collateral damage. Precision, lethality, range, and access packaged into a perfect counter-personnel weapon. And the swarm mentality is just as effective for strike as it is for surveillance. One Wasp may fail, but the swarm will not.
INTEGRATED SURVEILLANCE-STRIKE: Watch Analyze Strike Pacify (WASP)
Colonel Philip S. Meilinger famously stated in his 10 Propositions Regarding Airpower that “In essence, Air Power is targeting, targeting is intelligence, and intelligence is analyzing the effects of air operations.” The need to efficiently identify targets, attack them, and confirm the results, in the face of an adversary seeking to deny the same, has driven the surveillance and strike technologies which course through the history of airpower. As they have improved, timelines have compressed, demanding ever more efficient command and control structures to wield the airpower weapon. Today, the amount of data we can generate is expanding exponentially, and “big data analytics” has become one of the most oft-heard buzz-phrases in the Pentagon’s halls. Consistently forming all that data into actionable intelligence is one of the next great milestones for military technology.
It is here where Jacobsen’s Wasps really shine. Everything the Wasp sees and hears is passed up the chain and catalogued, slowly creating a life history for every man and woman under the network’s surveillance. We are given a brief glimpse of what is possible when the Wasp Keeper Captain lays out the concrete facts and irrefutable logic behind the story’s tragic events. The seamless integration of surveillance, strike, and decision-making across the tactical, operational, and strategic levels is what makes the Wasps so effective. Perfect sensing. Perfect strike. Bad actors are quickly rooted out and dealt with. Peace is surely upon us.
The Cultural Problem
Yet Jacobsen’s world is a dystopia for a reason. He creates a surveillance and strike complex that would be the envy of any commander today in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan, but what he really wants to explore is its limitations, its dark side.
The problem is humanity and the reality of war. The story reaches its dramatic peak during the tense discussion between Um Hamza, representing the local population, and the Captain, who stands-in for the West. The Captain has learned some words in the local language, studied local customs, and developed techniques for relating to the locals on a human level. He is the product of decades of military thought emphasizing the need for cultural awareness. Hamza easily sees through it, though. The Captain’s token gestures might be viewed favorably under positive or even neutral circumstances, but they do little more than foster resentment with a hostile crowd. Cultural knowledge at the tactical level is useless unless it is supported by consistent, like-minded strategies on the operational and strategic scales.
The Wasps provide another false veneer of understanding. They offer a crystal clear window into the facts of any situation, but the interpretation of those facts is still an inexact science. Both computer algorithms and human minds have an odd habit of seeing what they want to see. As Jacobsen repeatedly tells us, the Captain and his Wasps know everything, yet they know nothing.
The people dread the Wasps. They refer to the Syrian Transitional Authority as the Occupation. They don’t understand the Wasps or the logic behind their actions. One bad decision or perhaps a confluence of circumstances beyond an individual’s control, and the Wasp delivers swift vengeance. The Captain thinks they provide peace, but the people know only fear. The Captain wants to be thanked for ending 20 years of violence, but the people only see the boot of oppression.
*** SPOILERS BELOW ***
The weary Captain is trapped, and he knows it. He wants to go home, but the Wasps can never be removed without risking chaos, the very chaos he is there to prevent. For him, there is no exit strategy, no victory. The people fear the same chaos, but Hamza finally decides that freedom, any freedom, is preferable to the “frozen horror” of the Occupation. By the end of the story, we are left with the impression we are seeing the beginning of a new war, an uprising.
There are only a few ways for this uprising to end. The Wasp Keepers lose the will to fight and pull out, the population loses the will to fight and stops resisting, or so many civilians are killed that resistance becomes impossible. The desperate people have been pushed too far and have nothing left to lose. Western publics, meanwhile, are unlikely to stand by while civilians are slaughtered en masse by their militaries’ high-tech assassins. Thus, it seems the only way for this to end is with Wasp Keeper withdrawal. Despite the Wasp’s technological perfection, war remains a contest of human will. This is the Wasp’s weakness: it is only as powerful as the human hand that wields it. Hamza finally realizes this, and she knows her people can win.
My title, of course, alludes to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel Watchmen, another story pondering an all-powerful group facing a suspicious public which fears what it does not understand. Watchmen is told from the point of view of the heroes, though, and ends on a dark note as the heroes slip deeper into irrelevance. Jacobsen flips this equation, putting us in the shoes of the confused and fearful public. They face massacre, but they have hope. The road will be bloody and the sacrifices many, but they are going to win. We’re left wondering what monsters would put them in such a tragically flawed situation, and we’re forced to admit…it’s us.
Brad Edmonson is a USAF civilian and former Air Force officer. His thoughts are his own and in no way reflect the official viewpoint of the United States Air Force.