Drones: hit or myth?

A MQ-9 Reaper drone

A MQ-9 Reaper drone

By  Jim Tortolano/E Pluribus Unum

Nikola Tesla thought up the idea.  A hobbyist named Reginald Denny built the first one, and Barack Obama’s military is making them a household name. Officially, they are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV); you and I know them as drones.

Not only is Uncle Sam using these sleek, menacing-looking aircraft in surveillance and attack in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a broadly-expanded field of opportunity is envisioned to spot forest fires, patrol borders, chase fleeing criminals and in general look around from on high.

To some people, the drone is the perfect weapon. It risks no American lives, is (sometimes) reusable and is capable of long flights and intelligence gathering denied to manned aircraft and even satellites.

To others, it’s the ultimate in dehumanization. A drone may be programmed with a mission and strike at a “terrorist camp” which proves to also shelter women and children. A Big Brother government could use this technology to spy on just about everyone; you would have no privacy outside your home, and advanced imaging systems could even peer inside your condo.

Perhaps the utility or morality of using these devices, which may be radio-controlled from hundreds or even thousands of miles away, depends on whose ox of being gored. Or who is being targeted.

So let’s look at some of the alleged truths and myths of drone warfare.

Claim:  Drones are precision instruments which can distinguish between insurgents and innocent civilians.

Answer: While drones are getting more and more accurate, there are many confirmed instances of attacks killing non-combatants, especially in Pakistan, which is nominally an American ally.

Claim: The use of manned military aircraft is more humane because a pilot would have more discretion and ability to judge the presence of non-military targets.

Answer:  A fighter-bomber pilot racing along in a modern jet at 500 miles an hour is not going to see his target precisely; he (or she) relies on automated systems for that. A bombardier in a high-flying bomber can barely see the ground, let alone anything smaller than a river or a mountain.

Claim:  Drone use has killed many thousands of innocent people.

Answer: It’s impossible to determine how many people have died in drone strikes, and how many of them were “innocent.” In today’s asymmetrical warfare, insurgents seek to blend in with local populations, creating (intentionally or otherwise) a “human shield.” Estimates of the dead range from 830 to over 3,000, but such figures are likely unreliable coming from sources in areas politically unstable and compromised.

Claim: Drones have created a new level of escalation of violations of the rules of war.

Answer:  The use of drones is statistically minor compared to the mass bombings of World War II, where millions of people (most of the civilians) were killed. “Total war” has become more the rule than the exception for over a hundred years.

Claim:  The use of drones to kill terrorist leaders amounts to illegal assassinations.

Answer:  American airplanes shot down a plane occupied by Admiral Yamamoto (architect of the Pearl Harbor attack) in 1943; he was specifically targeted. Most Americans cheered the news. On battlefields, officers are often the first one shot in an effort to disorganize leadership. That’s why you’re not supposed to salute in field operations.

Claim: The use of drones in warfare could lead to their use in political repression.

Answer:  It’s possible. But drones can and will be used for more benefic purposes, such as search and rescue, archeology, exploration and for environmental purposes, to monitor (and seek to curtail) illegal whaling and seal-hunting practices.

To sum up, drones, like nearly all technologies can be used for noble and ignoble purposes.  Military morality often hinges on whether you’re winning or losing, and how far you are from danger.  Positive peaceful uses of applied science can’t often be separated from its warlike dimensions.

If your child is lost in the forest, you’ll be thrilled that a drone is capable of finding him. That same science can be used, alas, to kill someone else’s child half a world away.

Drones are here to stay. All we can do is do our best that we are maintaining a careful watch over their use, and not become too willing to let them watch us too closely.

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  1. Andrew Rose says:

    Good, thought-provoking piece. But I just don’t believe all the accusations of innocent lives lost in drone strikes. If that were true, I think we would have been hearing about that aspect long ago.

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