WASHINGTON– Robots are helping to save warfighters’ lives as they bring incredible new capabilities to the battlefield, but probably won’t ever replace humans in combat, the commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command said yesterday.

Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, who also serves as NATO’s supreme allied commander for transformation, told a Brookings Institution audience here that he doesn’t see any time in the foreseeable future when human beings won’t be central to warfighting, despite technological advances.

“War is fundamentally a social problem that demands human solutions, despite the American penchant for a purely technological solution,” he said during a session about the impact of new robotic technologies on warfare.

Telling the audience he’s “no Luddite” — a reference to an 18th-century English movement that opposed technological change — Mattis said he’s a big advocate of technology that gives warfighters a leg up on the battlefield.

He shared a story about a visit to Iraq, when he encountered an explosive ordnance disposal team standing in formation beside a hole in the ground. Inside the hole were pieces of a robot that had survived six earlier blasts, but was destroyed by the seventh. “They were actually burying the robot,” he said. “That robot had saved their lives.”

Mattis pointed to other valuable uses of robots, including unmanned aerial vehicles that provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities as well as attack capabilities. The time is coming, he said, when an unmanned medical evacuation craft will be able to land in a “hot” landing zone to extract wounded troops.

But Mattis emphasized that technology alone can’t fight and win wars. “I want the best possible technology in the hands of our troops,” he said. “But the idea that this is going to solve the problem of war is a little silly if you study history.”

That’s because although technology has altered the character of war, “the fundamental nature of war has not changed,” he said.

War remains complex and ever-changing, with multiple variables injected through human will, imagination, courage and the enemy’s attempts to exploit weaknesses. Reducing the process to a mathematical model loses sight of the critical human component.

“In my experience,” Mattis told the audience, “mechanistic approaches to war don’t work.”

With more than 35 years of service, Mattis said he sums up what he’s learned about war in three words: “Improvise, improvise, improvise.”

“Each war brings its own character, and you never know an enemy until you fight them,” he said. “So you are going to have to fight them and improvise to the specific situation.” That’s something he said demands human interface.

Overreliance on technology also can create vulnerabilities in the event that technology fails. Mattis cited the widespread military use of GPS technology — a capability he said the military fought tooth and nail when it was first introduced, but now would be hard-pressed to operate without.

The question of the enemy shutting down GPS has become a question of “when, not if,” Mattis said. “We may see a lot of robots sitting in the warehouse” when that happens, he said.

But Mattis said there’s another potential consequence to Americans’ desire for purely technological solutions to wage bloodless wars. It could send an unintentional message that the stakes being defended simply aren’t high enough to commit human beings. It also could mistakenly signal a lack of will to an enemy or potential enemy.

“From a Marine point of view, we cannot … lose our honor by failing to put our own skin on the line to protect the realm,” Mattis said. “There comes a point when you put your young folks at risk because you think it is important enough for your way of life to defend it.”

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