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

2 thoughts on “Killing Machines: Promises and Limits”

  1. Comment received about

    In the 3 April 2007 edition of Army Times appeared an article {see below} announcing that soldiers who operate unmanned aerial vehicles now are eligible for award of the Aviation Badge, Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal.

    This would be side-splittingly funny if it weren’t true. Only a mind numbing bureaucracy, bereft of any common sense could produce such a regulation. Since the DFC (ranking just behind the Silver Star) is awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement, what would constitute such actions by a controller hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the scene of the action? Would the citation mention how his ass got sore from sitting on it all day or how he skipped lunch to complete the mission?

    Also, it’s not a big step from UAV’s patrolling desolate stretches of the Southwest border looking for illegal activity to constantly circling drones over our main population centers to provide “around the clock security.”

    UAV operators now can get aviation awards“, Army Times, 3 April 2007 — Opening:

    Soldiers who operate unmanned aerial vehicles now are eligible for award of the Aviation Badge, Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal. The policy change will be included in an upcoming revision of Army Regulation 600-8-22 (Military Awards). Under the new policy, approved last month, unmanned aerial vehicle system warrant officers and enlisted operators may be awarded the DFC or AM “if they are physically located on the aircraft (system) during the cited period, and all criteria for the decorations have been met.”

    * The Distinguished Flying Cross is a prestigious decoration that ranks just behind the Silver Star as a valor medal. It is awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement.
    * The Air Medal is awarded for heroism, outstanding achievement or meritorious service. It ranks behind the Bronze Star, but in front of the Army Commendation Medal.
    * There are three degrees of Aviation Badges, which previously were called Aircraft Crewmember Badges. The Basic Aviation Badge is awarded upon successful completion of advanced individual training in a designated career field or military occupational specialty, and to warrant officers upon successful completion of the MOS 150U (tactical UAV operations technician).

  2. New books about "Predators and Robots at War"

    Predators and Robots at War“, New York Review of Books, 29 September 2011 — Excerpt:

    Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies around the country eagerly await the moment when they can start operating their own UAVs. The Federal Aviation Administration is considering rules that will allow police departments to start using them within the next few years (perhaps as early as 2014). Soon, much sooner than you realize, your speeding tickets will be issued electronically to your cell phone from a drone hovering somewhere over the interstate.

    … The legal issues involved are complex. Philip Alston, an expert in international law appointed by the United Nations to examine the question, asserted in a report that, “Outside the context of armed conflict, the use of drones for targeted killing is almost never likely to be legal.”5 The trick, of course, is how we define “armed conflict” in an age of non-state-affiliated terrorist and insurgent groups operating from places where the writ of a central government does not extend. International law, some experts say, gives the US the right to protect its forces in Afghanistan against attacks staged by al-Qaeda and its allies in the tribal areas—while whether the drone strikes violate Pakistani sovereignty depends largely on agreements we have with the Pakistani government, a point that remains somewhat mysterious.

    The Obama administration might help matters by providing an explanation of the legal rationale for the program. But so far it has declined to do so, aside from a brief statement by a leading State Department legal adviser that cited the internationally recognized right to self-defense.6 In this respect it is only to be welcomed that scholars around the world are engaged in an active debate about the legal implications of the drone campaigns.

    Given that more than forty countries around the world are now experimenting with military robots of their own, the United States cannot rest on the assumption that it will retain a monopoly over this technology forever. The day when US forces are attacked by a drone — perhaps even one operated by a terrorist — is not far away.

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