A Philosopher's Blog

Augmented Soldier Ethics I: Exoskeletons

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 4, 2015
US-Army exoskeleton

US-Army exoskeleton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common element of military science fiction is the powered exoskeleton, also known as an exoframe, exosuit or powered armor. The basic exoskeleton is a powered framework that serves to provide the wearer with enhanced strength. In movies such as Edge of Tomorrow and video games such as Call of Duty Advanced Warfare the exoskeletons provide improved mobility and carrying capacity (which can include the ability to carry heavier weapons) but do not provide much in the way of armor. In contrast, the powered armor of science fiction provides the benefits of an exoskeleton while also providing a degree of protection. The powered armor of Starship Troopers, The Forever War, Armor and Iron Man all serve as classic examples of this sort of gear.

Because the exoskeletons of fiction provide soldiers with enhanced strength, mobility and carrying capacity, it is no surprise that militaries are very interested in exoskeletons in the real world. While exoskeletons have yet to be deployed, there are some ethical concerns about the augmentation of soldiers.

On the face of it, the use of exoskeletons in warfare seems to be morally unproblematic. The main reason is that an exoskeleton is analogous to any other vehicle, with the exception that it is worn rather than driven. A normal car provides the driver with enhanced mobility and carrying capacity and this is presumably not immoral. In terms of the military context, the exoskeleton would be comparable to a Humvee or a tank, both of which seem morally unproblematic as well.

It might be objected that the use of exoskeletons would give wealthier nations an unfair advantage in war. The easy and obvious response to this is that, unlike in sports and games, gaining an “unfair” advantage in war is not immoral. After all, there is not a moral expectation that combatants will engage in a fair fight rather than making use of advantages in such things as technology and numbers.

It might be objected that the advantage provided by exoskeletons would encourage countries that had them to engage in aggressions that they would not otherwise engage in. The easy reply to this is that despite the hype of video games and movies, any exoskeleton available in the near future would most likely not provide a truly spectacular advantage to infantry. This advantage would, presumably, be on par with existing advantages such as those the United States enjoys over almost everyone else in the world. As such, the use of exoskeletons would not seem morally problematic in this regard.

One point of possible concern is what might be called the “Iron Man Syndrome” (to totally make something up). The idea is that soldiers equipped with exoskeletons might become overconfident (seeing themselves as being like the superhero Iron Man) and thus put themselves and others at risk. After all, unless there are some amazing advances in armor technology that are unmatched by weapon technology, soldiers in powered armor will still be vulnerable to weapons capable of taking on light vehicle armor (which exist in abundance). However, this could be easily addressed by training. And experience.

A second point of possible concern is what could be called the “ogre complex” (also totally made up). An exoskeleton that dramatically boosts a soldier’s strength might encourage some people to act as bullies and abuse civilians or prisoners. While this might be a legitimate concern, it can easily addressed by proper training and discipline.

There are, of course, the usual peripheral issues associated with new weapons technology that could have moral relevance. For example, it is easy to imagine a nation wastefully spending money on exoskeletons, perhaps due to corruption. However, such matters are not specific to exoskeletons and would not be moral problems for the technology as such.

Given the above, it would seem that augmenting soldiers with exoskeletons poses no new moral concerns and is morally comparable to providing soldiers with Humvees, tanks and planes.

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 4, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    The overweight and cumbersome US soldier (with or without exoskeleton) will always be hamstrung and outmaneuvered by lighter and quicker enemy fighters. And when the batteries die… or the GPS goes down… the US soldier is in the hands of his enemies who can use centuries-old techniques effectively against him. The US military’s belief that we can be victorious over our enemies because we have superior technology, which is what I was told by my superiors in the US Army, is a dangerous myth. I’ll never forget when, during the 2003 war in Iraq, a $60,000,000 (very high tech) Apache helicopter was shot down by, as the Army said, “asymmetric warfare”. It turned out the “asymmetric warfare” was one (1) round of 7.62 ammunition fired from an AK-47 rifle by an Iraqi farmer.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 4, 2015 at 4:30 pm

      True-the problem with fancy toys is that they break very easily.

      Of course, one of the main functions of fancy weapons tech is to make money for contractors and exosuits would do that just fine.

      “The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.”
      — Baron Manfred von Richthofen

    • WTP said, on February 4, 2015 at 5:03 pm

      <i The US military’s belief that we can be victorious over our enemies because we have superior technology, which is what I was told by my superiors in the US Army, is a dangerous myth.

      No, it’s not a myth. Our kill ratios are enormously high relative to our enemies. In pretty much every war in the history of man this meant winning the war. The problem is, and it is magnified the greater our technology exceeds our enemies, that we’ve become a nation of pants wetters about killing the enemy. The genesis of this article being a prime example. It’s all a big game to the masses of non-coms who are perpetually safe at home, snuggled in our beds without one whit of worry that the evil that our troops face every day is coming for us. We worry way too much about what others might think of us, are we playing “fair” (as if the boys in the field are “playing”) as opposed to worrying about what is the best, fastest, most effective way of winning the war. Ignoring the far greater evil of our enemies. Pretending that such evil doesn’t exist. We create absurd rules of engagement that get our men killed in favor of protecting the enemy, that let the enemy get away when we know exactly where they are (similar to how the Nazis lost the Western front) and could kill them, that plant tortuous moral dilemmas in the minds of those who come home, all so that moral preeners on the homefront have grist for their preening.

      Damn Magus, where the F are you?

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 4, 2015 at 5:11 pm

        Yeah… just like Vietnam: we won every battle but lost the war.

        • WTP said, on February 4, 2015 at 5:49 pm

          We lost the war because wars are lost between the ears. Vietnam was WWII in the Philippines but with TV cameras and drugged out college student and professor protesters safe on the homefront as I describe above. One could argue that it wasn’t worth getting into in the first place, but once you commit to war you commit 100%, get it over with, and come home. And our technological advantages today put us at a much greater delta than we were at then. The desire to win is everything in war. Applies to football somewhat as well.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 4, 2015 at 5:16 pm

        “Combat Light” Soldier’s Load Solution for the 21st century – http://www.combatreform.org/combatlight.htm

  2. TJB said, on February 4, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    Obviously having better weapons can help win a war–does anybody really question this?

    Obviously, too, having a highly motivated fighting force can sometimes lead to a surprising victory against a more powerful enemy.

    It is ironic that Mike is talking about the morality of exoskeletons in war when the Islamic State put someone in a cage and set him on fire.

    • wtp said, on February 4, 2015 at 10:29 pm

      By ironic, you mean polemic…yes?

      • TJB said, on February 4, 2015 at 10:45 pm

        I was more thinking Angels and pins…there is really bad stuff happening…and we are collectively in denial.

        • wtp said, on February 4, 2015 at 11:36 pm

          Like Brian Williams? Wait, that’s the opposite of denial…kinda…

          • TJB said, on February 5, 2015 at 12:04 am

            Dems have made a total hash out of the Middle East. They think they are so smart but they are clueless.

            • WTP said, on February 5, 2015 at 10:57 am

              It’s the 20/20 hindsight fallacy. Quite prominent with media talking heads, academics (ivory tower and otherwise), and parties out of power (GOP and especially certain libertarian types guilty as well), and 95% of all sports fans. 97% of all sports writers. People actually in a situation do not have perfect knowledge. They often lack the tools to understand the motives or objectives of a thinking opponent or the enormity of a violent act of nature. After the dust settles and there is time to think about the situation, it often becomes “obvious” what should have been done. Of course in many of the “obviously what should have been done…” scenarios there would have been negative consequences and other unforeseen circumstances that even the most prescient of us would have been surprised by.

              People who have been put in situations, or who have consciously taken on situations, where there is tremendous risk eventually learn things by experience that cannot possibly be taught or planned for by the brightest of minds. Some such people encounter failure often and learn from the real school of hard knocks. Others blame the circumstances or find a sucker to pin the failure on and thus their hubris grows. Still the worst of these are to be respected as Teddy Roosevelt said:

              It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

              And then there are those as described in my first paragraph. For those I refer you to baseball manager Danny Murtaugh:

              Why certainly I’d like to have a fellow who hits a home run every time at bat, who strikes out every opposing batter when he’s pitching and who is always thinking about two innings ahead. The only trouble is to get him to put down his cup of beer, come down out of the stands, and do those things.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 6, 2015 at 3:01 pm

              Dems?

              I’d say the Middle East was hash long before Democrats existed. Also, consider which party got us into Iraq and Afghanistan.

              So, if blame is to be thrown around, there is enough to submerge everyone.

            • WTP said, on February 6, 2015 at 4:16 pm

              Also, consider which party got us into Iraq and Afghanistan.

              You mean Senators Algore, HRC, Feinstein, Dodd, Biden, Reid, etc. well hell…here’s the whole list from wiki:

              Sens. Lincoln (D-AR), Feinstein (D-CA), Dodd (D-CT), Lieberman (D-CT), Biden (D-DE), Carper (D-DE), Nelson (D-FL), Cleland (D-GA), Miller (D-GA), Bayh (D-IN), Harkin (D-IA), Breaux (D-LA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Kerry (D-MA), Carnahan (D-MO), Baucus (D-MT), Nelson (D-NE), Reid (D-NV), Torricelli (D-NJ), Clinton (D-NY), Schumer (D-NY), Edwards (D-NC), Dorgan (D-ND), Hollings (D-SC), Daschle (D-SD), Johnson (D-SD), Cantwell (D-WA), Rockefeller (D-WV), and Kohl (D-WI).

              58% of Democratic senators (29 of 50) voted for the resolution. So, if blame is to be thrown around, there is enough to submerge everyone. OTOH, I would argue that the primary party that got us in Afghanistan was the Taliban. And let’s not forget that while the war in Iraq was raging, the near unanimous opinion of talking heads, elites, college professors, etc. was that the war in Iraq was wrong but they supported without question the war in Afghanistan. Of course much of this attitude from the Dems only popped up as the Iraq war dragged on. See again the list above. Then no sooner did we pull out of Iraq and suddenly the war in Afghanistan was bad. Nothing but media and academia BS with 20/20 hindsight to puff the collective chests.

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 7, 2015 at 8:32 pm

              Mike, when Obama took over in 2009 the Middle East was in pretty good shape. Obama’s job was to consolidate the victory in Iraq and bring the Afghan war to a successful conclusion. Instead,

              1) Obama has killed hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocents in drone strikes in countries like Pakistan and Yemen that we are not at war with.

              2) Obama destabilized Libya without congressional approval and left it a failed state.

              3) Obama allowed the civil war in Syria to metastasize and create ISIS.

              4) Remember the red line, remember Assad must go? Now we are allied with Assad.

              5) Obama has allowed Iran to gain far too much regional hegemony.

              6) Obama supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt–a huge mistake.

              7) Relations with Israel are strained.

              If you look back in this blog to when Obama was elected, I predicted that Israel might not survive Obama. I do think that if Iran gets the Bomb Israel’s days may be numbered.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 8, 2015 at 7:54 pm

              I suspect that the last time the Middle East was in good shape was during the Ottoman Empire. Maybe not even then.

              I agree that there have been many problems in the Middle East since 2009. The United States could, perhaps, have done things better. What would you have done differently? What effect would these differences in policy have made? Why didn’t you contact the state department with your plans?🙂

              Also, the 2009 problems did not emerge from nothing. Isis arose out of the Iraq war, which was courtesy of Bush & Cheney.

            • wtp said, on February 7, 2015 at 9:21 pm

              If Iran’s mullahs get the bomb, they better get it while obumble is still in office. Even then those mullahs and Teheran’s days may be numbered.

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 8, 2015 at 9:01 pm

              Mike, care to comment on this video?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 9, 2015 at 12:32 pm

              Sure. Joe didn’t say a damn thing about exoskeletons. Stay on topic, Joe!

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 9, 2015 at 8:47 am

              Comments from the guy who brought down Nixon. Mike, you know Woodward is right.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 9, 2015 at 12:30 pm

              He commented about exoskeletons? I’ll need to check that out.

            • WTP said, on February 9, 2015 at 1:28 pm

              Also, the 2009 problems did not emerge from nothing. Isis arose out of the Iraq war, which was courtesy of Bush & Cheney.

              You mean along with Senators Algore, HRC, Feinstein, Dodd, Biden, Reid, etc. well hell…here’s the whole list from wiki:

              Sens. Lincoln (D-AR), Feinstein (D-CA), Dodd (D-CT), Lieberman (D-CT), Biden (D-DE), Carper (D-DE), Nelson (D-FL), Cleland (D-GA), Miller (D-GA), Bayh (D-IN), Harkin (D-IA), Breaux (D-LA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Kerry (D-MA), Carnahan (D-MO), Baucus (D-MT), Nelson (D-NE), Reid (D-NV), Torricelli (D-NJ), Clinton (D-NY), Schumer (D-NY), Edwards (D-NC), Dorgan (D-ND), Hollings (D-SC), Daschle (D-SD), Johnson (D-SD), Cantwell (D-WA), Rockefeller (D-WV), and Kohl (D-WI).

              58% of Democratic senators (29 of 50) voted for the resolution. So, if blame is to be thrown around, there is enough to submerge everyone. OTOH, I would argue that the primary party that got us in Afghanistan was the Taliban. And let’s not forget that while the war in Iraq was raging, the near unanimous opinion of talking heads, elites, college professors, etc. was that the war in Iraq was wrong but they supported without question the war in Afghanistan. Of course much of this attitude from the Dems only popped up as the Iraq war dragged on. See again the list above. Then no sooner did we pull out of Iraq and suddenly the war in Afghanistan was bad. Nothing but media and academia BS with 20/20 hindsight to puff the collective chests.

              Is there an echo in here?

            • TJB said, on February 9, 2015 at 10:07 pm

              “He commented about exoskeletons? I’ll need to check that out.”

              I read this as “T.J., you are right. Democrats may mean well, but they don’t deal very well with reality.”

              I think my job here is done.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 6, 2015 at 3:00 pm

      Well, there is no moral controversy regarding burning people alive: that is clearly wrong.

      ISIS seems intent on becoming hostis humani generis. I’m in favor of giving them that status.

    • wtp said, on February 6, 2015 at 9:58 pm

      Hey TJ, did you hear Sarah Palin say that 99.9% of all conservatives are not racist, not one little bit? Do you believe that sh*t? Mike will be all over that comment soon.

  3. nailheadtom said, on February 5, 2015 at 12:58 am

    The exoskeleton in warfare is the stuff of science fiction. Why expose a man in an armor suit when a robot, remote controlled, can do the same things?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 7, 2015 at 10:53 am

      The military is developing exoskeletons and will most likely have them deployed before they develop an effective infantry robot that can do what boots on the ground can do.

      Also, to be cynical and practical, human soldiers can be manufactured with unskilled labor and are relatively cheap compared to what a human comparable robot would cost to manufacture and deploy.


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