Ever play with toy planes, you know those that require a remote control? Ever wonder if they could be designed for more than just sport and recreation?
Well, child’s play is over. Adults want in on remote controlled flying vehicles and it isn’t for the purposes of impressing the neighbors or making fun-time at a birthday party.
They’re called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, and they’re the poster child for robotics and their future role in military operations.
The concept of UAVs is nothing new. Ideas about its use in combat have been around since World War I. During the Cold War, the U.S. began to seriously consider the development of UAVs. And by the time the Vietnam War rolled around, UAVs were in their infancy.
The proliferation of UAVs can be attributed to a less geographic –specific conflict and a more pervasive enemy: the War on Terrorism.
According to Daniel L. Byman, Research Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the Obama administration has authorized over 400 UAV strikes up to August 2013. In comparison, former President George W. Bush approved of fewer than 50. This evidence suggests that UAVs are here to stay.
Toying against terrorism. Soldier using a mini-drone. Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin via the Orlando Sentinel.
From an Armed Forces perspective, the use of UAVs is practical. Using UAVs—sometimes referred to as drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)— in place of a pilot and a plane lends itself to many advantages. Obviously a drone shot down will result in fewer fatalities in the sky. Drones also are more economical as they are more compact, weigh less, cost less, and can stay in flight longer. It makes sense to use them.
Besides acting as targeted killing machines, drones also serve as efficient means of surveillance and reconnaissance. UAVs have even been employed by the movie industry. Benefits there are aplenty.
But while this invention sounds like a welcomed vision out of science fiction the reality is that controversy surrounds their use. Several ethical and moral issues arise. What criteria are used to justify the use of a drone strike? UAVs may be an effective tool for our war on terrorism but are they themselves promulgating fear as well? What effect does it have on a population to have drones flying around them? Do citizens exposed to their presence feel safer or more scared?
What seems to be dismissed at least in part in this ongoing debate is the loss of the human element. Sure UAVs are advantageous in many ways and they work and will continue to work for various purposes. But what concerns this writer is at what cost?
Let’s put aside the fact that innocent civilians can be killed or that this brings to mind notions of “Big Brother” spying on the world population? Is there honor in this type of warfare?
I’m reminded of a book I read years ago called Wired for War. In it author P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, tells of how robotics technology is revolutionizing the battlefield. A few points stood out:
+++The widespread use of robots has created a more intimate relationship between man and machine. At one point, Singer mentions how a soldier showed remorse when a robot was destroyed by an al-Qaeda planted IED (Improvised Explosive Device) that it was designed to detect. It was like how some law enforcement officers grow attached to bomb-sniffing dogs.
+++Knowing that generations born after 1976 are more tech savvy and into gaming, the military encourages the use of video games such as Call of Duty and even uses controllers that resemble ones used in gaming consoles for use in operating robotics.
+++Portions of the book suggest that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 on American soil was a way of al-Qaeda addressing what they consider US cowardice. By having UAVs fight our enemies from a distance and not directly confronting them face-to-face, terrorists feel compelled to target the location and source of the mechanized warriors, i.e. bring the fight to the continental US.
And so while writing this, I wondered: Do UAVs wear bomber jackets?
Obviously they don’t require clothing but what I mean is does the use of UAVs warrant pride? Bomber jackets became a popular symbol of style and adventure, but more importantly they became a symbol of honor.
This post is not a condemnation of UAVs nor is it an advertisement. However, with their ever-increasing use in public and private matters more awareness should be raised.
Like any piece of technology, its use will determine the merits of its existence. But unless some UN-sponsored ban is placed on them, UAVs will continue to gain ground as a permanent fixture of military operations and will undoubtedly, in time, find more applications, both commercial and maybe even one day civilian. Are we ready for that kind of future?