17 December 2009

Modern warfare: drones attack public connection to battlefields far away

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, insurgent forces in Iraq are using a $26 software program to compromise U.S. Predator unmanned flying drones.

The insurgents are using programs like SkyGrabber, which captures live feeds from the drone’s cameras, allowing them to see what is getting beamed back to U.S. forces. U.S. officials are saying that there isn’t any evidence that insurgents were able to take control of the drones, but the intercepted imagery could give an advantage “by removing the element of surprise” from certain missions.

U.S. military forces have thousands of these drones in service, some of which are capable of carrying out missile strikes. Robotic technology has advanced greatly since the first primitive unmanned recon vehicles (basically glorified remote-controlled airplanes with cameras) used during the first Gulf War. Now, Predator drones can linger silently over a target for hours or days at a time, controlled by U.S. Air Force handlers half a world away.

The abilities these drones possess create new ethical issues. Jane Mayer, author of a New Yorker Magazine article called “The Predator War,” raised a good point during an NPR interview this fall.

“If we can’t feel the impact of the people that we’re killing and we can’t see them, and none of our own people (are) at risk, does this somehow make it easier to just be in a perpetual state of war because there’s no seeming cost to us? ... My sense is that (with) this kind of technology, there’s going to be no turning back.”

P.W. Singer, author of “Wired for War,” put it another way.

“This is leading some of the first generation of soldiers working with robots to worry that war waged by remote control will come to seem too easy, too tempting. More than a century ago, Gen. Robert E. Lee famously observed: ‘It is good that we find war so horrible, or else we would become fond of it.’ He didn’t contemplate a time when a pilot could ‘go to war’ by commuting to work each morning in his Toyota to a cubicle where he could shoot missiles at an enemy thousands of miles away and then make it home in time for his kid’s soccer practice.”

If the American populace knows that U.S. troops will be sent in harm’s way, they ask troubling questions – like ‘why are we doing this?’ With robots, there are no such questions, because robots aren’t people. They aren’t citizen soldiers whose parents and spouses raise holy hell when a loved one doesn’t come back from the battlefield. The impact of a loss of a drone doesn’t dent approval ratings or political capital.

I was watching an interesting documentary the other night called “Why We Fight.” It states the opinion that real opposition to the Vietnam War at home started in earnest when the lottery system made it so that middle and upper class children faced the real risk of being drafted. The armed forces responded, in the wake of Vietnam, with an “all-volunteer force.”. While this may, as some have argued, created a better military, it also had the effect of removing the commonality of military service from American life.

In the decades since, it seems that the military has become more and more of a detached entity from the lives of the average American, who may know few people in the service. Removing this connection has, in my opinion, removed some of the human cost from recent military decisions. Dead soldiers still come home at Dover Air Force Base, sure – but public outcry over their deaths is muted.

Robots will only carry this detachment to another level. Removing the human element from a military operation will negate questions regarding said operations. After all, who cares if we lose a drone? It’s just a robot. Now, if that same mission were being carried out by a human pilot, and that pilot were shot down and taken prisoner, the resulting firestorm of criticism would be damaging. Removing the human removes this risk – and gives those in power a freer hand for performing consequence-free operations.

Remember this, though – those robots perform missions against human beings. They may be our enemies, but their deaths are very real. Sept. 11 may have come as a shock to Americans, but not to those in other countries who’d seen our cruise missiles destroy targets in Iraq or Sudan during the 1990s. We’ve been at war for a long time – and will continue to be ignorant of this war so long as the costs are hidden from us.

In the wake of 9/11, many of us asked, “Why do they hate us?” It seemed a logical question, but only in the insulated bubble that most Americans had been living in. Our leaders take great pains to assure us that each new operation will be bloodless, that we will indeed “be greeted as liberators.”

Robots taking more and more of the work load, combined with the public’s increasing apathy towards years-long operations so long as the body counts are low, will likely only result in us re-asking the same question when another tragedy happens.

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