When asking a sensitive military question, the answer might come on a need-to-know basis.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert H. Latiff believes the public has a need to know more about the military than half-time shows and "thank you for your service."

He feels so strongly about the public and media awareness factor that he dedicated Chapter 4 to the subject in his new book "Future War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield."

The book raises many questions about futuristic weaponry, often involving modifying human soldiers or creating autonomous robots. He discusses moral and ethical issues related to the researchers, the decision makers and the soldiers themselves, whatever form those soldiers take. Some of that weaponry is real, now.

Latiff retired from the Air Force in 2006. He is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Notre Dame and is the director of Intelligence Community Programs at George Mason University's Volgenau School of Engineering. Latiff is a member of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control, as well as the Intelligence Community Studies Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Among Latiff's concerns are hypersonic weapons, against which there seem to be no currently available defense, he said. "This includes weapons that travel at speeds five to 10 to 15 times the speed of sound. Now with missile defenses, the type we are building, they operate on a ballistic trajectory, like something falling from the sky. Hypersonic weapons are maneuverable. The worry is, when an adversary is faced with a weapon they can't defend against, what do they do? And, they could be mistaken for nuclear weapons, which is a big concern."

What gives him hope is neuroscience, which has the potential for being able to solve issues of mental illness and restore proper function to damaged brains. Will it help military members with PTSD? Serial killers? Serial rapists? Teenagers who chronically stay out past curfew?

"There is an enormous range of possibilities," Latiff said. A lot of work being done by the Defense Department is for the things you mentioned: PTSD, traumatic brain injuries; awesome research. They've been able to map the brain in such a way they think they can treat schizophrenia and other diseases of the brain.

"Teenagers? That gets to the questions of what concerns me. If you can provide therapy to a damaged brain, you can also use those techniques to make a normal brain better or interfere with the normal brain function. It's a bit science fiction, but the possibility of using neuroscience in ways to treat a teen's staying out too late, or to modify thinking - it's possible."

Brain implants are amenable to hacking by computers, he said.

Sonic weapons are now used for antipiracy. Ships will have loud speakers, focusing sound waves toward pirates. Using high- or low-frequency sound is surprisingly effective, he said. It is in a class of weaponry called nonlethal, which includes lasers or microwaves.

What happened in Cuba when U.S. diplomats became sick after hearing an unusual sound? "Obviously, I know nothing about it since I have not been briefed on the issue," Latiff said. "But it wouldn't surprise me. There are lasers used by law enforcement called dazzling lasers; if a person looks at the laser, they become nauseous."

Sonic, low-frequency rumbling sounds are like sitting by a railroad track and as a train passes, you feel that inside, he said. "It is not inconceivable that someone could have a low-frequency sound system, when aimed at a person, could have an effect on their internal organs."

How accurate would weapons be placed on space satellites? "Today a satellite in space has a very high accuracy," he said. "I need to leave it at that. I'm involved in some of these things and can't talk about them in detail. I will tell you they are extraordinarily capable.

"It would depend on the type of weapon. Just on the vagaries of orbital mechanics, putting a weapon on a satellite would be pretty much useless," he said. When satellites are in orbit, they will show up at a point in time and a person on the ground would know that, unless the weapons are on all the satellites.

Also, the ammunition would have to make it through the atmosphere, he said. "Things that come through the atmosphere burn up. If you are targeting other satellites, that's different."

The military has core values, from loyalty to integrity, honor and duty. "I often talk about the melding and merging, trying to make machines act more like humans. When we enhance a soldier, either pharmaceutically with drugs, with neuro implants or biologically, it really raises the question of whether or not that human can be said to have moral agency.

"If a soldier is operating under the influence of drugs which make him forget or not fearful, is he operating under his own free will? I don't think so. The core values, you begin to question whether or not those are still valid.

"If you get a soldier operating alongside a robot, is the robot going to have that soldier's back, jump on top of a grenade to save a human soldier, or vice versa? The whole concept of comrade, I think goes out the window. I think enhancements are very dangerous."

He does not know of any such enhanced soldier at this time. "We give pilots drugs to keep them awake," he said, not a dangerous enhancement.

"The research is pretty active," he said. "Therein lies one of the questions I asked, is it OK to do the research? Separate question, is it OK to deploy the technology?"

With some technology, even doing the research crosses an ethical boundary. "They have to do the research on people; the yuck factor is so high. Doing interspecies DNA would cross a boundary. For some religious groups, doing research on human embryos is a problem.

"There are areas this isn't something we need to be looking at, much less deploy. One of them for me happens to be autonomous lethal weapons. Getting a weapon that may have an artificial intelligence, the decision-making authority to kill a human being is a step too far.

"I spend time in the book being critical of the American people for not paying attention to the American military," Latiff said. "It is important the American people, and by extension their representatives, at least understand what some of the issues are. ⦠They don't ask the tough questions of what the military has to do.

"My hope, by writing the book, the American people would be sensitized to what the issues are⦠It is really important that it start at the top. ⦠There are issues that go beyond thanking people for their service."

At the end of Chapter 4, Latiff writes: "In the end, the military will figure out how to fight in the future in accordance with the laws of war. That is their business and they do it well. Still, the questions remain. While our forces will follow the laws of war, are they ethically equipped to judge the implications of their acts? Critically, will decision makers, and the public the military is sworn to serve, understand or care? Unfortunately, the prognosis is not favorable."


Book: "Future War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield"

When: 9 a.m. Feb. 17

Where: Trinity United Methodist Church

Info: savannahbookfestival.org, robertlatiff.com