The Dirt On Drones

Drone Strike

Drone Strike

It’s so odd how all of this got started. The naming, that is. A drone is a male bee, and with bees the drones don’t seem to do much except to carry bee sperm to assist in the making of new bees. They don’t work, and, except early in their lives, they don’t fly. They mate with a queen bee in flight, and shortly after, they die. It would seem a drone is a useful, expendable, piece of hardware. But what likely got unpiloted aircraft to be called drones was the semblance of early such aircraft to the noisy, chunky drone bee.

Unpiloted aircraft have been in use since about 1849, when Austria used free-drifting balloons to attack Venice with bombs. We have gotten much better in the years since.

An early use of drone aircraft was target practice. Gunners needed something to shoot at, and towed targets did not always fill the bill. Some early drones were simply combat aircraft that had outlived their usefulness. They were fitted with remote control, and sent aloft to finish their lives testing guidance systems for missiles. In the past 35 years military drones have graduated to more sophisticated roles.

Backtracking a little, the first highly-successful drone combat vehicle was the German V-1, used in World War Two. It was a jet-powered aircraft with stubby wings and fitted with an 1870-pound warhead. In sophistication the V-1 was the aerial equivalent to the underwater torpedo. You launched it, it flew a prescribed course, it (sometimes) hit the target.

Following the war the United States and other countries completed the development of the concept, and a recent result was the Tomahawk. This is still in use, and has demonstrated remarkable utility. Launched from a submersible or from a surface ship, it can fly itself hundreds of miles, following a prescribed course to avoid terrain or hostile situations and can strike with pinpoint accuracy, thanks to the addition of GPS navigation. None of the Tomahawks now carry nuclear warheads, but they do offer a conventional warhead of 1000 pounds or a variety of submunitions.

I worked on two Tomahawk programs, neither of which went anywhere. Both made use of this drone’s ability to manage its own flight path, compliments of a load of sophisticated software.

One of these programs was called simply “Smart Weapons,” and for many months it paid the bills around our house. The idea was to equip the Tomahawk with a variety of imaging systems and send it off to locate and attack, on its own, enemy targets. These might be mobile missile launchers, armored vehicles, whatever was easily recognized as a military target. At the time I recognized that a mistake in the computer code could get a school bus recognized as a Scud launcher. And therein lies some concern regarding pilotless warcraft.

The notion that the Obama Administration has carried out drone strikes only when there is “near-certainty of no collateral damage” is easily disproved propaganda. America hasn’t killed a handful of innocents or a few dozen in the last 8 years. Credible, independent attempts to determine how many civilians the Obama administration has killed arrived at numbers in the hundreds or low thousands.  And there is good reason to believe that they undercount the civilians killed.

That’s it. Modern warfare has turned to extensive use of drone warcraft, and civilians are getting killed. Call me a bleeding-heart liberal if you want, but I have to wonder at this concern. In the interest of Skeptical Analysis, here is a reality check.

From the moment warriors started using missiles in combat, they started killing people they did not intend to kill. Pass over for a moment that through history non-combatants have been the target of war fighters. Sometimes the objective of a military mission was to wipe out an entire village, town, nation of people. As the use of missiles escalated, unintended consequences tracked upward.

Arrows (they are missiles) were not much of a problem, since you generally have a target in view before you let fly with an arrow. Then came long-range artillery, and gunners started firing over the hill, even over the horizon. Spotters were needed, but the gunner could never know for sure who was on the receiving end of the shell. In World War One the Germans shelled Paris from a distance of about 100 miles. To be sure, civilians were the target.

Came World War Two, and civilians were promoted to military targets. Generally, the pilots of these warplanes saw what they were aiming at and knew about the presence of civilians in the target zone. Sometimes mistakes were made, at least once with some irony. The United States Army Air Force was on a mission to bomb a Ford Motor Company plant in Belgium. Yes, an American company commandeered for Nazi war work. The bombardier made a mistake. He lined up on a park for his initial point and set his bomb sight to track it. He forgot to disengage the auto release, and the bombs released on the park, taking out a row of buildings adjacent to the park. It turned out this particular row of buildings was a major German Wehrmacht command center, only slightly reducing the embarrassment.

And my point is, seventy years have gone by, and we are suddenly concerned with civilian casualties. The difference being? The difference being that now there is no pilot risking his life to make these kinds of mistakes. And I think I know what the problem is.

Somewhere along the line somebody has decided that warfare is a sort of sport, and rules of fairness need to apply. When I read critiques of this country’s drone combat I’m unable to get past the implication that lack of chivalry lies at the base. Detractors hint at the anonymity involved in these transactions—as though warfare needs to be up close and personal. Critics may want us to ignore that lack of personal involvement has been a growing element in warfare for hundreds of years. Some examples.

The romantic image of fighter pilots going one-on-one contributes to their (deserved) heroic image. Two warriors face off in a boundless sky and do battle until one of them is dead. Truth is, it seldom happens that way. Most fighter-on-fighter kills are by ambush. Catch the enemy unaware, charge out of nowhere, guns and missiles blazing, then make a quick escape.

Navy sniper Chris Kyle has been maligned by detractors for killing people from ambush. I am guessing these critics have 1) never been in combat, 2) never talked to somebody who has been in combat, 3) never made a serious study of the history of combat. No soldier in his right mind wants a fair fight. What a soldier wants, what a soldier should want, is to win the fight.

And that’s where drones come in. Drones have been recognized for decades as an answer to pilot attrition, the scourge of air warfare. Not only does pilot attrition drain the priceless resource of trained and experienced warriors, its effect on the morale of combatants cuts into mission effectiveness. In the European air war of World War Two, missions into the German capitol of Berlin were euphemistically called “going downtown.” For many it was a one-way trip. Decades later, when I worked on software for the Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW), they had a big poster boosting its potential. The poster headlined “No more going downtown.”

After all this, the implication—the claim—that drone strikes are inherently more deadly to non-combatants than piloted strikes doesn’t bear reason:

  • Both drone strikes and piloted strikes require prior and extensive surveillance to ensure the worth of the target. And also to minimize civilian casualties.
  • In the case of a drone strike, the operator can study the target at greater leisure before dispensing munitions. This is because the drone is often less obvious to defenders and is also more oblivious to counter fire.
  • A pilot, taking with him on his mission the 100% requirement to return to base, is eager to get in and out more quickly.

There are issues that skew the statistics differentiating drone strikes. A drone strike is more likely to be undertaken. Drones go places where pilots will not be sent. Drones get the dirty jobs. Drones strike deep into enemy territory, even into sovereign airspace. Miles from ground combat is where civilians reside, and these missions are more likely to be assigned to drones. Conceding a point: some missions would not be carried out without the benefit of drones. With drones removed from the equation, there would be fewer missions. There would be fewer enemy casualties. There would be fewer civilian casualties.

Finally, what inspired this dive into the morality of warfare:

Use of police robot to kill Dallas shooting suspect believed to be first in US history

Police’s lethal use of bomb-disposal robot in Thursday’s ambush worries legal experts who say it creates gray area in use of deadly force by law enforcement

[University of California at Davis law professor Elizabeth] Joh said she was worried that the decision by police to use robots to end lives had been arrived at far too casually. “Lethally armed police robots raise all sorts of new legal, ethical, and technical questions we haven’t decided upon in any systematic way,” she said. “Under federal constitutional law, excessive-force claims against the police are governed by the fourth amendment. But we typically examine deadly force by the police in terms of an immediate threat to the officer or others. It’s not clear how we should apply that if the threat is to a robot – and the police may be far away.” That, Joh added, is only one condition for the use of lethal force. “In other words, I don’t think we have a framework for deciding objectively reasonable robotic force. And we need to develop regulations and policies now, because this surely won’t be the last instance we see police robots.”

Others are not so gracious. Much that has been said cites “lack of due process” and more:

Many noted the connection between potentially the first use of an armed robot in domestic policing and the deployment of such tools in active war zones. Defense technology expert Peter W. Singer wrote on Twitter, “this is 1st use of robot in this way in policing. Marcbot has been ad hoc used this way by troops in Iraq.”

[Marjorie Cohn, Professor Emerita at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law and editor and contributor to Drones and Targeted Killings: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues] said, “The same way that the Obama administration uses unmanned drones in other countries to kill people instead of arresting them and bringing them to trial, we see a similar situation here….As the technology develops, we’re going to see the increasing use of military weapons in the hands of the police, which is going to inflame and exacerbate a very volatile situation.”

“We can see that many of the weapons that are being used by the military are in the hands of the police,” she added. “This is a very volatile situation, very dangerous situation, and is only going to make the tensions worse and kill people and violate constitutional rights.”

Left-wing liberal that I am, I see little distinction between using a robot to blow up an individual posing a threat and rolling an M67 fragmentation grenade his way. Or bringing in a sniper. To be sure, Micah Xavier Johnson had not been arrested. He had not been charged with a crime. He did not receive his day in court, and no judge or jury passed sentence and handed down a death sentence. Whether this was the day or whether this was the instance for executive action, neither have bearing on the use of a robot to do the deed.

Once you have decided to take a human life, you have passed by all matters regarding the process.

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