Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


America's problematic remote control wars

Published Jul 08, 2011 01:49pm


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

A US Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile stands on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport in this June 13, 2010 file photo. – Reuters Photo

WASHINGTON: The United States is deploying missile-laden remotely piloted aircraft to kill enemies in six countries, scientists are working on ever more sophisticated military robots, and there are a host of unanswered questions on the future of warfare. Some of the more intriguing ones are asked abroad.

Such as: “Is the Reaper operator walking the streets of his home town after a shift a legitimate target as a combatant? Would an attack (on him) by a Taliban sympathiser be an act of war under international law or murder under the statutes of the home state? Does the person who has the right to kill as a combatant while in the control station cease to be a combatant on his way home?”

This comes from a study ( by Britain's Ministry of Defence and refers to the air war waged by US pilots who operate, from bases in the United States, heavily-armed drones flying over Afghanistan or Pakistan 7,500 miles away. The Reaper is the workhorse of the drone fleet, which has grown from around 50 a decade ago to more than 7,000 today. It is increasing at a fast clip, unaffected by defense spending cuts in other areas.

Most of the drone missions for the military are flown from Creech Air Force base near Las Vegas. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a separate, covert, program that critics see as targeted assassinations. The CIA's drones are operated from northern Virginia. The pilots, sitting in cockpits in front of television monitors, run no physical risks whatever, a novelty for men engaged in war.

Debate over the remote-control air wars - drones are now in action over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Somalia - has been largely confined to academia and think tanks, both civilian and military. But reports this week that the CIA had extended drone strikes to Somalia have prompted calls for a closer examination of where war ends and assassinations begin.

It is not an issue, however, that strikes a chord with the public and US politicians are largely in favor of drone strikes. They are seen as an inexpensive way of targeting enemies, with no risk to the lives of American personnel. The downside to the seemingly risk-free elimination of Taliban fighters, al Qaeda militants and assorted other anti-American elements is of little apparent concern in the US.

What downside? High technology and precision weapons notwithstanding, the “surgical strikes” drone enthusiasts like to talk about are on occasion anything but, resulting in “collateral damage”, the euphemism for dead civilians.

Collateral damage tends to create more recruits to anti-American causes. Even without civilian casualties, remote-control warfare tarnishes the image of the United States, and the few close allies who use drones, in the countries where they are fighting.

“The West ... is seen as a cowardly bully that is unwilling to risk his own troops but is happy to kill remotely,” the British study noted.

Science And Wisdom

Such sentiments are unlikely to sway public opinion in the West, nor will they stop weapons developments that bring to mind an observation by the late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov more than four decades ago: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than science gathers wisdom.”

Which brings us to aspects of 21st century war that go beyond the pros and cons of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as drones are also known. While they are frequently referred to as “killer robots,” they are “human-in-the-loop” weapons, so named because a human being navigates the aircraft and pushes the button that fires the missile.

If and when to cut the human out of the loop - and open a new era of warfare - is a matter of debate between scientists.

“It ... would be only a small technical step to enable an unmanned aircraft to fire a weapon based solely on its own sensors, or shared information, without recourse to a higher, human authority,” according to the British study.

That would mean, in effect, outsourcing life-and-death decisions to computer programs controlling both aerial and ground-based robots. Questions yet to be answered are complex and varied: How do you get a robot to tell an insurgent from an innocent? Can you program the Laws of War and the Rules of Engagement into a robot? Can you imbue a robot with his country's culture?

If something goes wrong, resulting in the death of civilians, who will be held responsible? The robot's manufacturer? The designers? Software programmers? The commanding officer in whose unit the robot operates? The US president who gives the green light?

A number of scientists alarmed by such unanswered questions last September formed a group, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, that is pressing for an international debate on the regulation and control of armed military robots. The prospect of that happening looks remote.


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Comments (5) Closed

BRR Jul 08, 2011 11:10pm
Modern warfare technology has blurred the line between a civilian and soldier. One who regularly maintains a drone system is no different than one who cleans guns at the front. One who operates a tank is no different than one of operates a drone - other than a uniform he does or does not wear - the net result is the same. Subtle distinctions will cease to hold water in the future. The question becomes - who is a combatant and who is a legitimate target - the US seems to decide for itself for now, but this will change in 50 years when such self-serving unilateral definitions will be tested. The future is complicated.
Vijay Jul 08, 2011 11:30pm
Good analysis. I think the shape of war changed with the mujahideen's fight against Soviets in Afghanistan. There with US help they took the guerilla war to the next level. Now since the same tactics are used by Afghan insurgent US improved aerial warfare. Here neither the west who fights with robots nor the militants who hide behind civialians and women are courageous. Put aside the debate over who is a coward, but I think the more interesting debate will be what happens when 2 countries with equal capabilities with the drone technology fight each other??
IRFAN Jul 09, 2011 12:31am
Unfortunately might is right it seems and double standards is OK so who cares as long as one is safe themselves it does NOT matter about other people their blood is cheap. My own view however is that you must respect your self and then everybody will do the same.Stand up for the TRUTH regardless of which side the truth is on.
ThirdWorldCharlie Jul 09, 2011 12:38am
Please do not blame Americans or CIA. Pakistanis should ask their own leaders the question. WikiLeaks has exposed those who supported the drone attacks in private, while publicly for local consumption opposing it. I remember Clinton was asked about drone attacks by a Pakistani reporter. Standing next to her was Pakistani P.M. and others. Clinton very diplomatically did not reply but pointed towards P.M., as if to say ask him.
Harinder Jul 09, 2011 12:48am
We are on our way to invent our next in evolutionary line species from "Homo sapiens " to be called "Homo Roboticus"