There is an overwhelming trend in the world of warfare today, which is to move combat to remote operated systems first, and then to autonomous platforms, in the very near future. We are told that the precision of these tools is without comparisons in the world and their implementation will reduce casualties (both military and civilians), as well as collateral damage, resulting in a more humane battlefield.
Since the beginning of the new century the world has become a battlefield, one in which human elements move too slowly to engage targets in disperse geographical regions, thus the need for greater autonomy has given birth to this new way to wage war. And yet it seems that instead of reducing the horror of war the drones have only multiplied.
Currently the two main platforms the U.S. has for its drone program, the Reaper MQ-9 and the Predator MQ-1, function in what kwon as “man in the loop” system; meaning that the kill order is always decided by human beings in some capacity. Normally in those bases where the “cubicle warriors” are located, the use of deadly force is left on the hands of several people, which give the go or no go to the operator, but this process slow by design and is beginning to change.
This shift comes by the way of the imperative that an autonomous platform has a greater multiplayer effect. This would leave the human element not so much “in the loop”, but “on the loop” like Noel Sharkey puts it in its article “Automated warfare”. In this article Sharkey points to a common source of confusion, the term autonomous.
Many would assume, even in high levels of government, that autonomous means that a system is able to discern, by itself, the situation and take action. This is not the case, an autonomous machine is one controlled by a pre-program sequence operating in unstructured environments, to give contrast: an automatic robot is one working is a structured environment (an assembly line), on the other hand, an autonomous robot operates in the open; but both are govern by pre-programmed sequences.
Nowhere in this process has the machine actually made a decision, it only acts within the confines of its given program If/Then being the classic dichotomy. This has grave consequences in the discussion to come. If left alone an autonomous platform cannot separate enemy/allied or even worse combatant/civilian. Thus autonomy does not mean intelligence or any higher form of perception.
Core of the question.
In previous wars the capacity of engaging targets beyond the horizon has always being the job of the artillery, the air force or the navy; but in the world of today, where militants with no national association operate on vast stretches of land, such option are seen as potentially risky.
Let us say that instead of using drones the U.S. would send B-1 bombers to Pakistan and carpet bomb the target. We could imagine a wider protest by the country in question and the international community at large to such action. Or it launched a Tomahawk, as it has done in the past, with grave diplomatic ramifications. Why is this? How come countries protest less when their soil is breached by a Reaper than a B-1?
This may be so because the use of drones today is predicated by two intertwine principles: a. the unprecedented precision they offer and b. they keep troops out of harm’s way. In this picture a battlefield dominated by these weapons would lead to a less brutal war.
So is this perception, married with the idea that the world has become the battlefield, which ended in preferring the minimal intrusion, offered by a drone, than the wider disruption a deployment of forces presents. Such machines have a very limited payload, translating in minimum damage and few targets engaged.
Thus a tacit agreement has formed in the international layer of society. If war is now global, it will be tolerated as long as it is carried with the least amount disturbance. Such rationale leads us to the paradox that a drone represents.
It was conceived as a weapon to reduce death, but its wide utilization, transforming the nature of war, has lead to an increased in the scope of conflict, resulting in more death. The silence -or no so loud protestation- of countries, gives drones a wide margin of freedom leading us with an eternal war. A war carried with the distance of the monitor, serving as mediator between the action and the horror.
Is there a way out?
In today’s world the classic “On War” has being replaced by the lessons of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap (who recently passed away) which were forever embed in the minds of military men worldwide. War is not only fought on the battlefield but also on the minds at home, thus a need for spectacle was born. This in the west, particularly in the U.S.A., translated in a need to broadcast technological superiority at every turn. Images of smart bombs, infrared cameras and such invaded the news channels in every modern war fought.
Accompanying this phenomenon was the predominate idea that individuals hold the key to victory. In this global battlefield, with no borders, victory is proclaimed by the rule of “cutting the snake’s head”, the more leaders you get the closer victory is.
In this new era the maxim from Carl von Clausewitz of “war is the continuation of politics by military means” is lost. Many take the shallow interpretation of this formula, proclaiming is merely an excuse to justify the militarism that rein during the XIX century, but this is not the case.
Clausewitz forever concern with discovering the principle which leads humans to war formulated his celebrated quote to work in many levels. War is not only restricted to the limited space and time of the battle, conflict transcends boundaries, thus it ends not with the act of killing, but by the way of policy, or total annihilation, which is hardly a desirable outcome.
This nullifies the working principle of the drone war of today. No matter how many “leaders’ are killed, their deaths are immaterial, because in the irregular organization of today leaders do not function in the traditional meaning of the term.
These new breeds of “leaders” are not crucial pieces that organize the hold, planning ahead its action. They are symbols, serving as rallying points for the body, thus they do not command as much as they keep together.
Is in this realization that one can see that “getting” these men serves no greater purpose, a symbol can be quickly replaced and their death only elevates them to an immaterial space where they become hollow ideas to be use as the situation requires, or martyrs, the more popular term use today.
The drone is what allows this perverse logic to function. So at last the problem is not with the drone itself, it is just a tool. One that should be given proper context, so we must complement this new era of war with the lessons from the past, remembering the other dimensions of conflict, or forever face a future where minimal military intervention is the rule, and any one of us may one day be taken out by the eyes in the sky.