World Wars: The Attack of the Drones
Remember watching movies like Terminator and iRobot, and imagining what the world would be like in 100 years? Did you think that autonomous, self-learning robots or some Austrian bodybuilder would take over the world someday? Did you think giant lasers, artificially intelligent robots, teleportation devices, affordable space travel, vaporizing guns, time machines, hover-boards, and flying cars would be available not too far into the future? If you answered “yes,” you were right; well, at least for a few of the items on that list.
If you ever imagined a future where flying robots could monitor your every move and kill people at will, then you imagined the world we live in today. Many people have heard about these Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) and their use in Iraq and Afghanistan. From listening to the news, it seems like a drone kills another al-Qaeda operative every day. According to the U.S. military, more than 1,600 terrorist operatives have been assassinated by drones in the past few years!
While UAV’s have already been integrated into a few militaries around the world (U.S., Israel, South Korea, and others), there are a number of other robotic devices that are not “aerial vehicles.” I like to call these devices just “UV’s” (unmanned vehicles). These UV’s consist of both human-controlled and autonomous vehicles capable of moving across land, air, and/or sea. Just a few of the functions that UV’s have adopted are: intelligence in any environment, weapons delivery, border monitoring, bomb disabling, firefighting, and medical assistance for soldiers. The point of using UV’s instead of manpower is that they are supposed to operate in dangerous situations and operate more efficiently than humans. UV’s don’t get tired and can’t complain about the work they’re doing. While UV’s might seem like extraordinary tools now, there are still a few kinks in their development.
According to a number of U.S. military scientists, there is no doubt that UV’s are the future of the military. They have and will continue to change the way we perceive and operate wars and intelligence operations. While there are many advantages to using UV’s as tools and weapons, there are some challenges that the world has yet to address. As Todd Brewster, the Director of the Center for Oral History at West Point, said, “[UAV’s] are arriving faster than we can adapt our ethical and moral consciences to respond to them.” As UV’s become more and more part of militaries across the world, the way wars are conducted, viewed, and won will profoundly change.
A major concern of some military officials is the hyper-sensitizing of war for both the operators and victims of the devices. A common fear of UAVs is that they have desensitized war and death for the soldiers operating them on the ground. But according to a few military reports, the opposite effect is exhibited.
These reports suggest that UAV operators are actually hyper-sensitized to their missions due to length of the missions (often several hours long) and the ability to see the aftermath of their actions, made possible by the advanced video equipment on the UAV’s. The constant psychological stress of being ordered to spy and annihilate other humans from thousands of miles away can get the best of some soldiers. Additionally, unlike in the past, these operators are able to see the horrors of war that they created with the UAV. Military reports have documented a high rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among UAV operators; they have attributed it to the length of time and stresses of being an operator. If it is true that there is a high rate of PTSD among soldiers who are not physically in battle, it would seem that UV’s have actually hyper-sensitized war. As the UV program is expected to grow in the future, the health of the devices’ operators should be a major subject of concern in the military community.
Another major concern is the sensitization of foreign influence. Over the past ten years, American UAV’s have surveyed the skies of Afghanistan and Iraq and, according to an expert on the region, have invoked a greater sense of hatred against the U.S. than if American foot soldiers had done the drones’ work. Many people in Afghanistan and Iraq have, understandably, been absolutely terrified by UAV’s; who wouldn’t be afraid of a remote controlled plane that can kill and destroy on demand? This fear has resulted in the belief that Americans are cowards for not showing their faces in times of war. According to the Wall Street Journal, we can expect that future American operations will be more, if not completely, dependent on UAV’s. Therefore, these negative sentiments towards Americans will almost definitely be replicated and should be addressed by the U.S. military and all other militaries that operate UV’s.
There are also a number of legal problems associated with UV’s, including damage and death liability, as well as breaches of international rules of war. First, UV’s and their operators are not perfect. As noted in both Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been some collateral damage associated with UAV operations. If this damage is done when a UV is operating autonomously, who is responsible? Obviously, the “United States” or whatever country owned the UV will be said in the media to be held responsible, but to whom specifically does the responsibility lie in a court of law? The operator(s) of the UV, right before the device went autonomous, or the commander who gave the order for the UV to function autonomously? Additionally, after a collateral damage incident like this happens, what precedent should be set of the ratio of success to collateral damage? Should UV’s be allowed to have a statistically significant margin of error if one of the main purposes of using UV’s is greater accuracy and precision? As you can tell, a situation like this can quickly become extraordinarily complex and controversial. Additionally, this situation is very plausible in the future if problems with UV’s are not addressed.
While not a major issue, because the U.S. doesn’t always abide by international norms, the notion that UV’s aren’t “legal” weapons is still a concern. According to The Atlantic, “the International Committee of the Red Cross bans weapons that cause more than 25% field mortality and 5% hospital mortality.” UV’s mortality rate is generally much higher than 25%. While most nations that own UV’s may not care about rules like this, it is interesting to think about the overwhelming advantages that these nations have in warfare.
Furthermore, how will the state of war change when the majority of nations begin operating UVs? Today, only the U.S., U.K., Israel, South Korea, and a few other nations own and operate UV’s, while most other countries own and operate more conventional weapons (guns and other small arms) that are outdated by most American Military standards. When UV’s start being sold to the majority of nations, I believe that there may be a short term fluctuation in the multinational polarity of military power (The U.S. will still maintain its military hegemony). Over time, though, the polarity will probably be normalized to pretty much the same levels that are present today. I predict that the world still has about a decade to go until UV’s will be mastered, mass-produced, and disruptive to the polarity of global military power. Until then, the above mentioned issues will probably continue to persist and will somehow be addressed due to the flaws with UVs and the probability of collateral damage in times of war.
A UV filled world may be far off in the future, but some of the issues that will be asked in the future have already arisen. It will be best for us to address these problems sooner than later because the field of UV’s is constantly developing and will not wait for policies to be made. I believe that while thinking about the issues surround UV’s, it is important to consider the following statement by Todd Brewster, the Directory of the Center for Oral History at West Point:
The simple lesson may be that for all our science, we still need to remind ourselves that war is a human activity aimed at achieving a political mission among humans. New forms of weaponry give us a technical advantage that may be unbeatable on the battlefield, but even with such superiority the mission — achieving a durable peace and a political result — may remain elusive.
Simply put, UV’s are tools and weapons in warfare and intelligence. They are meant to carry out specific tasks or operations, but must be taken seriously. UV’s will undoubtedly continue to be important aspects of warfare in the future, but their flaws must be addressed in order for them to maintain their position as an extraordinary weapon.