Killing Machines: Promises and Limits
Summary: Unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones, UAVs) are a large step toward autonomous killing machines (aka Terminators) that will eventually become another generation of warfare. By themselves they bring the long-standing dream of precision bombing to a degree undreamed of when first imagined in the 1930′s. Used outside war zones (aka on the “global battlefield”) against targeted individuals they make assassination a routine tool of statecraft, another new development in western civilization.
Tara Mckelvey’s “Inside The Killing Machine” (Newsweek, 13 February 2011) and Robert Kinder’s “The Promise And Limits Of Drones” (New York Daily News, 14 February 2011) are very revealing in ways I suspect that are not intended with their eloquent descriptions of video-game approach to warfare. For example Kinder writes:
“The five men sat huddled together on the floor of the remote building, deep in the mountains of North Waziristan, in Western Pakistan. Bending over a map, they plotted an attack against a U.S. outpost located just over the border in neighboring Afghanistan. Meanwhile, miles away, a pilot stared intently at the screen in front of her as she remotely piloted one of America’s most lethal weapons. Unbeknownst to the men, the unmanned Predator she was flying had acquired their position and was quietly circling thousands of feet above. Two Hellfire missiles crashed through the roof of the home, instantly killing them and curtailing their planned attack on the U.S. base.”
This detached video game depiction by Kinder is further detailed by Mckelvey who writes:
“It was an ordinary-looking room located in an office building in northern Virginia. The place was filled with computer monitors, keyboards, and maps. Someone sat at a desk with his hand on a joystick. John A. Rizzo, who was serving as the CIA’s acting general counsel, hovered nearby, along with other people from the agency. Together they watched images on a screen… the bureaucracy behind the operations reveals that it is multilayered and methodical, run by a corps of civil servants who carry out their duties in a professional manner. Still, the fact that Rizzo was involved in “murder”, as he sometimes puts it, and that operations are planned in advance in a legalistic fashion …”
These two articles are a window on our current and recurring addiction to technology and legal wrappings with little regard for the unintended consequences. Eventually a host of civilian lawyers like the one described by Mckelvey will fancy themselves as warrior combatants. The unintended consequences of this sterile Game-Boy approach are serious; the thinking will be that all military action can be waged by legalistic civilian-combatants from their “living room” centralized at the X-Box Central. And with the revelations from writers like Mckelvey that civilians are the drone-trigger-pullers behind the scenes now all U.S. civilians are legitimate targets and combatants.
Mckelvey’s article should have been titled the Delusions of a Want-A-Be-Video-Hit-Man. The Predator about which Kinder writes spells sophisticated costly technology (i.e. drones) and contractors which quite conveniently replace military uniforms — for a price. I suspect all naval choke points will be controlled by drones and we will not need ships.
It is possible that in the future DOD will need fewer military personnel but more Predators and contractors to wage Game Boy wars. No doubt the “bad guys” will soon learn how to defeat our drones. Recall all the billions spent on satellite technology and how it was the answer to HUMINT. We still chase this technological mad hatter down the rabbit hole. By now we should have learned what tunneling and hugging tactics can do. Of course, we spent billions seeking a technological solution to defeating IEDs — with little to show for it.
The good thing about technology is the technology; the bad thing about technology is the technology – and the over-reliance on it.
If over-reliance on technology does not give us the edge then what? I suggest it is people in uniform, the very thing technology and contractors want to replace with costly high tech hardware and contracts. Ralph Peters perhaps says it best: “Only human beings can penetrate the minds of other human beings” (Real Clear Politics, 26 August 2006).
Military historians seldom grasp wiz-bang effects. As Robert Bolia said: “One of the imprints of the Yom Kippur War on military history has been the lessons it has provided regarding the danger of relying on technology as a replacement for doctrine, tactics, and training” (“Overreliance on Technology in Warfare: The Yom Kippur War as a Case Study“, Parameters, Summer 2004)
For more information about drone warfare
- Prattling about the legalities by the skilled attorneys at the Volokh Conspiracy. But government-loving attorney cohort will explain why anything it does is legal, why bother? Including indefinite detention without trial, torture, and assassination of of citizens.
- Filling the Skies with Assassins, Tom Engelhardt, 7 April 2009
- The Forty-Year Drone War, Nick Turse, 24 January 2010
- James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, on the FM website, 18 May 2010
- America Detached from War, Tom Engelhardt, 24 June 2010 — Bush’s Pilotless Dream, Smoking Drones, and Other Strange Tales from the Crypt
- America plays the Apollo Option: killing from the sky, Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired, 26 August 2010
- An excellent introduction: “Drone Wars: Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles“, Andrew Callam, International Affairs Review, Winter 2010
- “The Drone Wars – Killing by remote control in Pakistan“, The Atlantic, December 2010