The Internet has been abuzz over details -- and several intriguing YouTube videos -- of the upcoming "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," scheduled to hit shelves in November. A sequel to the 2010 blockbuster "Call of Duty: Black Ops," the latest iteration of the video game continues the saga of American and Russian operatives immersed in a complex 1960s Cold War plot. But much of the sequel takes place in 2025, when the United States is confronting China and when America's high-tech arsenal of robotic vehicles is hacked, hijacked, and turned against its makers. Although the dark plot sounds like science fiction, it is actually based on solid real-world analysis provided by defense futurist Peter Singer, author of the bestselling Wired for War. Foreign Policy spoke with Singer about his work on the game:
Foreign Policy: There have been a lot of delicious rumors about Call of Duty: Black Ops II. What can you tell us about the game?
Peter Singer: [Laughs.] I'm just going to say the things that are already out there in the media. Essentially what they have revealed is that it builds upon the last game [Call of Duty: Black Ops]. The setting is broken into two parts. Some events take place in the Cold War of the 1980s, and most of it in the 2020s in a proto-Cold War that has emerged between the U.S. and China over a series of regional tensions and resource shortages. Essentially what we have done is take certain trends that are just now emerging, certain technologies that are at their Model T Ford stage, and move them forward into likely potential futures. The same for the political side as well, playing what happens if they move forward. We identified key trends shaping the current and future battlefield. Some you will see played out in robotics. A generation ago, this was all science fiction. Today, the U.S. military has 7,000 unmanned vehicles in the air, some of them armed, and 12,000 on the ground. We have 50 countries out there beginning to use military robotics. We might see evolution in other directions of robotics, such as bigger is not always better. An example in the game is the armed tactical quadcopter. As part of the marketing for the game, we put out a viral video of one of these made real. I know a Pentagon office has started looking at it and asking, "Why can't we have this?"
FP: So do these new military technologies help the advanced powers, or are they levelers that enable weaker powers to confront them?
PS: I think that remains to be seen. But I think we are starting to see an open-source effect in warfare. We've seen the open-source revolution in software, where it's not just the big boys that have access to the most advanced technologies. Think of technologies like the atomic bomb or an aircraft carrier. It's not just that a massive defense-industrial effort is required to build them, but also to use them effectively. Even if you could give Hezbollah an aircraft carrier and said, "Here's the keys!" they couldn't use it effectively. But we are starting to see advanced technology that isn't like that. I think robotics is moving into a space where there is a flattening effect. For example, the Raven is the most widely used U.S. military unmanned aerial system today. The editor of Wired magazine built his own version of the Raven for a thousand dollars. "Charlene" -- our working armed quadcopter from that viral video -- is something the U.S. military doesn't even have. In World War II, Hitler's Luftwaffe couldn't fly across the Atlantic to strike the United States. A couple of years ago, a 77-year-old blind man built his own drone that flew itself across the Atlantic. My award for innovator of the year last year wasn't a big contractor, but a group of thieves in Taiwan who used tiny robotic helicopters equipped with pinhole cameras to carry out a jewelry heist. People ask, "What if terrorists could get drones?" I say, "Oh, you mean like Hezbollah did in 2007 against Israel? Or you mean the guy who was arrested for planning to fly a drone into the Pentagon?" He made a mistake by asking an FBI informant for C-4 explosives. But we live in a world where it's easier to get a drone than C-4 explosives.
FP: How well is the United States prepared if these new weapons are used against it?
PS: One of the lessons of history is that there is no such thing as a permanent first-mover advantage. The British invent the tank, inspired by science fiction. They come out of World War I with 12,000 tanks (which is the same number of unmanned ground vehicles that the U.S. military has now), but by the time World War II comes, the Germans had figured out how to use the tank better. There is a more diverse battlespace now in terms of the range of actors out there. It's not just facing off against the Soviets or the Viet Cong. It's a mix of adversaries, from states to nonstate actors that include terrorist groups, to criminal groups, insurgent groups, and private military companies. There are now domains such as cyberspace that didn't exist a generation ago. It is a more complex setting. In a video-game setting, those challenges are a good and a bad thing. It's a more complex world to build, but also a more complex world to create neater characters.