Two BQM-74E aerial target drones elevated for launch. Photo courtesy of the US Navy.
The hills vibrate no soldier’s footfall. The night sky over Afghanistan is dark and quiet, but it is not empty. Silent and unseen until it is too late, the MQ-9 Reaper, an American military drone, searches the area for the enemy. The flying machine finds its target, locks onto it, and fires. The ensuing explosion and fiery wreckage is left behind as the Reaper turns around and makes its way back to camp.
This is warfare in the 21st century. The turnings of technology have quickly propelled the realities of military capabilities to reflect a scene that not very long ago many would have perceived as science fiction. It is not an uncommon process now for the U.S. Air Force to use robotic aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as “drones,” in support of military operations in hostile territory.
Drones, while controversial in certain circles allow for one distinct benefit everyone can agree on — the ensured safety of American soldiers. This undeniable aspect, coupled with the fact that drones have proven to be cheaper and more effective than previous methods of precision killing, has rendered them extremely popular with the U.S. Department of Defense. However, some opponents argue that drone strikes take down an unacceptable number of civilian casualties along with their intended targets.
Unmanned drones have actually been in use for about 30 years now, but for most of that time they were used for reconnaissance purposes only. Some of the drones in use today, like the MQ-9 Reaper, have attack capabilities, can carry up to 14 missiles, and have the ability to stay fully loaded and airborne for up to 14 hours. A lighter recon drone like the RQ-4 Global Hawk can stay in the air for up to 33 hours.
When drones are referred to as “remotely” operated machines, it is no exaggeration. Drone controllers are executing drone strikes 6,000 miles away from current war zones — in the Nevada desert. Sitting before a computer screen that reveals all the detailed imagery that the drone “sees,” these “pilots” make the final decision of whether or not to complete a strike — one of the only things the drone won’t/can’t do automatically. The machines are very self-sufficient though, equipped with high-resolution cameras and sensors along with the ability to see things on the ground from very high altitudes. They also have heat sensors to work out whether a building contains people in it or not.
Despite the technological feats being overcome with these new devices, many fear the unintended detrimental consequences of drone warfare. One concern of the opposition to these developments is that drone use will lead to soldiers becoming desensitized to war because they will not be present to witness the real human consequences of it. Some say this desensitization, along with the cost effectiveness of drones, will lead to more war in the future. Through this viewpoint, drones might not effectively reduce conflict, but instead promote it. The very ease of drone deployment could tempt nations to embark on remotely controlled spying and/or attacking of suspected enemies with the least bit of provocation.
Foreign analyst specialist Adam Elkus refutes this perspective for Democracy Arsenal:
“Despite the nearly century-long prevalence of airpower, we have not become numb to war. Witness, for example, the powerful desire for retribution after the 9/11 attacks and its impact on domestic and international policy. Airpower — drones included — has not erased emotion from war because war is a complex mixture of irrational forces (emotion, hatred, and enmity), chance (friction and the fog of war) and rational policy. And as long as humans are involved in conflict, these forces will continue to exert themselves on the theory and practice of war.”
Considering that present wartime technological capabilities already look like a futuristic world, what might we expect to see in coming years? Well, one answer resembles the past, as some engineers develop research to generate new insight into how insect wings have evolved over the last 350 million years.
Why? In an effort to create a hard-to-detect surveillance drone that will operate with little or no direct human supervision in out-of-the-way and adverse environments, researchers are mimicking nature. Such research would make it possible to aerodynamically engineer a new breed of surveillance vehicles that, because they are as small as insects and also fly like them, completely blend into their surroundings. In 2008, the US Air Force showed off bug-sized spies as “tiny as bumblebees” that would not be detected when flying into buildings to photograph, record, and even attack insurgents and terrorists.
Some moral philosophers and political scientists actually see drones as ethically obligatory, given their ability to identify targets and strike with precision, thus lowering the number of civilian casualties. But like all forms of technology this one has an unintended aspect to its function — its precision monitoring and striking are all recorded.
Some of this footage is winding up on the Internet, where new exposure could produce a growing public intolerance for what was once considered the routine carnage of war. This raises the question of whether some objections to drone warfare are not about the technology, but about war itself. Whether or not we’re comfortable with this new trend in warfare, the robotics revolution will undoubtedly alter society’s relationship with war in some profound ways. Are we looking at a future of warfare streamlined?