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In the history of warfare, there have been a few major revolutions: the advent of the firearm, the introduction of nuclear power and weaponry, and the launch of military satellites to name a few. A new revolution is taking place right now on the battlefields of the world: wars are fought increasingly by drones. Of course, people are still in the line of fire, and they always will be (the Pentagon stated last year that there were 1.4 million active US troops overseas)—but their role and numbers could be vastly different than they are now. There’s no question that drones are changing the face of warfare: militaries have always been in technology races, but never before has the winner of the race gained the ability to wage war without putting troops on the front line.
All indicators point to this increasing in scope. A recent academic paper by Mariarosaria Taddeo reported that the US government deployed 150 “robotic weapons” in 2004, and an astonishing 12,000 in 2008. That’s an increase by a factor of 80 in four years (though it’s important to remember that the majority of these drones are unarmed).
Drone Use Increasing
Drones aren’t only used for military purposes; US Customs and Border Protection uses Reaper drones to patrol the border between the US and its neighbors. The Department of Homeland Security is also reportedly using them. Police and fire departments around the country are purchasing drones to help in patrolling. Retailers are testing drones for delivering purchases. You can even get a drone that will follow you around and film you. The FAA estimates that by 2020, there could be up to 30,000 drones operating in domestic airspace. A site dedicated to US national security and defense has estimated that every country in the world will have military drone technology in the next 10 years. Of course, the rise of drones isn’t an isolated event; the cyber battlefront is quickly becoming one of the most active in international conflicts. “Information warfare,” a term that generally includes both drones and cyber warfare, has also given rise to the unnerving creation of ground-based military robots that don’t require any human control. While most drones are remotely operated by soldiers, South Korea’s SGR-A1 (made by Samsung’s defense subsidiary) and Russia’s Taifun-M are two examples of robots with lethal capacity that have self-operating capabilities.
It’s obvious that drones are quickly changing the face of the world, primarily in regard to warfare, but also in the civilian sector. What could this change mean for the future? At the moment, there’s a lot of speculation and a lot of disagreement. World leaders have always had to justify wars to their people, saying that there’s a cause worth shedding the blood of their children for—but what happens when no more blood is being shed? Will countries be more willing to go to war? Tim Hsia and Jared Sperli seem to think so. In a blog post at the New York Times, they had this to say:
Ultimately, it seems possible that these major changes will make it easier to wage war because the risks to American servicemen have been minimized. Wars will be fought not only by soldiers with boots on the ground but also by soldiers sitting in front of computer and video monitors. Tomorrow’s future warriors could very much resemble today’s civilian Xbox video gamers.
And if you’ve been following the history of drone strikes made by the US, you know that it’s made a number of strikes on countries that it hasn’t gone to war with, generally as counterterrorism measures. Some worry that this gives more military power to the executive branch of the government, skewing the balance of power within the government. Peter Singer, in an interview with NPR, pointed out that
Obama skirted congressional authorization for military action in Libya, arguing that air support for the European effort did not risk U.S. forces. Yet, he says, the U.S. carried out 146 airstrikes in Libya — including a final strike that may have contributed to the capture of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
146 airstrikes sounds a lot like going to war, but they were undertaken without congressional authorization. That makes many people uncomfortable.
A recent report from the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. criticised the US government’s use of drone technology, saying that it challenges the sovereignty of other nations, and could create a “domino effect,” encouraging other countries to perform questionably legal drone strikes. (To read some of the highlights of the 80-page report, check out this article.) Obviously, the future of warfare is currently up in the air (pun intended). It’s against this geopolitical background that discussion of drones, including this one, take place. There’s only one thing we know for sure: that the technology being researched for use in advanced military drones—and in counter-measures for those drones—is mind-blowingly cool.
Military Drone Technology
At the moment, drones aren’t all that technologically advanced. The original Predator drone flew at 84 mph, not much faster than the train that I’m writing this article on. The US military freely admits that it’s not too hard to shoot down a drone. But that will change soon. A new surveillance drone that is likely ready to put into action, Northrop Grumman’s RQ-180, incorporates stealth technology to avoid radar detection. According to Aviation Week, it has a 130-foot wingspan and may be able to stay in the air for a very long time; possibly as long as 24 hours. The SR-72, a drone in development by Lockheed Martin, is projected to be able to travel at six times the speed of sound, and to serve as both a surveillance and strike platform. It might be easy to shoot down a Predator or a Reaper, but it’s going to be awfully hard to hit something moving at Mach 6. The Pentagon is funding another project from Northrop, the X-47, a triangular combat drone with folding wings that could take off from and land on aircraft carriers, further increasing the global reach of the US drone program. According to the Department of Defense’s drone development timeline, the DoD is hoping for autonomous global missions by 2022.
Of course, effective autonomy isn’t something we have yet, so that’s also high on the list for drone developers. The same timeline states that “effective unmanned teaming” should be achieved by 2018, allowing two completely autonomous drones to share information. Imagine: one drone could run surveillance from the edge of the atmosphere, relay targetting instructions to another, and the second would perform a strike, all without any human intervention. The ability of a surveillance drone to pick out items of interest is also of great interest to the military. Having soldiers and intelligence officers review the videos and photos taken from drones takes a lot of time. It would be a whole lot more efficient if the drones could just red-flag items that might be of interest to the military. (This is the kind of thing that DARPA is working on, and you can be sure that they’re bringing their highly advanced computing technologies to bear on the problem.) If you’ve ever seen a military drone, you know that they’re quite big. (If you haven’t seen one, go to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and check out the Predator drone there—it’s a fascinating and unnerving experience.) Many advances have been made toward creating much smaller drones. This is where current technology starts to blend with science fiction.
Researchers are building drones the size of insects that can be used for reconaissance or strikes, and although it’s difficult to estimate when this kind of technology will be deployed on the battlefield, it’s a safe bet that they’re currently being tested. Once they’re ready for deployment, there will be no denying that we’ve reached a new military age.
Drone tech isn’t the only thing that’s advancing rapidly; civilian and military organizations are both pushing hard to develop countermeasures for drones. Boeing, for example, recently tested an anti-drone laser “cannon” that can shoot down drones, rockets, and 60mm mortar shells, among over 100 other targets. For testing, a 10kW laser was used, but Boeing plans on upping the power to 50 or 60kW when it’s deployed by the military. Fun fact: the operator of this laser uses an Xbox controller to operate it. The US Navy has also tested a similar weapon, which shot down a drone in a live test last year. These lasers will be mounted on ships and trucks, making them highly mobile and capable of defending a wide swath of territory.
But what about other sorts of anti-drone technology? The fact that UAVs are platforms that require GPS, radio, and other signalling devices makes them susceptible to other forms of attack. Iran claims that it hacked a US drone and landed it a few years ago, while the US claims that it malfunctioned and crashed. Either way, it’s clear that hacking could be a problem for drone operations. An Oregon company, Domestic Drone Countermeasures, LLC, has been developing an electronic drone detecting system for some time now, despite a failed Kickstarter campaign. While the system currently only detects low-flying drones like those used by private citizens and police forces, they hope that it will eventually be able to disrupt the camera and other sensors on these drones.
The Future of Warfare
As you can see, the world of drone warfare is a complicated place. The world is still trying to figure out just how to think about drones as weapons of war. The UN is currently debating the issue, and will release a statement in November. The technology is undeniably impressive, and we can only hope that the research trickles down into more civilian and mundane spheres. But this technology is only one part of the system that will determine how nations wage war in the future.
Hsia and Sperli sum it up perfectly:
The future will require a nimble military that will be able to wage full spectrum warfare from counterinsurgency in remote outposts in Afghanistan’s tribal regions to a cyberwarfare campaign possibly initiated in the basement of a state or nonstate actor. Like other major technological changes facing society today, the problem will not be whether or not technology can accomplish a certain feat but whether our nation’s leaders fully understand the moral, social and political consequences of utilizing such technologies.
How do you feel about drones as weapons of war? Should they be used? Are the ethical implications too great? Or would you rather that they’re destroyed, instead of our soldiers killed, no matter the political and ideological cost? This is a controversial area; share your thoughts below!