Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) are increasingly becoming commonplace. Yes, in many respects, they are just a modification of your father’s remote-controlled airplane. But make no mistake about it, the technology is there and applicable for all sorts of commercial uses. Once the FAA eases restrictions on commercial drone use, it will be Katy bar the door. A new Gold Rush will ensue. UPS and Amazon envision drones carrying payloads targeted for your home – your packages. And maybe, just maybe Dominos might deliver my pizza on time.
But my focus for the last year or so has been on national security, international law, and the games people play in international relations. With that in mind, it puts the use of drones in a very different environment. In that regard, the Department of Defense defines drones as an unmanned powered aerial vehicle that can carry a lethal or non-lethal payload. It is remote targeted killing. These are not weapons of mass destruction but rather weapons of mass precision.
There are many advantages in utilizing drones for military objectives:
1.) They can be a wise choice because of geography and their ability to fly hundreds of miles over rugged terrain, strike their targets, and then return to base.
2.) They dramatically reduce the danger to civilians as opposed to massive ordinances that cause injury and death far beyond its intended target.
3.) Compared with other options, drones with the benefit of technology and distances might have a clearer picture of the target and its surroundings, including the presence of innocent civilians. They have the ability to hover for hours, which conventional aircraft cannot do.
4.) They are a better strategic choice than relying on large armies abroad. Countries typically don’t want foreign soldiers on their soil. These long, costly wars drain us financially, inflame anti-American resentment and inspire the next generation of terrorists.
But before you think I’m just a shill for the military industrial complex, there are some drawbacks in utilizing drones for military purposes. The rallying cry for terrorists these days is not Guantanamo, but the drones themselves. The targeting of leaders has had only a short-term impact on neutralizing terrorist violence. And every civilian casualty, while minimized, still represents an alienated family, a desire for revenge, and the willingness to sign up for a terrorist organization that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.
But perhaps the most profound issues raised by drones is an environment created for killing that’s risk free, remote, and detached from human cues. In essence, a PlayStation video game mentality. And just when I believe the critics have an open and shut case, I read David Sanger’s excellent book Confront And Conceal. We find out that there is still a human element in modern warfare…at least for now. The actual drone operators who are stationed in bases from the Nevada desert to the Virginia coast are not soulless machines. Many are former seasoned conventional military pilots. In fact, one drone operator mentioned in Sanger’s book, speaks of dropping bombs from flying airplanes in which the faces of the people targeted were not seen. Now the drone pilots are much more cognizant of “human concerns in these situations”. These operators watch their targets for day - some playing with their children, going to soccer practice or school, making shopping trips. Its amazing to see that in many respects terrorists are just like you and me – Jihad be damned. And before the final strike, drone operators feel like they almost know too much about their targets. And then a drone with the menacing name of the Predator carrying up to two 500-pound smart bombs guides its way to the target. You leave, maybe you take your kid to soccer practice and on the way to the suburban sanctuaries of American life, you think about the target that was obliterated on your video screen – someone who would have no reservations about killing you, your child, or someone else’s child. Does it make things easier? No, but I’m glad that humans are still making decisions about these weighty matters. The alternative is worse than any Predator bomb.