Are Predator drones a technological tipping point in warfare?

April 24, 2011

Debates are growing at home and abroad over the increasing use of remotely piloted, armed drones, with a new study by the British Defense Ministry questioning whether advances in their capabilities will lead future decision-makers to “resort to war as a policy option far sooner than previously.”

Active and retired U.S. Air Force officers involved in developing drones stress that the aircraft brings in more decision-makers, better targeting data and more accurate delivery systems than fighter jets.

But use of the unmanned aerial vehicles has drawn growing public scrutiny based on their lethal attacks in Pakistan against al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan against the Taliban, in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and most recently in Libya, as announced Thursday by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The British study noted that drones are becoming increasingly automated. With minor technical advances, it said, a drone could soon be able to “fire a weapon based solely on its own sensors, or shared information, and without recourse to higher, human authority.” It cautioned that the Defense Ministry “currently has no intention to develop” such systems.

Nonetheless, the aircraft, piloted by people far from the battlefield, represents an approaching technological tipping point “that may well deliver a genuine revolution in military affairs,” according to the Joint Doctrine Note, which was conducted under the direction of the British Chiefs of Staff. Titled “The United Kingdom Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” it was first disclosed last week by the Guardian newspaper.


The use of drones in conflicts in the Middle East has become mired in controversy as the aircraft have been blamed for civilian deaths. (Defense Department via AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The British study said it was essential that military officials not “risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely” by using armed drones. It also asserted, however, that the laws of war call on commanders on both sides of the fight to limit loss of life and that “use of unmanned aircraft prevents the potential loss of aircrew lives and is thus in itself morally justified.”

At a Washington conference of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) last week, the issue of drones was also widely discussed.

Lt. Col. Bruce Black, program manager for the Air Force Predator and Reaper aircraft, noted that some 180 people are involved in each drone mission. The result, he said, is that “there is more ethical oversight involved with unmanned air vehicles than with manned aircraft.”

At the same conference, former CIA director Michael V. Hayden described how, with a Predator circling overhead, those involved in ordering use of its missiles from thousands of miles away can call up computer maps that show the potential effects of each weapon.

Before any of the Hellfire missiles are launched, he said, the backup team asks for the “the bug splat” of the attack — a readout of the impact the missile would have on its ground target. Nothing comparable can be done with ground-supporting manned aircraft, he said.

But the drones have become part of the propaganda war where they are used. Without referencing the Taliban or al Qaeda, the British paper noted that insurgents have cast themselves as the underdog against a “cowardly bully . . . that is unwilling to risk his own troops, but is happy to kill remotely.”

Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, acknowledged that the use of drones comes with potential problems with public perceptions. “Our adversaries have interjected this as a question in [people’s] minds, as an attempt to limit the use of what is very, very effective,” he said.

At the IISS conference, participants were asked whether drone operators had been desensitized to killing, because they were so far away from the battlefield.

Col. Dean Bushey, deputy director of the Air Force Joint Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center, pointed out that the crews that run Predators in Nevada go through the exact routines that airplane pilots do prior to a mission. They go through a restricted area, wear brown flight suits, receive a mission brief and are put into a “warrior ethos” before ever stepping into a ground control station. “You are executing a mission to save lives,” he said.

Black said that when a Predator operator is connected to a fighter on the ground in Afghanistan, “you can hear his voice and you can hear the bullets whistling over his head. You feel that pressure.” He vividly described an operator in Nevada, sitting at a computer console and listening and looking at his colleague thousands of miles away through a micro-picture view.

“My situational awareness of what he is going through at that time is probably better than a guy that showed up at 10 minutes on station and dropped a weapon and left,” Black said. “I see my effects, I watched, I listened, I was with him the five hours prior to that. . . . I’d say we are very much in the fight.”

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