The drone wars

The world’s military industrial complex–impressed with the USA’s ability to zap enemies from the air with remote-controlled mini-aircraft– is racing headlong into drone technology.  An article about the drones China is developing goes on to tell about the rest of the world’s drone rush.  It makes one suspect that the wars of the future may be waged with robotic aircraft controlled by video-game veterans posted safely at home.

Little is known about the actual abilities of the WJ-600 drone or the more than two dozen other Chinese models that were on display at Zhuhai in November. But the speed at which they have been developed highlights how U.S. military successes with drones have changed strategic thinking worldwide and spurred a global rush for unmanned aircraft.

More than 50 countries have purchased surveillance drones, and many have started in-country development programs for armed versions because no nation is exporting weaponized drones beyond a handful of sales between the United States and its closest allies.

“This is the direction all aviation is going,” said Kenneth Anderson, a professor of law at American University who studies the legal questions surrounding the use of drones in warfare. “Everybody will wind up using this technology because it’s going to become the standard for many, many applications of what are now manned aircraft.”

Military planners worldwide see drones as relatively cheap weapons and highly effective reconnaissance tools. Hand-launched ones used by ground troops can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Near the top of the line, the Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, costs about $10.5 million. By comparison, a single F-22 fighter jet costs about $150 million.

Defense spending on drones has become the most dynamic sector of the world’s aerospace industry, according to a report by the Teal Group in Fairfax. The group’s 2011 market study estimated that in the coming decade global spending on drones will double, reaching $94 billion.

via Global race on to match U.S. drone capabilities – The Washington Post.

So is this an ethical advance, with the military making war “safely” (for them), or is it an ethical regression, with warfare becoming even more dehumanized?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Rob

    I never weigh in on the political discussions, so believe me, this is not a politicized comment. I simply observe that President Obama can’t be the only one who thinks that “merely” using drones doesn’t really count as hostilities or war. I can easily foresee political and military leaders of all stripes using that defense or, even more frightening, fully believing it.

    I just can’t foresee any one of the people under the airstrikes seeing it that way.

    Once the human lives of soldiers are at stake, political and military leaders know they will be held to close scrutiny (or will have to carefully control such scrutiny, depending on the context). I fear that once the lives of “our troops” are not at stake, it will be too easy to forget that there are still lives at stake. All the more reason for some careful consideration of what really constitutes war in a new technological age.

  • Rob

    I never weigh in on the political discussions, so believe me, this is not a politicized comment. I simply observe that President Obama can’t be the only one who thinks that “merely” using drones doesn’t really count as hostilities or war. I can easily foresee political and military leaders of all stripes using that defense or, even more frightening, fully believing it.

    I just can’t foresee any one of the people under the airstrikes seeing it that way.

    Once the human lives of soldiers are at stake, political and military leaders know they will be held to close scrutiny (or will have to carefully control such scrutiny, depending on the context). I fear that once the lives of “our troops” are not at stake, it will be too easy to forget that there are still lives at stake. All the more reason for some careful consideration of what really constitutes war in a new technological age.

  • Michael Z.

    I agree with Rob, however, on the other side, putting our servicemen at risk in a situation where a “drone” can do as good of a job seems foolish. We need to be willing to recognize that the use of drones constitutes military action. We should always keep our political and military leaders under scrutiny, whether lives are at stake or not.

  • Michael Z.

    I agree with Rob, however, on the other side, putting our servicemen at risk in a situation where a “drone” can do as good of a job seems foolish. We need to be willing to recognize that the use of drones constitutes military action. We should always keep our political and military leaders under scrutiny, whether lives are at stake or not.

  • Cincinnatus

    Agreed that drones ought be considered weapons of war.

    Drones are certain a further dehumanization of the instruments of war, but I think the question of ethics is irrelevant. War is already an horrifically unethical activity, and all the conventions and accords we’ve signed are mere edifice designed to assuage our consciences and minimize, if possible, civilian casualties (if such a thing as civilians even exist in this days post-total war).

    On the one hand, drones have actually increased the precision of military strikes astronomically, significantly reducing the potential for civilian deaths and collateral damage. On the other hand, they also reduce our connection the horror of war.

  • Cincinnatus

    Agreed that drones ought be considered weapons of war.

    Drones are certain a further dehumanization of the instruments of war, but I think the question of ethics is irrelevant. War is already an horrifically unethical activity, and all the conventions and accords we’ve signed are mere edifice designed to assuage our consciences and minimize, if possible, civilian casualties (if such a thing as civilians even exist in this days post-total war).

    On the one hand, drones have actually increased the precision of military strikes astronomically, significantly reducing the potential for civilian deaths and collateral damage. On the other hand, they also reduce our connection the horror of war.

  • Cincinnatus

    Drones are certainly*

    connection to* the horror

  • Cincinnatus

    Drones are certainly*

    connection to* the horror

  • Tom Hering

    I think there’s money to be made by developing a cheap anti-drone weapon. Future sales, worldwide, should be very good.

  • Tom Hering

    I think there’s money to be made by developing a cheap anti-drone weapon. Future sales, worldwide, should be very good.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Drones are weapons of war, and are here to stay. They will change the way war is fought just as the invention of Cannon and Firearms did. For now they give us an advantage because we have them. This won’t always be true. I predict the cost of these things plummeting to the price of an RPG in Somalia before long, and becoming quite ubiquitous. I won’t say war is unethical, that all depends on quite a few factors, it can be just as unethical to protest war, and run to Canada. But it is horrific. If using drones saves some of our troops, not only from losing their life, but perhaps even their sanity, then good, use them.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Drones are weapons of war, and are here to stay. They will change the way war is fought just as the invention of Cannon and Firearms did. For now they give us an advantage because we have them. This won’t always be true. I predict the cost of these things plummeting to the price of an RPG in Somalia before long, and becoming quite ubiquitous. I won’t say war is unethical, that all depends on quite a few factors, it can be just as unethical to protest war, and run to Canada. But it is horrific. If using drones saves some of our troops, not only from losing their life, but perhaps even their sanity, then good, use them.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    The use of drones is the cowards’ way to fight – any “fleshies” who successfully find a way to beat drones and those who cower behind them will have won any war of heart and mind. This is pretty obvious, but it sure will get messy. The use of drones is obviously a slide toward dehumanizing actual people amidst one’s enemy and a major ethical regression. Any nation that willingly hides behind them is an embarrassment to humanity and decency.

    Oh, wait, I hear something buzzing outside my house – I better run!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    The use of drones is the cowards’ way to fight – any “fleshies” who successfully find a way to beat drones and those who cower behind them will have won any war of heart and mind. This is pretty obvious, but it sure will get messy. The use of drones is obviously a slide toward dehumanizing actual people amidst one’s enemy and a major ethical regression. Any nation that willingly hides behind them is an embarrassment to humanity and decency.

    Oh, wait, I hear something buzzing outside my house – I better run!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    oops, just the air conditioner.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    oops, just the air conditioner.

  • Tom Hering

    “If using drones saves some of our troops, not only from losing their life, but perhaps even their sanity …”

    I bet the operators who wake up in their suburban homes, have breakfast with their kids, go to work and remotely fly drones halfway around the world (killing both combatants and non-combatants), then go back home to have supper with their kids, are having some real problems with the whole sanity thing …

  • Tom Hering

    “If using drones saves some of our troops, not only from losing their life, but perhaps even their sanity …”

    I bet the operators who wake up in their suburban homes, have breakfast with their kids, go to work and remotely fly drones halfway around the world (killing both combatants and non-combatants), then go back home to have supper with their kids, are having some real problems with the whole sanity thing …

  • Arfies

    If we need the horror of war to keep us mindful how terrible war is, then drones would seem to be a step away from that horror and that mindfulness. The only real answer is to stop making war on each other–but we have never found (aside from Christ, who is, as we all know, impractical) the key to that answer. God help us.

  • Arfies

    If we need the horror of war to keep us mindful how terrible war is, then drones would seem to be a step away from that horror and that mindfulness. The only real answer is to stop making war on each other–but we have never found (aside from Christ, who is, as we all know, impractical) the key to that answer. God help us.

  • Joe

    There is a real danger here. The “cleaner” we make war the more likely it is that we will forget the horrors of war and wage more of it.

  • Joe

    There is a real danger here. The “cleaner” we make war the more likely it is that we will forget the horrors of war and wage more of it.

  • L. H. Kevil

    It’s a good bet that the Chinese stole our drone technology.

  • L. H. Kevil

    It’s a good bet that the Chinese stole our drone technology.

  • Michael Z.

    All of this talk about drones being dehumanizing should have been made about cruise missiles twenty years ago. They are both “clean” warfare that doesn’t involve putting our servicemen in danger.

  • Michael Z.

    All of this talk about drones being dehumanizing should have been made about cruise missiles twenty years ago. They are both “clean” warfare that doesn’t involve putting our servicemen in danger.

  • Cincinnatus

    Michael Z.: It already has been made about cruise missiles. A major critique of the first Gulf War was that it was little more than a dazzling display of American technical hardware that was exceptionally good at spilling enemy blood without even risking American blood. That, if I recall, was the first war to be called a video game war.

  • Cincinnatus

    Michael Z.: It already has been made about cruise missiles. A major critique of the first Gulf War was that it was little more than a dazzling display of American technical hardware that was exceptionally good at spilling enemy blood without even risking American blood. That, if I recall, was the first war to be called a video game war.

  • Rob

    A few other thoughts occurred to me:

    1. What are the economic effects of using drones? You still have to build it and maintain it; still have to train and pay operators, mechanics, etc.; still have to pay for R&D. BUT… if one goes down, does that even make the papers? Does anyone answer for it?

    Again, it is politicians who ultimately make the decisions whether these are used or not. It occurs to me that the Libya situation (lots of money spent, lots of bombs dropped, but no authorization) could repeat many times over.

    2) What are the dangers of relying so heavily on remotely-controlled devices? Say someone manages to hack the systems that control these: couldn’t they remove our ability to use them, or even supercede it and use them against us? It’s a lot harder to do that with human pilots.

    My brother-in-law flies fighters for the USAF, so I am all for anything that keeps our fliers safe. My own Luddite tendencies aside, I’m not protesting the technology. I just think that, as humans often do, we introduced a new technology without really thinking through the long-term effects and now we are trying to come up with definitions and guidelines on the fly. It seems like somewhere the thinking should occur: if we wouldn’t risk human lives to do it, then why are we doing it? And might we over-rely on this technology, thus weakening ourselves in the long term?

  • Rob

    A few other thoughts occurred to me:

    1. What are the economic effects of using drones? You still have to build it and maintain it; still have to train and pay operators, mechanics, etc.; still have to pay for R&D. BUT… if one goes down, does that even make the papers? Does anyone answer for it?

    Again, it is politicians who ultimately make the decisions whether these are used or not. It occurs to me that the Libya situation (lots of money spent, lots of bombs dropped, but no authorization) could repeat many times over.

    2) What are the dangers of relying so heavily on remotely-controlled devices? Say someone manages to hack the systems that control these: couldn’t they remove our ability to use them, or even supercede it and use them against us? It’s a lot harder to do that with human pilots.

    My brother-in-law flies fighters for the USAF, so I am all for anything that keeps our fliers safe. My own Luddite tendencies aside, I’m not protesting the technology. I just think that, as humans often do, we introduced a new technology without really thinking through the long-term effects and now we are trying to come up with definitions and guidelines on the fly. It seems like somewhere the thinking should occur: if we wouldn’t risk human lives to do it, then why are we doing it? And might we over-rely on this technology, thus weakening ourselves in the long term?

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    This is really a study in branding gone bad. The drones are really nothing more than very sophisticated missles. But rather than calling the “hell cats” ore something of that sort, we gave them a name that conjures up “the terminator” and scifi horror stories.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    This is really a study in branding gone bad. The drones are really nothing more than very sophisticated missles. But rather than calling the “hell cats” ore something of that sort, we gave them a name that conjures up “the terminator” and scifi horror stories.

  • Cincinnatus

    Bror and Michael Z. raise a good point: drones really don’t represent a new phenomenon. They are merely the continuation, if not the culmination, of a long trend of further “automating” and dehumanizing the actual conduct of war. Really, the trend was consummated in its first moments, when, somewhere in the 1950s, the highest expression of war came to be depicted as two Heads of State, many thousands of miles separated, safely ensconced within tailored suits and plush offices, pushing a big red button that would vaporize hundreds of millions of human beings within minutes.

    Talk about video game wars.

  • Cincinnatus

    Bror and Michael Z. raise a good point: drones really don’t represent a new phenomenon. They are merely the continuation, if not the culmination, of a long trend of further “automating” and dehumanizing the actual conduct of war. Really, the trend was consummated in its first moments, when, somewhere in the 1950s, the highest expression of war came to be depicted as two Heads of State, many thousands of miles separated, safely ensconced within tailored suits and plush offices, pushing a big red button that would vaporize hundreds of millions of human beings within minutes.

    Talk about video game wars.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    A couple of years ago I read an interesting book on this topic.

    Wired for War

    http://wiredforwar.pwsinger.com/

    Anyway, what about drones for assassinations? It seems many of our current military objectives are little more than assassinations. I mean, it sure seems Khadafi is being targeted for assassination. Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden, and numerous others were as well.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    A couple of years ago I read an interesting book on this topic.

    Wired for War

    http://wiredforwar.pwsinger.com/

    Anyway, what about drones for assassinations? It seems many of our current military objectives are little more than assassinations. I mean, it sure seems Khadafi is being targeted for assassination. Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden, and numerous others were as well.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I used to be more opposed to the use of drones, for many of the reasons listed here. But then I was doing some light reading (fine, Wikipedia) on earlier wars and, well, it seems to me that many of the same arguments made now for drones could have been made about, say, machine guns back in the day. Or, you know, any military technology advance, ever.

    Machine guns, cannons, rockets, militarized aircraft, and more — all could be (and, I’m sure, were) decried as dehumanizing back when they were introduced, especially when mainly one side possessed that technology. You don’t hear a lot about how dehumanizing machine guns are, anymore, though. If anything, they are the manly weapons of the “good old days” that those opposed to drones would have us return to.

    Of course other countries will develop drones — or at least the wealthy ones. And, of course, anti-drone technology will come into its own.

    Still, one does have to wonder if this will only spur more terrorism against us. It seems to be the “logical” response to an increasingly distant enemy that you can’t even see, much less fight against.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I used to be more opposed to the use of drones, for many of the reasons listed here. But then I was doing some light reading (fine, Wikipedia) on earlier wars and, well, it seems to me that many of the same arguments made now for drones could have been made about, say, machine guns back in the day. Or, you know, any military technology advance, ever.

    Machine guns, cannons, rockets, militarized aircraft, and more — all could be (and, I’m sure, were) decried as dehumanizing back when they were introduced, especially when mainly one side possessed that technology. You don’t hear a lot about how dehumanizing machine guns are, anymore, though. If anything, they are the manly weapons of the “good old days” that those opposed to drones would have us return to.

    Of course other countries will develop drones — or at least the wealthy ones. And, of course, anti-drone technology will come into its own.

    Still, one does have to wonder if this will only spur more terrorism against us. It seems to be the “logical” response to an increasingly distant enemy that you can’t even see, much less fight against.

  • Joe

    tODD – I hear what you are saying but I think that there is a distinction to be made. A machine gun did change the game but I think there is some thing very different going on when you can run the war from your couch with a Nintendo controller. With a machine gun you still have to be with in a hundred yards or so from your enemy. Even cruse missiles require the ship to be relatively close to the target.

    I think the proximity issue is important. With most of our weapons, even the advanced ones, you have to make a decision to enter the theater. With these drones you can be sitting in Missouri while taking out targets in Afghanistan. I think this makes war too easy of a sell to the public or turns it into an issue that is not worth getting too worked up about. After all its just a couple of missions taking out faces enemies without putting our boys at risk. Why bother protesting.

  • Joe

    tODD – I hear what you are saying but I think that there is a distinction to be made. A machine gun did change the game but I think there is some thing very different going on when you can run the war from your couch with a Nintendo controller. With a machine gun you still have to be with in a hundred yards or so from your enemy. Even cruse missiles require the ship to be relatively close to the target.

    I think the proximity issue is important. With most of our weapons, even the advanced ones, you have to make a decision to enter the theater. With these drones you can be sitting in Missouri while taking out targets in Afghanistan. I think this makes war too easy of a sell to the public or turns it into an issue that is not worth getting too worked up about. After all its just a couple of missions taking out faces enemies without putting our boys at risk. Why bother protesting.

  • Chips

    During Eisenhower’s presidency, he waged peace through strength and engaged in no hard warfare. He understood the horror of war, while respecting the strength and necessity of robust deterrence. Both Stalin and Mao feared Ike and were not inclined to test America’s strength.

    America, following Ike needs to be fiercely deterrent and strong, while avoiding hard war unless compellingly necessary, something that neo-cons, left-coast pacifists and naive isolationists have a hard time understanding. Bush with Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama with Afghanistan and Libya have been involved with unnecessary wars.

    Drones cause much fear among militant Islamics and are necessarily deterrent weapons, just as are thermonuclear ones.

  • Chips

    During Eisenhower’s presidency, he waged peace through strength and engaged in no hard warfare. He understood the horror of war, while respecting the strength and necessity of robust deterrence. Both Stalin and Mao feared Ike and were not inclined to test America’s strength.

    America, following Ike needs to be fiercely deterrent and strong, while avoiding hard war unless compellingly necessary, something that neo-cons, left-coast pacifists and naive isolationists have a hard time understanding. Bush with Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama with Afghanistan and Libya have been involved with unnecessary wars.

    Drones cause much fear among militant Islamics and are necessarily deterrent weapons, just as are thermonuclear ones.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Joe (@20), as to the more technical aspect of your comment, ask yourself: where are the drones launched from? I don’t believe I’ve read anything about long-range (read: intercontinental) drones, yet. Doubtless, that day will come, but still. We’re not to the point of launching and controlling them all from within the confines of our country.

    Still, it is all part of a larger continuum. I lack the ability to truly see how revolutionary previous military advances were, both technologically and psychologically — as, I suspect, do most of us — but that doesn’t mean they didn’t cause significant shifts in public thinking about warfare. Again, drones are pretty much indistinguishable, at least to the arguments being made here, from cruise missiles or any other unmanned weaponry we’ve been using for decades (or more; I mean, lobbing a cannonball at someone who can’t see you and whom you can’t see does seem to have the same issues, doesn’t it?).

    But, while the issues are not orthogonal, I think you’re really complaining about the types of actions that we’ve engaged in with drones, rather than the use of drones, per se. After all, if drones were used in the last war you unequivocally supported, to the end of reducing our side’s casualties and increasing accuracy so as to reduce civilian casualties, would you have objected?

    Still, drones don’t (yet?) appear able to do everything a military is capable of. We can take out terrorists, assassinate people, and destroy key targets. But I don’t think we can occupy a country with drones. At some point, you’ll always need people on the ground. I don’t see us considering “unmanned wars” any time soon.

    I wonder if that might even have a positive effect. If drone strikes become more commonplace, might “manned” military action require higher and higher standards for its use? Arguably, we could have acheived much of our “success” in Afghanistan with drones, at much less cost to lives and treasury.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Joe (@20), as to the more technical aspect of your comment, ask yourself: where are the drones launched from? I don’t believe I’ve read anything about long-range (read: intercontinental) drones, yet. Doubtless, that day will come, but still. We’re not to the point of launching and controlling them all from within the confines of our country.

    Still, it is all part of a larger continuum. I lack the ability to truly see how revolutionary previous military advances were, both technologically and psychologically — as, I suspect, do most of us — but that doesn’t mean they didn’t cause significant shifts in public thinking about warfare. Again, drones are pretty much indistinguishable, at least to the arguments being made here, from cruise missiles or any other unmanned weaponry we’ve been using for decades (or more; I mean, lobbing a cannonball at someone who can’t see you and whom you can’t see does seem to have the same issues, doesn’t it?).

    But, while the issues are not orthogonal, I think you’re really complaining about the types of actions that we’ve engaged in with drones, rather than the use of drones, per se. After all, if drones were used in the last war you unequivocally supported, to the end of reducing our side’s casualties and increasing accuracy so as to reduce civilian casualties, would you have objected?

    Still, drones don’t (yet?) appear able to do everything a military is capable of. We can take out terrorists, assassinate people, and destroy key targets. But I don’t think we can occupy a country with drones. At some point, you’ll always need people on the ground. I don’t see us considering “unmanned wars” any time soon.

    I wonder if that might even have a positive effect. If drone strikes become more commonplace, might “manned” military action require higher and higher standards for its use? Arguably, we could have acheived much of our “success” in Afghanistan with drones, at much less cost to lives and treasury.

  • steve

    I’m struck by the double entendre of the term “dehumanized” here.

  • steve

    I’m struck by the double entendre of the term “dehumanized” here.

  • Joe

    tODD – good points. After posting my comment I realized I created a new weapon in my head. It is one part drone and one part stealth bomber. That is where Missouri part came in. We did actually fly bombing missions from Missouri during the height of the Iraq war. The pilots slept in their own beds and spent their days making round trip flights to/from Iraq.

    “But, while the issues are not orthogonal, I think you’re really complaining about the types of actions that we’ve engaged in with drones, rather than the use of drones, per se.”

    I think you nailed it. I have much less of a problem with them as a weapon used in a full on war.

  • Joe

    tODD – good points. After posting my comment I realized I created a new weapon in my head. It is one part drone and one part stealth bomber. That is where Missouri part came in. We did actually fly bombing missions from Missouri during the height of the Iraq war. The pilots slept in their own beds and spent their days making round trip flights to/from Iraq.

    “But, while the issues are not orthogonal, I think you’re really complaining about the types of actions that we’ve engaged in with drones, rather than the use of drones, per se.”

    I think you nailed it. I have much less of a problem with them as a weapon used in a full on war.


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