Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare

By William M. Arkin

Little, Brown. 391 pp. $28

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. military operated fewer than 200 unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones. Today that number has ballooned to roughly 12,000. In 2001, drone attacks totaled 22,000 combat flight hours. A decade later the same measure had escalated to 550,000. The exploding number and deployment of drones have consumed a burgeoning allocation of financial resources. From 2001 to 2013, government funding for drones and other unmanned systems increased from about $350 million to well more than $5 billion a year, financing a fleet that is continuously in flight above Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Africa, Latin America and other countries and regions.

That investment has created a big-data and intelligence juggernaut. The amount of visual data collected by drones each day is the equivalent of “five seasons’ worth of every professional football game played,” a total that will only increase over time. As William M. Arkin reports in “Unmanned,” the drone technology of tomorrow will have staggering power. “The next generation of wide-area motion imagery sensors will be capable of collecting 2.2 petabytes per day, bringing 450 percent more data into the network than all of Facebook adds on a typical day.”

‘Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare’ by William M. Arkin (Little, Brown)

While the United States is the global leader in drone technology, its example has been broadly emulated. Eighty-eight nations operate drones, and 54 countries manufacture their own. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea have robust drone programs. Even nonstate actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah utilize them. State-of-the-art drones such as the Predator, which can stay aloft for 40 hours at a stretch, have enmeshed themselves into U.S. military and intelligence strategy by providing an integrated capability for surveillance, reconnaissance, data analysis and lethal action via precision-guided missiles that rain down destruction from the skies without putting American soldiers at risk.

According to Arkin, drones are the ultimate disruptive technology, their dynamic and multifaceted functionality creating an equal degree of risk and opportunity. Drone warfare and targeted lethal action have shaped “a policy predicated on a capability,” with even more significant consequences soon to come: “I see drones and the Data Machine they serve — the unmanned with all of its special and unique ways — as the greatest threat to our national security, our safety, and our very way of life.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles became essential to the U.S. military in August 1995, when they were first deployed to provide live video feeds of the war in Bosnia. The technology evolved from a reconnaissance tool to a weapons platform when, six years later, a Predator test-fired a Hellfire laser-guided missile at a stationary tank target in Nevada. Today the American arsenal of drones ranges from airplane-size, remotely piloted vehicles with vast payloads — like the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk — to hand-held devices such as the Raven, available to essentially every battlefield unit, providing soldiers with the capacity to see over hills and scout unseen terrain.

Arkin predicts that drones will become ubiquitous in American life, absorbed not only into military affairs and intelligence collection but environmental monitoring, energy exploration, mass transportation and other domains. Drones will facilitate the aggregation and analysis of an almost endless stream of data, including “photos in the visible spectrum, infrared images, synthetic aperture radar, light detection and ranging, or spectral renderings . . . sound waves, facial recognition, smells, the special and unique gait of an individual’s stride . . . a dormant cell phone, a computer keystroke in front of a screen.”

Viewed in its totality, “Unmanned” has two formidable strengths and one unfortunately fatal flaw. The author of many other volumes of military history and analysis, Arkin has done exemplary research, mastering a vast technical and specialized literature, which he documents thoroughly in his end notes. And the questions he grapples with are not only legitimate but urgent. In his analysis, drone technology is facilitating an American descent into “low cost perpetual warfare,” which is slowly disassociating average citizens from the costs and risks of lethal action conducted by remote control. This is not an original thesis — it was previously explored by the astute pundit Rachel Maddow in her excellent and nuanced work “Drift” — but it remains vital nonetheless.

These virtues of “Unmanned” are sadly dissipated, however, by the author himself. Arkin is an undisciplined and deeply self-indulgent writer. He ostentatiously inserts himself into the action, providing unnecessary travelogue from visits to Iraq and Afghanistan. He rants when he should reason. “The illusion of perfect warfare,” he insists, “is little more than a blaring video game endlessly played to higher and higher levels and higher scores, but one being played in a crumbling crack house.”

He delivers broad pronouncements that are merely stated, not substantiated. In the late 1990s, he opines, “our entire system of national security was on its way to becoming autonomous and unmanned.” His tone is often that of an irate blogger: “Feed me! Is this the human condition of intelligence, of the Data Machine? That the Machine churns on because it serves no purpose except to ingest everything?” A literary device he deploys dozens of times — references to the ancient Mesopotamian “Epic of Gilgamesh” — is pretentious and tedious. Finally, some of his flourishes devolve into unintelligible drivel: “Despite the army’s continued scramble to get its own Predator no matter what, IGnat-ER cum Warrior cum Sky Warrior Block cum Warrior Block 0 cum Warrior Alpha cum Sky Warrior Block 1 moved forward.”

The author’s erratic prose is all the more lamentable because his subject matter is fascinating and important. As “Unmanned” persuasively demonstrates, drone technology will have a profound impact on our lives in myriad and perhaps unanticipated ways in the years ahead.